In the 2021 Grammys, African artists had a lot to celebrate, with Burna Boy's album Twice As Tall (2020) winning a Grammy for Best Global Music Album and Wizkid and Beyonce’s 'Brown Skin Girl' winning Best Music Video. 10 years ago, these wins would have seemed impossible however, Afrobeats has come far in recent years. From Lagos, Accra and Cape Town, to London, Paris and New York, Afrobeats has reached millions of people’s ears and has accumulated a strong fanbase. But it isn’t the music alone that boosts the genre's popularity. There is no doubt that pairing a rhythmic, catchy tune with an even catchier dance move will boost views on YouTube and streams of Spotify. Examples of this include other dance crazes like The Macarena, Gangnam Style and The Candy. These songs have been immortalised by the popularity of their relative dances. Afrobeats is no different and over the last decade, we’ve seen plenty of Afrobeats dances, from Azonto to Gwara Gwara, that have helped the music genre thrive on a global scale.
What is Afrobeats and where did it come from?
Afrobeats had been on the up since the 2000s, however its roots date back to the 1960s in Nigeria. OG Afrobeats legend Fela Kuti was a Nigerian composer, political activist and Pan-Africanist. Till this day, Kuti is seen as the founder of what is now known as 'Afrobeats', the one who laid the foundation for what the genre has grown to be today. In his time, Afrobeats included long instrumentals and jazzy rhythms, and were significantly political. Today, it is often hard to pinpoint exactly what an Afrobeat song would sound like as it is can be extremely varied, but generally, Afrobeats can be recognised for its strong drum beats. In the UK, Afrobeats has thrived. With many Africans having migrated to the UK in the last 5 decades, and almost a million now residing here, their music tastes have expectedly made that same journey. However, the diaspora that now live here have created Afroswing, a new wave of Afrobeats that combines Black British culture with the African soul and rhythm that is intrinsic to them as descendants of the motherland. Burna Boy is a perfect example of this hybrid identity. Although he was born and raised in Nigeria, he spent a lot of time in the UK in his older years. As a result, his music is a blend of different Anglophone cultures, making him accessible to African, British, North American and Caribbean listeners. Other Afrobeats legends include Fuse ODG, P-Square and D’Banj (whose track ‘Oliver Twist’ made him the first ever Afrobeats artist to chart in the UK’s Top 10 in 2012). But along with the excellent quality of music, viral dances have also made Afrobeats soar globally.
Which dance crazes have gone viral?
As mentioned earlier, viral dances do wonders for a song's views and position in the charts. You only have to recall that Gangnam Style, with the help of a catchy dance, has become the 10th most viewed YouTube video of all time. Not only did the Gangnam Style dance promote the actual song, it also shone a light on South Korean culture and K-Pop. Certain Afrobeats songs and dances have followed this trend. A few dance styles that have made it to the esteemed ‘viral’ status are:
Azonto - Ghana
Azonto came from Ghana and the Azonto is said to have originated from the word ‘Apaa’ which means to work. The dance typically includes a mime that represents a profession or action, for example chopping food to mimic a chef or fanning yourself to show that it is hot. The Azonto dance has been used in several songs but possibly the most popular of the Azonto tracks is ‘Azonto’ by British-Ghanian artist Fuse ODG which has over 5 million Youtube views. The Azonto dance also features in ‘Antenna’, another popular track by Fuse ODG. The artist created a dance competition whereby entrants had to record themselves dancing to his song. According to Fuse, the music video and the dance ‘helped propel the single to number five in the charts’.
Jerusalema - South Africa/Angola
Interestingly, the Jerusalema dance was not created by the artist of the song, Master KG. Angolan dance troupe Fenómenos do Semba recorded themselves dancing a choreographed routine that went viral. It sparked the #JerusalemaChallenge and the routine, often compared to the Candy dance, is credited for helping the song go viral. Whilst Jerusalema is not necessarily an Afrobeat song, the dance’s popularity was so vast that it had to be mentioned. Master KG’s track has hit over 432 million views on Youtube and has been top of music charts in several countries. People across the world were challenging each other to perform the dance and therefore listening to the song over and over again. People who cannot even understand Zulu continue to blast out this track, truly exemplifying that music and dance can overpower language barriers.
Shaku - Nigeria
2017 saw the rise of Shaku Shaku, another dance craze which originated from the streets of Lagos. The dance is believed to have been popularised by street kids in Ikeja, a region in the north of Lagos, around mid-2017. The Shaku Shaku dance move first appeared in Olamide's 'Wo' music video. Much like the Azonto dance, Shaku Shaku also gave rise to its own sub-genre of music, helping popularise songs like Starboy's 'Soco' (featuring Wizkid, Terri, Spotless and Ceeza Mills) and Naira Marley's 'Issa Goal' (ft Olamide).
Zanku - Nigeria
Coined by Nigerian artist Zlatan Ibile, the Zanku dance inspired his song ‘Zanku (Legwork)’ which has over a million views on Youtube. However, it wasn’t the Zanku song that first incorporated the dance. Zlatan featured in an earlier track, ‘Able God’ with Chinko Ekun and Lil Kesh and it was here that the Zanku was introduced to the world. It took a few years and a track entirely dedicated to the dance for it to blow, but when it did, Zanku (the song) quickly became a song everyone would recognise. Beyonce even incorporated the Zanku dance into the music video for ‘Already’. Interestingly, in the case of Zanku, it was the song that promoted the dance rather than the other way around. This shows that afrobeats and dances go hand in hand when it comes to promotion. Undoubtedly, Zlatan created the Zanku song because dances are known to do wonders for a song’s popularity. It was a tactical move on Zlatan’s part and it seems to have paid off well.
How far has Afrobeats come?
You’d have to have been living under a rock to not notice the rising success of Afrobeats in the Western world. Drake including WizKid in his ‘One Dance’ track in 2016 proves that artists are finally recognising the talent of African artists, particularly West African artists. Afronation in Portugal and Ghana revealed to the world that Afrobeats is an ever growing and lucrative genre, never to be slept on again. Beyonce’s track ‘Already’ was released in 2019 was one of her most popular songs on the Lion King soundtrack and featured Ghanaian singer Shatta Wale. Burna Boy’s name is almost nationally recognised in the UK due to his long list of features with artists such as Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Jorja Smith to name a few. There are endless examples of the rising success of Afrobeats and for many of us, this has been a long time coming. There are many reasons for why Afrobeat is getting more popular, the first and foremost being that it is simply a catchy and uplifting genre. Nevertheless, viral dances are an instantaneous and highly effective way of spreading a song all around the globe - possibly the quickest way for a song to be heard by millions. At the end of the day, it’s no surprise that African dances are likely to go viral, seeing as the African rhythm and style of movement is second to none!
Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.