Navigating possession and control of African culture as it transitions from local content, to global consumption, to mainstream commodity
The lights were dim and strobe lights flickered on and off the off-white walls. A tight crowd of about 30 or so people were bopping, swaying, and swinging in the foyer to a song that always got our family to our feet “Nwa baby nye me ife gi!” (Baby girl, give me your clothes) Flavour mischievously sang. If you didn’t know better, you might not realize the suggestive nature of the song by the way our conservative Nigerian parents were gleefully dancing to the song.
My siblings and I were well aware that Flavour was on the prowl for the night and had spotted a lovely lady he’d like to ‘hangout out’ with. We didn’t mind. We were all having a good time, the mix of young and old enjoying music from our homeland so far away. Celebrating my sister’s graduation from high school together was an opportunity for us to eat food we loved and connect to our roots.
For me, my love of music began with jazz; on short drives with my Dad to school, we would listen to Coltrane, Fitzgerald, or Davis. My father was, and has always been, a man of refined taste, from his carefully chosen collection of red wines, to the style of his home, to his selection in music. From a young age, I was exposed to the richness and complexities of music just by living our daily lives.
The chaos of pop, and rock and roll, I would discover on my own. As a teenager, I would gravitate to the angsty and rebellious sounds of Slipknot, Linkin Park, and the moody croonings of Incubus, Foo fighters, and Nickleback. For every decade of my life, there is a song or album that drops me right back into that time and place, the way a particular smell might take you back to childhood.
Then, as I entered young adulthood, my aunt introduced me to a genre that would underscore so much of my life, my passion, and usher me back to the continent of my birth. One afternoon, I received a letter, already opened (because my parents do not understand the concept of privacy), from my mother’s youngest sister, my Aunty Oluchi. I had been asking my mother for anything that I could read or listen to that would help me improve my Igbo. Despite being born in Nigeria, and Igbo being my first language, I had since lost the accent and many of the words along with it. This was a last-ditch effort to get it back.
My mother seemingly passed the message along which led to this letter. A package, really, with my very own copy of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and 2 magnificent discs: VCDs full of music by PsQuare, twins who strangely resembled Usher, and JMartins.
For the rest of the summer, I would play those songs on endless loops, mimicking the dance moves and imagining myself back home, with other kids like me, gyrating to the music of Nigeria in the late ‘90s. What I discovered thanks to that package of love, the whole world would come to enjoy and appreciate as one of the most impactful exports of West Africa, perhaps the entire continent of Africa as a whole. Afrobeats would go on to become a force, but to understand this, we have to begin the story from the true beginning.
Image from OkayAfrica.com
Afrobeat vs. Afrobeats: A Controversial History
Let’s begin with a story about Afrobeat and Afrobeats. I will preface this by saying, there are a number of stories about Afrobeat and how it came to be, what the motivations were--the mission, and how it evolved (if it did indeed) into Afrobeats. This is one story, more for context and less for historical accuracy. I will leave that debate to the music historians.
Our story begins with Fela--born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Lagos Nigeria on October 15, 1938. The globally renowned musician and activist was born to educator, suffragist and labor activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti- a woman who, in her own right, made a significant impact on Nigerian society. She was a member of a generation of women that believed in, and fought for, the dignity and respect of Nigerian women. One might say that Fela’s upbringing predisposed him to ideas and beliefs that would later force his art to extend beyond entertainment.
Fela was classically trained in piano and percussion in Nigeria before studying classical music at Trinity College in the UK in 1959. It was during his time at Trinity College that Fela was exposed to different musical genres like rock and jazz. Carrying those influences with him, Fela returned home in the mid-1960s to build his band, Koola Lobitos. It is through the experiments with Koola Lobitos that Fela would come to create the sound later coined as “Afro-beat”. This sound would take Fela on a 10-month tour of the US in 1969, catalyzing his sensibilities about music and political change.
The US was closing an incredibly turbulent decade which included the Vietnam War, the Cold War, as well as the first moonwalk, and famously, Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Movement was shot and killed. It is no surprise that Fela would encounter African-American civil rights activist Sandra Smith. Through this relationship, Fela was introduced to the black power scholarship of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver as well as the funky sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone, and The Temptations.
