If the history of popular music has taught us one thing, it should be that complaining about a new style of music only makes that style more popular. Remember when Noel Gallagher went off on one because Jay Z was headlining Glastonbury? Hov shrugged off the hate, playing Noel’s barbs back on a video screen then took the stage with a grin on his face and a guitar round his neck. He sang part of ‘Wonderwall’ before reminding the massive crowd that he had 99 problems, but Oasis wasn’t one - ouch.
A note for all involved in this Afrobeats - Carnival brouhaha.
Just as Carnival regulars are putting the final touches to their costumes and average punters are daydreaming about swarming through West London for what’s become the biggest street festival in Europe, all sorts of outrage has been kicking off on Twitter over the inclusion of an Afrobeats float in what has traditionally been a celebration of Caribbean culture. It doesn’t seem to matter that Afrobeat songs have been spun by various sound systems at carnival for years, or that an Afrobeat float was part of the 2014 parade. Suddenly this is a big problem, sparking all sorts of trending topics and spirited debate about the true nature of Carnival.
Tweets have included all sorts of anti-Afrobeats comments, such as: “I'd rather be tangled in a crowd trying to find the next good float than stand and listen to afrobeats at carnival.”
It seems the whole argument is missing the point of why UK’s Carnival is the best in the world. From Toronto’s Caribana’s to Brooklyn Labor Day to each and every Caribbean Island, it’s pretty much a given what goes on at carnival. Airhorns, wining, patties and rum are the usual images you conjure up in your head. The focus is on a parade of floats, with Caribbean traditions like the j’ouvert mud-slinging ritual and the steel pan competition instilling a sense of pride in the island massive.
Walking around the Notting Hill carnival there’s something different. In addition to these traditions you can pitch up to the sound system of your choice and bop to all sorts of music until you decide it’s time to refill your drink, or move on up the road to sample a different sound. You can pretty much find anything you like from the hard core rub-a-dub played by sounds like King Tubbys and Channel One to such dancehall-infused sets as Nasty Rockers and Killer Watt. It’s also a time where girls can show off their latest head top moves in their best batty riders and guys can fling up their gun finger to their favourite badman tunes - all of which are much loved, welcomed and widely imitated West Indian traditions.
Depending upon your musical preference, you can experience a diverse range of UK underground music - most of which can trace its roots back to the Caribbean sound system culture that has given birth to the likes of hip-hop, jungle, UK garage, drum 'n' bass and grime.
In addition, Notting Hill carnival has long played host to different flavour sounds from other cultures, whether it be the Disco Hustlers flinging down those house tracks or Gaz's Rockin' Blues or the Latin Rave Street Jam. Every few years there’s a new sub-genre of music at play in the carnival mix.
Over the years even Redbull have set up their stage under the Westway, an exclusive zone filled with international acts like Major Lazer. Last year Brooklyn-based producer Dre Skull spun an EDM ragga fusion set before grime collective Boy Betta Know took to the stage.
Nobody makes a fuss about any of this. So why all the outcry about a bit of Afrobeats?
Some tweets suggest there may be way bigger issues for carnival than the inclusion of a new float. “Worry about one afrobeats stage at carnival? When the way London is going it will be headlined by Mumford & Sons in couple years.”
If you check the origin of London’s carnival, you’ll see that it’s more than just a 48-hour bender for people from all over the world. The whole thing was organised as a show of unity in the wake of the Notting Hill race riots, a showcase of London’s cultural diversity. In recent years that diversity has grown to include an increasing number of African immigrants, who now outnumber the Caribbean population. Some have suggested that tensions between these two groups - who speak with different accents and dance to slightly different tempo beats - are what’s really behind the outcry over Afrobeats music.
But as Peter Tosh once sang: “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man you’re an African.”
Originated decades ago, the Afrobeats genre as we hear it today has evolved into a more pop version of the traditional sound that comes from the continent with the UK being a major driving force behind its mainstream recognition. Afrobeats acts like Wiz Kid, D’Banj and P-Square have blown up on a worldwide level and gone on to work with American rap stars. When Fuse ODG’s song 'Dangerous Love' - a collab with dancehall star Sean Paul - won a MOBO Award last year for Best African Act and snagged nominations for Best Male Act and Best Song it became undeniable that this genre was a hit.
Fuse, whose parents immigrated from Ghana to England, has also worked with Grammy-winner Wycelf Jean and is now one of the leading artist in the Afrobeats genre. He cites Jamaican music as a major inspiration and over the years has also collaborated with dancehall stars Konshens and Elephant Man.
As he once told me: “The kids are definitely influenced by a lot of dancehall, a lot of reggae, and now a lot of dance music, so all of this fusion is coming together.” Whatever goes down at this year’s carnival, Fuse has already hit the nail on the head. “We’re all one people... To make world music - that’s the mission.”
Words: Reshma B