In 1976, the Nigerian artist Prince Nico Mbarga and his band Rocafil Jazz released “Sweet Mother.” An ode to mothers, whose generosity Mbarga had experienced from his widowed mother, the song went on to sell more copies than any title released by the Beatles. Until now, it remains one of the most successful songs of all time, and certainly the most popular by an African artist.
“Sweet Mother” weaves titillating Pidgin vocals into a fabric of simple instruments anchored on a finger-picked high-strung guitar, which was the most distinctive instrumental sound in the Congolese rhumba music then dominant in Africa. Mbarga had learnt to play the guitar in this manner while working with a Congolese band in Cameroon, to which he had fled at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War.
Prince Nico Mbarga died in 1997 after a motorcycle taxi accident. None of his other songs, across 17 albums and records, ever came close to achieving the success of “Sweet Mother.” In fact, for the rest of the century, with the glaring exception of Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti, relatively few Nigerian artists could push past the continental popularity of the classy Congolese masters from whom Mbarga had picked up his guitar technique.
But the breakout success of “Sweet Mother” foreshadowed the extraordinary success Nigerian artists have attained since 2000. Starting in the mid-2010s, a new generation of Nigerian artists has gone on to wipe the floor with artists from other African countries and are now marching to the tempo of their rhythmic tunes towards worldwide triumph.
The new generation has very little in common with Prince Nico Mbarga. Most of them grew up in a country that, though not untroubled, is much saner than the one of Mbarga’s childhood. Unlike him, they tend to hail from urban middle-class backgrounds, or even from their country’s prodigious Western diaspora.
They have turned Nigeria into the centre of African music. More Nigerian artists are signed with the big three global labels, Warner, Sony, and Universal, than those from any other African country. And the best among them, like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, 1da Banton, Mr. Eazi, Omah Lay, Fireboy DML, and Mayorkun, are global stars, pulling massive audiences in North America, Europe and the Middle East.
Their music, now recognised as the genre of Afrobeats (different from, but descended from Kuti’s Afrobeat), mixes traditional African elements with Caribbean styles. It’s a rhythmic and energetic genre, calling the listener almost irresistibly to dance through expert percussion and soulful vocals, which are mostly still rendered in heavily accented Nigerian English or entirely in Pidgin.
Unlike in the earlier days, when Nigerian artists took collaborations with big Western artists as markers of success, the traffic also flows in the opposite direction. Foreign artists, from Drake to Ed Sheeran, are seeking out the Nigerians. Not even South Africa, long the African country with the strongest Western connections, and now home to the ascendant genre of Amapiano, has attracted as much Western talent as Nigeria.
One factor behind the rise of Afrobeats was the decision of the Nigerian government, in the early 2000s, to protect and mainstream local content in broadcast media. However, this is only part of the story. After all, many African countries, my native Kenya included, have had local content policies with much more limited success.
Aside from the local content policy, there’s also Nigeria’s massive population, which has been transitioning rapidly into a more urban and middle class status during the same period. This gives the artists a giant market, as well as an increasingly more sophisticated lab to test out new styles.
There’s also the internet, which made it possible for scrappy artists in urban centres to reach larger audiences. An abundance of computers also brought a powerful music-making tool within the reach of a large number of artists. No longer does a talented youngster need to join a band, learn a specific instrument or pay for access to a high-end studio; all can be gotten from a single digital device.
Perhaps most important, there are the enterprising Nigerian artists themselves, whose ambition and persistence have seen them steadily rise above their continental colleagues. When they perform in other countries in Africa, they attract much bigger crowds and earn more than the locals. I remember when many of my fellow Kenyans thought of them as unsophisticated upstarts; now we pay through the nose to watch them perform.
Since gaining global traction, the Nigerians have grown from strength to strength, with more and more artists jumping aboard and making global hits. Their success has launched a virtuous cycle in Nigeria’s music industry, with the big artists reinvesting their resources into creating a talent seedbed and ecosystem the likes of which no other African country can claim to have.
I cannot say what’s next for Afrobeats, but it seems unstoppable in the near future.
One can only hope that it does not succumb to the temptation to vulgarity that often afflicts popular music. Fortunately, so far, most Afrobeats tracks have been suitable for general consumption, limiting themselves to coyness in dealing with romance and understatement in touching upon politics. While there are certainly exceptions, most of them lend themselves easily to family listening and, of course, dancing.
For all their sophistication, no Afrobeats track has knocked “Sweet Mother” off the top of the charts. And while there are probably technical reasons for this, I am swayed more by the sentimental reason that “Sweet Mother” is, simply put, just a better song. It is an earnest call to the hearts of Africans, a reminder to love and cherish the women to whom we owe our lives and to whose toil we owe our growth.
It may take a long time to top something so wholesome.