Inspired by his travels and experiences, the Nigerian activist-musician returned ready to do something different. With songs like “Zombie,” “Monkey Banana,” “Beasts of No Nation,” and “Upside Down,” Fela struck a chord with disenfranchised, oppressed, and downtrodden Nigerians who packed his early-morning concerts. For Nigerians, 1969 marked the decline of the Biafran War that few discuss to this day. General Murtala Mohammed had led a military coup to overthrow the Republic of Nigeria and was a leading force in the war that raged for nearly 3 years. Beginning July 6, 1967, and ending January 15, 1970, Nigeria was embroiled in a bitter battle ripping the country at its seams. The complex mix of cultures and ethnicities packed together for British gain imploded, and the ethnic southern majority- Igbos- and minority ethnic groups in the Rivers area all wanted out. By 1969, the Biafran War was coming to an end and had claimed millions of lives.
This was the backdrop to which Fela began his musical activism. This is where the core of Afrobeat solidified. A blend of highlife, Fuji music, with jazz and funk influences, this would cement Afrobeat as the sound of rebellion, protest, and freedom. The military regime of Murtala Mohammed would go on to be a controversial period of oppression, but at the same time economic prosperity.
For Fela, it was crucial that his audiences, the people of Nigeria, wake up to their circumstances - that they not be deceived by politicians; that they demand a better nation, better leaders, a better life. In many ways, this is why Afrobeat, despite its jazzy, funk ties, cannot be extracted from the very real politically charged environment in which it was created. For that reason, Afrobeat is as much about freedom as it is about art.
The globally renowned musician would see his star rise over the years. He would be visited by celebrities including Sir Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Bootsy Collins, James Brown’s bass guitarist, and Ginger Baker of Cream. He would go on to open a nightclub, The Shrine, and would welcome the love of Africans around the continent. Sadly, his fame and popularity had little impact on the government’s perception of him.
Fela was constantly harassed by government officials. One raid in particular, on February 18, 1977, 1,000 soldiers would enter his free-loving community-- a space Fela had declared a free state called Kalakuta (Rebel) Republic in Lagos. The soldiers came in, set fire to the compound, destroyed his recordings, burned the cars, looted, bludgeoned the men with rifle butts and raped the women. As a result, 55 people were hospitalized.
All this occurred while Fela’s 14-year-old son, Femi Kuti, watched from the sidelines.
More terrifying, it was during this attack that Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown out of a second-story window. She died eight weeks later. Fela seemed to live a life intended as a constant affront to the government. Through his music, his personal life decisions, and the communities he brought together, his existence was a living, breathing, unpredictable protest.
There is a point, however, in history where change must come. A point where no matter the strife, no matter the heartache, there will be a generation that wants to tell a different story.
The politics in Afrobeats has more to do with whether it is an accurate description of the sounds coming from the continent, and less to do with any particular modern-day oppression, disenfranchisement, or commentary on contemporary continental life. You are more likely to find artists in the ‘genre’ quibbling about sub-genre designations than you are to find a call to fight the system.
This push and pull between unity, independence, and growth is a major point of discussion for artists in this space. Born of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Afrobeats, at its infancy, grew from the work MTV Base Africa put in to spotlight a number of certain West African artists who blended local sounds with Western hip-hop and RnB. Like a call and response, the Nigerian and Ghanaian artists developing their sound at that time were taking notes from Black music in the US and responding with their own version.
From 2009, to the present, there have been major artists that have crossed the border from the motherland over to international waters. Artists like Davido and Wizkid are major superstars for this generation. Burna Boy was nominated for a Grammy award in 2020 and another for the 2021 cycle has been a real revelation for many of hip-hop’s old heads. Most notably, Sean “Diddy” Combs was the executive producer of Burna Boy’s Twice as Tall album.
In addition to these artists, there are others who hail from around the continent adding their flavor to the mix like Vanessa M Dee, Cassper Nyovest, DJ Black Coffee, or Diamond Platnumz. This is just to name very few. There are so many new and unique artists bringing something different to the music space - like Teni the Entertainer, Simi, Adekunle Gold- who challenge the monolithic expectations some bring to Afrobeats. The variety and the breadth of musical creation have made it near impossible for all these artists to sit comfortably under one moniker, one umbrella. This is why Afrobeats cannot be the name of a unified sound.
Afrobeats must be thought of as an overarching category of genre/name for music coming from, influenced by, or inspired by the continent of Africa, but it cannot be the only genre. This is the reason why there have been, and continue to be, debates around what unifies the sound (if anything) and which artists and styles should be called something entirely different.
