21st century African popular music is – mostly – shite

I am sitting in my room concentrating on a piece of writing and an editing job. Outside, there is a constant, never-ending annoying metallic drone. Someone got hold of the latest pop tune and seems to be playing it incessantly on an infinite loop. It is the kind of metallic mobile phone noise, an audio pest around the world. A pox on the houses of those who invented it…

But where am I? Not in Amsterdam, where this occurs daily. I’m in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And the music’s not from the UK or the US. It’s from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana. YES – it’s time we said it: the bulk of pop music from Africa these days…is…utter fecking shite. Boring, formulaic, monotonous, the same electronically modified voicelets droning on, and on, and on. Unadulterated crapola.

It’s not necessarily a generational thing. There was a clip of a band playing on Burkina Faso’s national television at the weekend. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. One of the young men helping out at the reception said: ‘Ah, that’s from the time when we made really good music here….’

‘What do you mean…?’

‘Music today? Ah – it’s nothing.’ End of conversation.


This has pretty serious consequences for a branch of the music industry known as world music. It relied for a significant part on musical discoveries from Africa. Of which there were a lot in the 1980s and 90s, not least because there was a massive back catalogues that could be culled. Some artists from those catalogues decided to ride the World Music Wave, some pretty successfully: Youssou Ndour, Mory Kanté, Salif Keita, and of course Miriam Makeba was there before everybody else.

Sure, some rich seams remain and a label like Analog Africa continues to lovingly uncover them. But here’s the problem: there is little new input. You don’t wow an audience with 21st century shite pop music. Well, not a “world music” audience anyway.

Ah yes, that audience! The “world” music scene was, and is (let’s just continue to be honest) overwhelmingly Western, well-educated, well-heeled – and white. A part of this audience uses sounds from the rest of the world as a backdrop for endless excited conversations about their awfully eventless lives. Take Amsterdam, where the moneyed set jumped from Buena Vista Social Club to Orchestre Baobab and Cesaria Evora. They spoil concerts with their inane cacklings, play their CDs once and return them to their racks after the fad’s gone.


But there is a group of real afficionadoes, including yours truly. Snobs? Yep – and proud of it. But we are having to do a lot of thinking lately. What happens when the music well dries up? And the answer, in my mind, has been surprisingly simple: re-label. I am slowly but surely effacing the label “world music” and consigning it to memory. Three things make this exercise even easier than I thought.

1. Music today is bought or stolen online, so the original rationale for the “world” label no longer exists. Personally, I think it’s a terrible loss but record shops are no longer the first port of call for someone looking for music and that’s what the label “world” was designed for.

2. The artists who were put in that category never considered themselves “world” artists. They make pop, funk, soul, mbalax, bhangra, rumba, salsa, chimurenga, hip hop. File under those. The “world” category will shrink markedly.

3. When MTV shows clips from Côte d’Ivoire and popular radio stations ask me for a Q&A about music from Mali and Staff Benda Bilili (now split, unfortunately) plays to 50,000 people at Holland’s largest pop festival, we know that the case for “world” music is both lost and won. The consumers of that music don’t care where it’s from. They either like it or they don’t.

Which means that away from the obsolete genre discussion, we come down to the same equation: there are only two kinds of music – good and bad. Or as a musician quipped: yours and mine. That still leaves me with the question what to do about that blooming radio outside my window. Simple: file under “shite”.

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3 Responses to “21st century African popular music is – mostly – shite”

  1. Kevin Walsh Says:

    Bram- Not only African Pop but music everywhere seems to have turned to shitte! Maybe because the youth don’t bother to learn to actually play an instrument but press buttons, make a loop, repeat a phrase. Here in NYC I live across the hall from a music producer who hear snatches of Lobi Traori, or Chieck Lo or one of the many Tinariwen offshoots, through my walls and asks me what was the cut because he wants to sample it. He doesn’t ask who they are or where they come from or how it was the music came to be. But do you think the sampled artists get any credit? Welcome to the disposable age, the age of immediate gratification with no effort or inclination to understand the path, the lineage of culture. I was telling my neighbor a story about Louise Armstrong the other day, guess what- he never heard of him.
    Do I sound like an old codger?

  2. Elections in Gondwana | Bram Posthumus - Yoff Tales Says:

    […] We now get Nigerian pop (confusingly called Afrobeats but otherwise very welcome with its laid-back flair), coupé-décalé (noisy and chaotic, a reflection of the place and time it comes from), plenty of classics and a lot of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety that gets mass-produced everywhere in the world with the added annoyance that people’s singing voices get mangled by some software that seems to be deliberately designed t… […]

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