Popular musical rhythms are always skipping and skittering back and forth between Africa and its diasporic communities, from Jamaica to Brazil to Colombia and elsewhere. “That’s a process that’s been going on for a long, long time,” says musicologist Wayne Marshall, who teaches at Berklee College of Music. “What was called, for a while, Congolese rumba and then evolves into soukous — the reason it’s called rumba is because it’s [based on] Cuban son records that became popular in the Congo. It’s circular: The son doesn’t exist without that African musical heritage in the first place.”
But in recent years, the musical conversations appear to be evolving more rapidly. “YouTube in particular has intensified and accelerated that process,” Marshall says.
“The music spreads really fast, so it’s much bigger than 10 years ago,” adds Joao Brasil, a Brazilian rapper and producer who scored a major hit in his home country last year with the single “Michael Douglas.”
And since collaboration across styles and languages has never been so frictionless, musicians from different communities can now team up on songs that can become global YouTube hits overnight, popularizing new styles and paving the way for more intermingling and more genre mutation.
To take one example of how beats whiz around the world, look at the development of the Ghanian genre azonto. Azonto exploded at the start of this decade — “could it take over the world?” the BBC wondered in 2012 — and was soon inflected by cross-Atlantic traditions. According to Branko, a Lisbon-based DJ whose Enchufada Na Zona radio show is essential monthly listening, the Ghanian producer DJ Breezy “liked dancing to [azonto], but he felt he couldn’t really produce it well.” So DJ Breezy decided to “to come up with a version that was some sort of a mix between azonto and the dancehall pattern” from Jamaica.
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Maybe this was a re-introduction of sorts. “Dancehall originated from Africa,” says DJ Tunez, a Brooklyn-based producer of Nigerian descent who works with the Nigerian star Wizkid. “Older guys like Daddy Showkey, 2Face [Idibia, who now goes by 2Baba], they were heavy on the reggae rhythm. Back then, there wasn’t really a lot of light shed on our music — the internet wasn’t popping, so the waves [of influence] couldn’t pass the way they should.”
The efforts of DJ Breezy and others led to the sleek, stylish fusion now dubbed afrobeats, which took over the Nigerian music industry with stars like Burna Boy and Wizkid. These singers then set about accelerating the latest round of interweaving, now featuring afrobeats and dancehall. In 2017, Wizkid joined the Jamaican-born, New York City-based singer Kranium on “Can’t Believe,” while the Nigerian Davido worked with the Jamaican singer Popcaan on “My Story,” and Niniola’s “You” is a collaboration with another Jamaican singer, Devin Di Dakta. This year, DJ Tunez produced the “World Vibes Riddim,” which featured Jamaican stars like Shaggy, Konshens, Charly Black and more.
With the distance between the pop mainstreams in Nigeria and Jamaica shrinking, Nigerian music is prepared to jump into the Latin American market as well: The Nigerian star Mr. Eazi is currently on tour with Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin in the U.S. Unusually, the new afrobeats-reggaeton connection was illustrated recently by an American song, Janet Jackson’s single, “Made for Now.” The track was produced by Harmony Samuels, a producer of Nigerian descent, and it has some of the characteristics of afrobeats, while also featuring raps from the Puerto Rican reggaetonero Daddy Yankee.
This is not as big of a stylistic jump as it may seem: Afrobeats’ relationship with dancehall means that the Nigerian style is also a cousin of sorts to reggaeton, which began developing decades ago in the form of dancehall-inflected Reggae en Español in Panama. (A Jamaican immigrant population has been established in the country since the days of digging the Panama Canal.) The signature reggaeton beat, known as the dembow after a song from Jamaican singer Shabba Ranks, has been traced by Marshall to a Panamanian-Jamaican collaboration in Long Island, New York in 1990.
As afrobeats gets closer to dancehall and reggaeton, today’s reggaeton artists are simultaneously doing their own globe-hopping, looking south towards the speedy Brazilian hip-hop variant known as baile funk. Nicky Jam, an artist of Puerto Rican descent who now works out of Colombia, sent his go-to producer, Saga Whiteblack, to Brazil for a month in 2017 to soak up the country’s music. Marshall points out that tracks from the Dominican Republic are also taking on baile-funk-like characteristics. “I started hearing Colombia’s coastal urban music, champeta, start songs with a baile funk beat,” adds Uproot Andy, a New York-based DJ whose selections and productions incorporate a wide range of afro-diasporic sounds. “I’ve heard stuff coming out of France from the afrobeats scene in Paris, songs that are very much in the baile funk style.”
Brazil is returning the favor in kind. “You can feel a lot of baile funk tracks with this reggaeton flavor — this is a crossover that is really going on now,” Joao Brasil says, pointing to tracks like MC GW’s “Ritmo Mexicano,” which has over 150 million views on YouTube. “With all the new styles, I think we are in the beginning of a big transition.”
In the fast-moving, decontextualized world of the internet, there’s a risk of losing sight of history — a popular playlist like Spotify’s Baila Reggaeton, for example, has no room for any information about the music’s background. In an article this January titled “As Reggaeton Goes Pop, Never Forget the Genre’s Black Roots,” writer Eduardo Cepeda noted that “as a new wave of highly marketable pop-reggaeton has taken hold of the music industry, the artists at the forefront of the movement have started to look less and less like the genre’s pioneers…..[Reggaeton began] as a lowbrow, stigmatized genre, shackled to a legacy of racism and colorism, first in Panama, and then in Puerto Rico once it was consolidated as the music we recognize today.”
Similar debates are unfolding within baile funk, which, like reggaeton, was popularized in poor communities and dismissed by Brazil’s ruling class for decades. When the singer Anitta, now a star with hits in three languages, returned to a favela to film her “Vai Malandra” video last year, she was accused of “using blackness when it suits her.”
This sort of white-washing is a familiar phenomenon in the U.S. mainstream, which has historically ignored new forms of music made by non-white artists, then, later, accepted that same music when it’s made by white people. Justin Bieber can go Number One with a dembow rhythm, but with rare exceptions, Spanish-language songs are thought to be only for Spanish-speaking listeners; Ed Sheeran’s dancehall tops the charts, but Jamaican artists can barely get on the radio on their own.
Partially because of this tendency, these global musical conversations are largely happening outside of the U.S. music industry. London is much more tuned into afrobeats than America, with acts like Mr. Eazi denting the charts. Baile funk hasn’t scored a breakout track here, despite the efforts of several American rappers, including Future and 2 Chainz, who remixed Brazilian hits. Ignoring the spread of various vital fusions comes at a cost, however; it’s no coincidence that, as Branko puts it, “what for years was the dominant American pop music style suddenly is not that cool anymore.”
Meanwhile, styles like afrobeats and baile funk are just getting started. “It’s really gonna grow from here, once everybody gets tapped into home,” DJ Tunez says. “Home being Africa.”