If you look to Wikipedia, the global equal-access encyclopedia defines Afrobeats as follows:
“Afrobeats (not to be confused with Afrobeat or Afroswing), also known as Afro-pop, Afro-fusion is an umbrella term to describe popular music from West Africa and the diaspora that initially developed in Nigeria, Ghana, and the UK in the 2000s and 2010s. Afrobeats is less of a style per se, and more of a descriptor for the fusion of sounds flowing out of Ghana and Nigeria. Genres such as hiplife, jùjú music, highlife, and Naija beats, among others, were amalgamated under the 'Afrobeats' umbrella.”
So it is not enough to simply call music Afrobeats, you need to understand the sounds that make it up, and the sub-genres that sit under its umbrella. Most especially, the tradition and history of the UK branch that evolved into Afroswing. Martin Connors, a specialist in rap and melodies, describes the Afroswing sound like this:
"[..] technically in 4/4, what you will hear over and over again is this recurring pattern made up of three notes that are still repeated in the framework of a 4/4 time signature [..] You can hear the inspirations of Jamaican music in the rhythm except Jamaican music doesn’t have a bass kick and the snare – that’s hip hop, that’s traditional rap. So this is that translation of cultures happening subtly in the instrumentation. Yet it still has a hip hop sensibility in terms of lyrical focus and music videos: cars, money, authenticity, hardness"
For those familiar with scientific taxonomy, the naming and mapping of biological traits, the discussion of music, its influences, and fundamental parts are similar to the mapping of a family tree. There are characteristics that are core to a particular style and sensibility that can be traced in a genre, or artist’s discography. This is the science behind music classification and genrefication. So, when we are on a dancefloor, sweaty with hands flailing in the air, smiles plastered on our faces, swaying and bobbing to Davido’s recent song, or Jhus’s newest contribution to the tapestry of Afroswing, we are reacting to rhythms that trace back to cultural sounds.
So, what happens when music taxonomy meets an individual attempt to control, manage, and exclude the general use of a term?
Enter Afrobeats UK.
Culture as Commodity and Afrobeats UK
On January 12, 2012 a leading figure in the UK Afrobeats community, would make a decision, the effects of which would raise the hackles of many in the local and global Afrobeats industry. That day in 2012, Abrantee Boateng, also known as DJ Abrantee, filed a trademark in the UK for the phrase, ‘Afrobeat UK.’ This trademark would be in International Class 41. International Class 41 is for educational and entertainment services. The scope of the filing was so broad that it included many of the activities that you might expect in the production, promotion, and performance of music and associated entertainment. For those in the industry, this is a pretty expansive scope that covers much of the music and entertainment space. Meaning DJ Abrantee intends to use Afrobeats UK as a brand name very much like one might use Nike or McDonalds, in these areas.
Together with Cease and Desist letters sent out to different promoters and companies, allegations of violence, and forceful gatekeeping of the UK Afrobeats space, a conversation has now blossomed about who has the right to police, own, and commodify culture. When you couple this trademark filing with the rate at which corporations openly co-opt Black creativity, it is natural that a conversation would spark around what it means to own culture outside of one’s homeland.
But why is this particular case upsetting? Why are people pissed now, 9 years after Dj Abrantee has filed the trademark for Afrobeats UK? What could be the reason why everyone is up in arms?
To understand why this is an issue, let’s take a step back and define what a trademark is. If you need a crash course on Intellectual Property and its history check out both parts of my article 1 & 2 on Intellectual Property. With that reference in mind, I believe an example might bring the whole thing home.
Now, let’s look at a brand everyone knows, Nike. If you buy a pair of Nikes, complete with the iconic white swoosh, your expectation is that the product was designed, manufactured, and sold by THE Nike- the company that has a long history in revolutionizing the sneaker industry; the company that signed with Michael Jordan and became a shoe of choice for the NBA; the company that has consistently maintained a thumb on the pulse of pop culture and has survived both Puma and Adidas’ participation and contribution to the sneaker game. That Nike.
Wouldn’t you be surprised that after buying it, you found out that it was, in fact, another company named Nike that had decided to also sell sneakers to you? It would be even more disturbing if this Nike look-alike delivered a product that has inferior in-soles, poor construction, and haphazard stitching. If you didn’t know that this was a knock-off, you would be within your right to question the quality of Nike products. You may ask yourself if the quality of the product was going down. The assumptions and preconceived notions about the brand, the quality of their product, and their workmanship are tied to the brand that the company has spent time carefully crafting. To protect those assumptions and to help you make decisions as a consumer, the brand name, Nike, is something that the company would want to protect and control.
