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From the margins to the spotlight: an AI-powered deep dive into Afrobeats (guest column)


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This is a guest post written by Dr. Ari Katorza, senior researcher and Doron Gabbay, content manager at MyPart, which uses AI music analysis for A&R and other purposes. We asked MyPart – which is also part of the Abbey Road Red incubator (pictured above) – if they’d like to use their technology to explore music in an international context. In this piece they analyse some key Afrobeats tracks and compare them to other hit songs and genres from around the world; and explain the international appeal of Afrobeats.

It’s difficult to fully grasp the tremendous impact African music has had on the contemporary music world. From hip-hop and reggae, to dancehall and pop, African artists (*defined by an artist who was born, or lived a significant amount of time, in Africa) have quietly but definitively shaped the sounds and rhythms across the music landscape over the last two centuries. More recently, however, a wave of young artists led by the likes of Burna Boy, Davido, WizKid, Tiwa Savage, and Mr Eazi, have stepped firmly into the spotlight and cemented their position within the global mainstream.

Stemming from the lesser-known, somewhat marginalized “Afrobeat” genre pioneered by the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a newer West African style known as “Afrobeats” (note the added “s”) or “Afro-fusion” has increasingly been embraced by younger audiences around the globe. Some of the earliest breakthroughs occurred around 2009, with sibling duo P-Square, signing with Akon’s Konvict Muzik label and dropping a record featuring Akon, Rick Ross and Tiwa Savage.

That same year, Wizkid released his critically-acclaimed debut album, “Superstar.” In 2012, D’Banj’s hit “Oliver Twist” climbed as high as number nine in the UK charts, and in 2014 Drake’s ubiquitous Afrobeats- influenced anthem, “One Dance”, made Wizkid the first Nigerian artist to chart on, and top, the US Billboard Hot 100.

Dr. Ari Katorza (left) and Doron Gabbay

Fast forward to today, and African artists are truly shining in the international sphere, earning historic Grammy wins (i.e. Wizkid and Burna Boy), gracing magazine covers (i.e. Pa Salieu on NME’s 100, its first issue of 2021), headlining sold-out UK arenas (i.e. Davido at London’s O2), and collaborating with the likes of Beyoncé (i.e. Savage and Alade). The Official UK Charts Company have even launched the first Western record labels are taking notice.

Warner Music Group has inked a deal with Afrobeats label, Chocolate City; Def Jam recently announced a flagship roster of African acts that includes Afrobeats artist Larry Gaaga; Universal Music Group (UMG) signed a multi-year licensing agreement with Boomplay, Africa’s top music streaming platform; Sony Music’s RCA record label, whose roster already includes names like Davido and Wizkid, have announced they are extending operations in the continent. In total, Goldman Sachs has estimated that recorded tunes in Africa will reach $80 billion by 2030.

Some will explain this ascendancy as the combined result of the democratization and accessibility of music thanks to the various streaming services, along with the globalization and innovation taking place outside the conventional industry strongholds (see: K-pop). Perhaps, however, there’s more to it than general industry trends.

While these artists emanate from across the continent and sing in a multitude of native languages (as well as English), one gets the sense that, listening to some of their top hits, there appears to be common ground- in swagger, culture, and sound- amongst the leading Afrobeats artists. We wanted to get a better understanding of these artist’s musical identity, and assess whether there are indeed unique, unifying characteristics in their music that distinguish Afrobeats from average pop music and help explain their success.

An AI-powered deep dive

To do so, we enlisted MyPart’s SongCrunch, which uses a wide range of algorithms including Artificial Intelligence models to extract insights regarding songs’ lyrical, musical, and sonic features for a variety of purposes, including advanced song search, discovering songwriting talent, and in this case – better understanding elusive industry trends.

For this piece, we selected ten prominent tracks by leading Afrobeats artists (such as Wizkid, Aya Nakamura, Burna Boy, Tems, and others) and compared them to an overview of thousands of top charting hits from the last few years.

Our analysis focused on four primary aspects:

  1. Musical Composition Analysis– the compositional features, including harmony (keys, chord progressions, cadences, etc.), melody (i.e. vocals, hooks), song structure and arrangement.
  2. Production and Sonics– everything related to how the song “sounds” like – from bpm, through acoustic traits to genre influences and mood.
  3. Lyrical Themes and Moods– the narrative and feeling conveyed by the lyrics, measured on a scale of zero (low association) to five (strong association).
  4. Lyrical Writing Style– aesthetic preferences in lyric writing, including literary and linguistic devices such as repetition, rhyming and alliteration schemes, verbiage selection, etc.

