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Grammys showcase Nigeria's 'soft power' on world stage

By Patrick MARKEY
Nigeria Nigerian singer Burna Boy is nominated for four awards at this year's Grammys on Sunday.  By Ferdy Damman ANPAFPFile
FEB 2, 2024 LISTEN
Nigerian singer Burna Boy is nominated for four awards at this year's Grammys on Sunday. By Ferdy Damman (ANP/AFP/File)

When artists step onto the stage for the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, all except one of the nominees for the newly created Best African Music category will be Nigerians.

For the country's creative industry leaders, the dominance of Afrobeats stars like Burna Boy and Ayra Starr at music's biggest accolade is recognition of Nigeria's growing "soft power" influence -- and not just in music.

From Paris hotel lobbies to Mexico City nightclubs, the Afrobeats sounds of Nigeria's hottest stars get played far from the streets of Lagos, as "naija" culture -- slang for Nigeria -- crosses increasingly into the mainstream.

Even before the Grammys, Nigerian stars were already selling out London's O2 Arena and collaborating with global names like Selena Gomez and Drake.

"Some people think it is a wave, I think it is the beginning of the future. What has happened is the soft power has kind of evolved on its own," said Obi Asika, a record executive recently named director of the National Council for Arts and Culture.

"Music is the driving force, but with the music comes what I call Afrobeats culture, so you get the fashion, you get the dance, you get the attitude."

'Long time coming'

With his blend of Nigerian pidgin and Yoruba lyrics, Burna Boy, who already won a Grammy, is nominated for four awards this year.

Artists Asake and Olamide are nominated for "Amapiano" -- referring to South Africa's own popular genre.

Ayra Starr is among a string of Nigerian performers nominated for a newly created Best African Music Grammy award.  By Fabrice COFFRINI AFPFile Ayra Starr is among a string of Nigerian performers nominated for a newly created Best African Music Grammy award. By Fabrice COFFRINI (AFP/File)

Davido is nominated three times, including for his African award title "Unavailable". Female singer Starr is up for her title "Rush".

"African music has been dominant for years, if you are asking me if we should have gotten recognition since? Definitely. Things take time," Davido told France24 in an interview about the Grammys this week.

"I always knew that if we were given the opportunity to be heard, I always knew people would love it. The culture as a whole. Not only music, food, fashion, and the list goes on."

Nigerian music executive Motolani Alake said the Grammy category was a "long time coming", not just for Nigeria but for Africa.

"It can't be anything than a blessing for Africa," he told AFP.

"It's Nigeria now, but very soon it will be another country. It doesn't mean Nigerian music will fall off completely but the spotlight will be on another."

Diaspora power

Afrobeats is not new -- more than a decade of work is behind its growth as a genre -- but interest from abroad has exploded in recent years.

Much of the overseas interest in Nigerian music traces back to Fela Kuti, the 1970s Afrobeat star who won applause for his new sound and stage presence.

Nigeria's large diaspora in Britain and the United States -- which helped develop the early music scene in the 1960s -- has also been key in its wider popularity, said music historian and documentary maker Ed Keazor.

Nominee Davido says African music has been 'dominant' for years but gaining recognition for it has taken time.  By Michael TRAN AFPFile Nominee Davido says African music has been 'dominant' for years but gaining recognition for it has taken time. By Michael TRAN (AFP/File)

With a population of around 200 million -- 20 million in Lagos alone -- and most Nigerians under the age of 30, demographics also have a part.

Siya Metane, at South African music publication SlikourOnLife, said Nigeria's proximity to London, large diaspora and especially the work, investment and collaborations with global stars paid off.

"All of those things are ingredients for a genre to really start spreading out and reaching the whole world," Metane said.

Abuchi Ugwu, chief executive of one of Nigeria's largest labels Chocolate City, said the Grammy category is "acknowledgement" but argued African musicians should be competing head-to-head with other stars.

"Africa is not just Afrobeats," he told AFP.

Prolific movie making

Music is not the only area where Nigerian creativity is gaining visibility -- Nollywood, its prolific movie industry, is reaching a more global market.

Editi Effiong's crime thriller "The Black Book" topped the global lists on Netflix last year, including being No. 1 in South Korea.

"This still feels so surreal. More South Koreans watched The Black Book than Nigerians. Wow!" the producer wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The Oscars Academy last year invited a group of Nollywood directors, writers and an actor to its membership, including CJ Obasi whose film "Mami Wata" won a prize at Sundance.

National arts director Asika hopes that will expand into other creative industries, such as gaming and films beyond streaming.

"One thing we will have is an unending pipeline of talent," Asika said. "In the next five years what I am hoping to see is more mainstream connections."

Afrobeats nominee Starr is already preparing for the best.

"I have my speech. I have everything done already," she told Cool FM Lagos radio, according to local media. "I already know my walk and my outfit."

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