A trademark is a mark that helps consumers to distinguish between similar goods in the same or similar class. In the case of Nike sneakers, since the company Nike holds the trademark to their name and the iconic swoosh, any product that holds that name and/or logo should appropriately point to the company Nike. If another company attempts to use the same name or logo on their product, the trademark registration gives the company, Nike, the ability to stop this rogue company from confusing consumers. This is done either by sending a letter to the rogue manufacturer to ‘Cease and Desist’ from manufacturing products with Nike’s trademark, or full-blown litigation to shut the entire production down, if necessary. This might even include a request for monetary damages, meaning the rogue company would have to pay Nike for damage to the brand resulting from the inappropriate use of Nike’s name and logo.
Trademarks can be very powerful tools for big businesses as well as burgeoning entrepreneurs. These rights are roughly the same around the world, though the process of acquiring the right, the examination process, and the period of ownership may vary from country to country. Globally, a trademark is a very important and deeply respected form of Intellectual Property, the holders of which have significant power over anything associated with their trademark.
Now, to ensure that a trademark does not create unintended monopolies in industries where companies have no intention of operating, or do not foresee selling products or services, a trademark must be filed in a particular class. The most widely recognized classes are International Classes 001 through 045. 001-034 are for goods, and 035-045 for services. Essentially this means that a trademark can only be filed, registered, and then enforced in particular classes.
To return to our previous example, Nike is a large company that has expanded beyond footwear and extended to general apparel, eyewear, sports entertainment, etc… However, if someone were to launch a company dedicated to producing tea and wanted to call the company Nike, theoretically they might be able to register the Nike trademark in Class 30 for ‘coffee, tea’. That way one company cannot completely swallow up all industries and possibilities with their trademark.
So, all of this is great information, you may be thinking. What exactly does all this talk about athletic wear have to do with music? What does this have to do with Afrobeats UK? Well, interestingly enough, quite a bit.
When DJ Abrantee filed a trademark for Afrobeats UK in 2012, his choice of international classes was incredibly telling. The indicated international class was 041. The registered description for the class included the following: “Disc Jockey Services, Entertainer services, Entertainment services, Film Production, Nightclub services, Live Performances, Production of music, Production of radio and television programs, Production of live shows, Production of Live Music and Radio and television programs, Radio Entertainment, Television Entertainment, production of Television programs, Publication of Texts, Texts writing.”
Now, for those of you who do not immerse yourself much in the music industry, think about the different ways in which someone may engage with a musical genre. You may want to create a musical countdown for top Afrobeats UK artists. You may want to create a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music for your favorite Afrobeats UK artists. You might want to put on live performances, produce music; you may want to advertise Afrobeats UK nights at your club to draw a particular crowd. You may want to create content about the evolution of Afrobeats in the UK; you may want to hold yourself out as a producer who specializes in the UK style of Afrobeats; you may want to create a TV show that brings light up and coming UK Afrobeats artists; you may want to create a documentary or write an article to explore the history and evolution of Afrobeats in the UK. These are just a few ways in which different people may want to engage with the UK Afrobeats space which would expand the genre’s reach, and its impact and influence in the UK music industry.
Now, imagine working on projects, putting effort and energy into these efforts, then after publicizing the project, you receive a Cease and Desist letter indicating that Afrobeats UK is a trademark owned by Abrantee Boateng. Further, if you proceed and either do not pay for the right to license (i.e. borrow) the trademark, or shut the project down entirely, you will be sued. What would you do? Are you going to take a chance and proceed with your program, with your project, with your great idea? Or would you shutter everything down, thank your supporters and tell them you will try again next time? In the law, we call this “chilling the industry”.
It might no longer seem profitable to explore opportunities and projects in this space. The average creative barely has the money to copyright the songs they just made, the odd producer is not looking to sign an agreement for the beat they just sold to an emerging star. Who exactly do you expect is going to take Afrobeats UK to court to prove what some lawyers reading this, especially those of us in the diaspora, already suspect - that “Afrobeats” is too generic a term to trademark.
No one. Nobody is taking this to court to challenge.