Here’s what we found!

Production and sonics: infectious and upbeat

Historically characterized by hard-hitting, percussion-based rhythms and energetic party tunes designed to make you move, songs by African artists unsurprisingly displayed a higher score in danceability than the average charting track.

Both the vocal prevalence and average BPM of Afrobeats songs are respectively lower than the average chart-topper, and, while the division between high-pitched voice and low-pitched vocals is almost identical (around 50 percent) in top-charting songs, Afrobeats tracks feature more high-pitched vocals. 

MyPart’s genre influence detection identified our Afrobeats songs as most in style with contemporary R&B and hip hop. This data was further reinforced when using an additional product, Songmine. Songmine allows you to compile a “benchmark” of one or more reference songs, and receive a ranked list of songs in one’s catalog, prioritized by their likely relevancy to the reference songs. In this case, Songmine sifted through a list of top-charting songs from the past decade.

The top twelve tracks that Songmine deemed most closely matched our Afrobeats benchmark were almost exclusively R&B/hip hop/dancehall tracks by artists including The Weeknd, Russ, Bad Bunny, and J Cole. It is through these genres that one can most clearly see the crossover and mutual influence between Afrobeats and the west’s most popular music.

Musical analysis: lower harmonic rhythm, fewer sections

Afrobeats songs use significantly fewer chords and have less chord transitions (“harmonic rhythm”) than the average charting song. The use of triad chords is almost identical (including chord inversions), and approximately half of the songs are in a Major key on both lists. The songs across both lists are highly diatonic (using little chromaticism). Afrobeats songs use a similar pattern of harmonic degrees as the average charting song, perhaps indicating the influence of Western harmony on African music, and vice- versa. The data displays no crucial differences in features like cadences’ and use of dominants, and the average melodic range for the Afrobeats tracks is only slightly narrower than on the average charting song. Other features such as hook counts and hook lengths are fairly in line with the average.

More tangible differences are revealed when examining song structure. Songs by African artists use intros and outros more frequently. They feature far fewer pre-choruses (a key feature in many contemporary pop songs) or post-choruses, and repeat their choruses less frequently than the average charting tune. More broadly, these songs have fewer sections than the average charting song.

Lyrical themes and moods: less sex, more protest

Lyrical Theme and Mood semantic analysis is another area which might help us characterize Afrobeats music. The average Afrobeats track deals less with sex and is less explicit and hedonistic than the average chart-topper, despite dealing equally with relationships (infatuation, love, breakup, etc.). Additionally, despite being known as far less politically-charged than Kuti’s afrobeat genre, the lyrics of the average Afrobeats song include a great deal of anger, and feature more satire and protest. On tracks like “African Giant,” for example, Burna Boy expressly calls out Nigeria’s colonial history and corruption, while Tiwa Savage challenges misogyny and the financial disparity between the Nigerian political and working classes on her hit, “Koroba.”

Lyrical writing style: repetitive, simpler vocabulary

Considering the fact that English is a second language for many African artists and songwriters, it’s no surprise that Afrobeats song lyrics tend to be simpler and more repetitive than the average charting song. In accordance with our theme and mood observations, and despite the tendency of Afrobeats songs to use more slang words, fewer of them are profane than their counterparts.

Afrobeats tracks utilize perfect rhymes as commonly as the chart-toppers, but interestingly do so far less at the classic end-of-line position, and using fewer rhyme groups (rhyming sounds that are felt throughout the song). Vocabulary wise, Afrobeats use more common verbiage.

Structurally speaking, Afrobeats songs tend to use more lyrical intros and outros, and are generally locked in to the traditional ABAB (verse-chorus, verse-chorus) structure, with the occasional bridge.

Conclusion: Staying true to their roots

Overall, the data did reveal some distinguishable characteristics – namely, more danceable production, an R&B/hip hop vibe, angrier lyrics, simpler vocabulary, and fewer sections. That said, it would appear that just as African music has done its part to shape western music, the Afrobeats genre has been heavily impacted by western music as well. This mutual influence- and the globalization of music in general- seems to allow African stars such as Burna boy, with his husky voice and blithe coolness, to continue to push boundaries and resonate with global audiences without having to diminish or hide his heritage. African artists are both influencing and immersing themselves in the international music scene, yet staying true to their roots in the process.

– You can also read this post on the MyPart blog

Joe Sparrow

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