The words “Black History Month” often evoke stories of luminaries like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While their legacies will always be crucial to the culture, this year, we’re going beyond. Roots, is R29Unbothered’s Black History Month series that delves into the tangled history of Black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture. Follow along as we shine light on Black history and Black present throughout February and beyond — because Black history is made every day.
In September 2018, Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo made the global declaration that 2019 would officially be known as the “Year of the Return.” The initiative marked 400 years since the first arrival of the ships carrying thousands of stolen Africans on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, and the anniversary would usher the descendants of the enslaved Africans scattered across the globe back to the continent. But the president’s announcement wasn’t the only thing that inspired African descendants to return home. Music — specifically the sounds of Afrobeats — played a key role in the pilgrimage. The globalization of the genre piqued the diaspora’s interest in their homeland, encouraging them to partake in a culture that had been stripped away from them.
Lying to establish themselves as power players on a global scale, European countries cut into the continent. They exported millions of Africans all over the world, shipping them into the ports of the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and North America over the course of 16th to the 19th centuries as part of the transatlantic slave trade. In their new countries, the enslaved people would fashion their own cultures, a curious synthesis of their homelands and the spaces they now occupied.
Back home, West Africa was facing rapid and violent change. Starting with Ghana in 1957, African countries began grappling with European powers for their independence. Amidst this unstable political landscape, music was a tool for freedom — both in the Motherland and throughout the diaspora.
Afrobeats was a cultural product of that exact activism. Although its present-day popularity has been firmly established, its history and impact — rooted in the late 1960s — cannot be ignored. The style was derived from the art of Nigerian human rights activist and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Fela, inspired by the Black resistance movements he witnessed firsthand in Ghana and the United States, returned to Nigeria and developed Afrobeat. The genre was marked by its colorful blend of Ghanaian highlife music, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso and traditional Yoruba sounds. Featuring danceable rhythms and inspired horn lines, songs such as “Zombie” and “Water No Get Enemy” offered up passionate social and political critique while proclaiming the importance of African pride and Black power.
Even after Fela’s death in 1997, his influence on the Nigerian music industry was undeniable. Taking cues from the late legend, Nigerian artists in the early 2000s leaned heavily into the usage of highlife horns and local instruments (like talking drums and the obo) but also borrowed elements from hip hop, R&B, pop, dancehall, and soca. Built upon Fela’s unique sound, the new genre was dubbed Afrobeats as a homage to his legacy.
Don Jazzy, 9ice, 2Baba, and P-Square were some of the style’s earliest pioneers, but many fans of Afrobeats can agree that D’Banj played a huge role in its globalization. In 2012, D’Banj’s summer hit “Oliver Twist” swept the nation, the continent, and then the whole world. The song was an international sensation, earning high spots on multiple charts around the world.
Two years later, musician Wizkid released his second album Ayo (his real name and the Yoruba word for “joy”), with the song “Ojuelegba” as its lead single. Sung almost in complete Yoruba, the song was a heartfelt dedication to his hometown in Nigeria. Despite being grounded in the busy, traffic-jammed streets of the city, “Ojuelegba” went viral; as it spread across the world, notable Black celebrities caught wind of it. Alicia Keys and Swizz Beats jammed it daily, and even rap heavyweight Drake took a special liking to the song. He jumped on an unofficial remix, the first of several collaborations with Wizkid.
Drake and Wizkid continued to work together, creating successful genre-bending songs like “One Dance” and “Come Closer.” But they were just one of many cross-cultural collaborators in the music space. Afrobeats icon D’Banj made history when he signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music in 2011, with Tiwa Savage following in his footsteps by signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in 2016. Fellow Afrobeats star Davido also worked closely with Chris Brown (“Blow My Mind” and “Lower Body”), and Ciara tapped the genius of Tekno for her 2019 song “Freak Me.”
During this time, the dark horse of Afrobeats appeared, one Burna Boy. Project after project, the Fela-inspired musician solidified his place in Afrobeats, with the 2018 song “Ye” promptly propelling him to the top of the industry. Like Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba” six years prior, the context of the viral hit was buried deep in his home country. Penned in heavy pidgin English and sung over a beat that Fela himself would vibe out to, Burna Boy expertly encapsulated the mantra of Nigerians: my life is my own.
The song and its message resonated with the masses, and it became 2019’s go-to club banger. His album African Giant was even nominated for a 2020 Grammy. Though he didn’t win the award, Burna Boy’s nomination made him only the ninth Nigerian ever to even be nominated. Slowly but surely, Afrobeats was seeping into the mainstream.
As the bridge between Afrobeats and the rest of the world was forged, song by song, a genuine interest in Africa also began to spread across the diaspora. In addition to the rising awareness of the level of global anti-blackness and a general sense of unrest around the world, many Black people started actively seeking out information about their roots. The Year of the Return was a timely invitation for the diaspora to journey back home, the road paved, in part, by the sounds of Afrobeats.
2019 saw a massive spike in travel to West Africa, with thousands booking tickets to the region for a number of music-related celebrations. Last August, crowds of Black people gathered on the sandy white beaches of Ghana to attend Afro Nation, a massive musical festival featuring the most popular acts in Afrobeats. Founders Adesegun Adeosun Jr. and Obi Asika dreamt up the week-long festival as a means of “[celebrating] love, peace, unity, and the beauty of African culture” through music.
Among the stream of Black people flocking to the region was a host of Black celebrities. Musicians Future, Megan thee Stallion, and Cardi B booked it west, performing their greatest hits to sold-out crowds in Ghana and Nigeria. Actor Boris Kodjoe, who is of Ghanaian descent himself, also personally championed the cause, scouting a large group of his close friends and family to join him on his annual trip to Ghana. Other Black Hollywood A-listers that made the journey included Kodjoe’s wife Nicole Ari Parker, Naomi Campbell, Tina Knowles, Rosario Dawson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Idris Elba.
“It’s so important for our collective identity, for self-worth [and] our confidence to know where we came from,” Kodjoe told Boston radio station WBUR of his initiative Full Circle. “This is purely to explore your roots and to find out who you are. It’s really about building a bridge between the diaspora and the continent.”
“And we are all the resources we need,” he continued. “Africa doesn’t need aid. Africa needs to galvanize the diaspora to invest in all these things that are necessary for Africa to take its rightful place on the planet.”
Kodjoe’s sentiment echoes that of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, a strong advocate for Pan Africanism. As president, Nkrumah was passionate about building the Black community across global borders in spite of the systematic and institutional racism that divided us in the first place. Decades later, his successor Akufo-Addo is keeping that dream alive by opening Ghana’s borders to its long-lost children. In 2019, the president granted Ghanaian citizenship to hundreds of Black visitors as part of the Right of Abode law, which grants individuals of African descent in the Americas the right to reside in Ghana indefinitely. Other African countries have followed suit; rapper Ludacris famously became a dual citizen of Gabon during his holiday trip to the country in early January.
The start of 2020 may have technically marked the end of the Year of the Return, but the door to Africa is still wide open. And music, the distinct boom of the talking drums and the blaring highlife horns echoing across the oceans, will continue to call diasporans home.