So with one trademark application, DJ Abrantee essentially positioned himself as the gatekeeper for UK Afrobeats by issuing his cease and desists, and determined who may move forward or must be stalled in their creative ventures. He may have no sway over the established artists in the space, but what a way to loom over those on their way up the ladder.
The question now is: will we - should we - let this stand?
Local Culture and Global Commodities: An interrogation
We have come such a long way from the VCDs of early Afrobeats. Global distribution has transitioned from songs burned and shared from friend to friend, to a quick search on Spotify or Apple music. What was once an industry dominated by West Africa (Nigeria, then Ghana) has expanded and continues to broaden to a sound mutating and evolving as it touches the East, South, Central, and Northern Africa.
This genre has given birth to other sounds, has barreled forward creating a path for others to replicate from local appreciation to eventual global distribution. Our love for Afrobeats, the affinity for the staccato, bass, dance-ready tunes, and sultry lyrics, has opened the door for music from the continent to begin a revolution.
Yes, I say “begin” because we are only scratching the surface. In a few decades, the efforts of a few will blossom in a similar way that Hip-Hop, RnB, jazz, and the like did for African-American culture. With this momentum, how, then, do we preserve the drive forward when those on the inside and the outside are quick to use Intellectual Property tools like trademark and copyright to turn a cultural movement into a global commodity that only a few can control, manage, and exploit?
Some may argue that DJ Abrantee was in some way ensuring that the term Afrobeats UK was not misused or appropriated by outsiders to the culture. At least, some might say, this is not like the Dutch company that patented the flour used to make injera, or like Heinz trying to trademark the word ‘Jollof’. Those are clear examples of cultural appropriation or at the bare minimum the commodification of cultural goods by an entity that is outside of the culture for pure capitalistic gain.
That being said, we might still feel uneasy about a single person acting as the gatekeeper or protector of cultural intellectual property. What then are the alternatives? How can communities of culture identify terms and protect them? Should there be a public interest group tasked with scouring the world for terms, phrases, and other elements of culture being legally bound by individuals and exploited for commercial gain and stop it? While this may be a common practice for artifacts it is not a widely accepted paradigm for intangible goods or products.
Should countries look to their Ministries of Culture to identify and file for and protect geographic indicators for specific elements of culture? Again, while this mechanism might work for food, wine, agricultural goods, there was no intention to protect intellectual property in this way.
Should the African Union step in with a nuanced framework Intellectual Property framework and establish another class of intellectual property taking into account these examples of intangible cultural assets that hold potential commercial value? Perhaps the answer is a combination of all, or more of a short term, mid-term, and long-term approach that can address all the complexities of the commercial side of culture. Perhaps the answer is none of these at all.
With every evolution of Black culture, whether in the US or abroad, we see over and over again that the thing that causes rage and anger is when Black creatives are written out of history. When their names are removed from the works they create, when they are not given credit for the work that they have done. This is the dark side of Intellectual Property. But if that core failing can be rectified, culture can be enjoyed by the masses.
In the case of Afrobeats UK, it is clear that the genre is, and has always been, intended as a classification, a sort of signpost to signify the source of the sound, the inspiration for the core sensibility of the music. Like so many other genres, that isn’t the result of one or two artists; music is a living breathing organism that shifts and transforms as artists create and continue to create. Therefore, we must set Afrobeats UK free to do just that. If we intend to treat it as a geographic identifier of a sound. Whatever mechanism we finally decide is the most appropriate way to protect its history, its sensibilities, and its relationship with the continent of Africa, freedom must be at the center of that solution.
I want my children to have a chance to fall in love with Afrobeats the same way I did. Watching my love evolve from the scratchy early sounds I listened to in my walkman, to the smooth, confident sound that captures me, wraps me in memories of dance floors full of beautiful women in Ankara, and proud men gleefully celebrating the richness of their unique identities--That Afrobeats must be allowed to expand beyond us all and take its rightful place in the world as a movement, a force, and a sound synonymous with magic.
The Content Biz Bailout
I will be hosting a workshop on February 25, 2021, called Protect Black Voices. Along with legal practitioners, we will invite creatives spanning from the influencer community, bloggers, to comic book publishers. The program intends to explore legal challenges Black creatives face in the business of creating content for local and global marketplaces. Sign up to learn when registration opens.
Fela Kuti, the incredible musician, and controversial figure has been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame for the 2021 class.