Before 23andMe and Ancestry.com made being African the most remarkable thing in pop culture, a talented artist of African descent hitting the big time was a far-fetched reality.
Film and media love to portray the African continent as a lost cause that will always need saving. White saviour films are always the controversial nominees at award ceremonies. A big deal is made when a black actor or actress becomes the first to be nominated or win in a white-dominated category.
The Us vs. Them complex is the battle that a new wave of African artists is fighting, and the biggest obstacle in their journey to independent success is the power of the international co-sign.
The African Diaspora is the number one exporter of music, and dance culture enjoyed worldwide. It is a genetic tendency we revert to for survival and to collect as much strength as we can through song. Whether social, natural, or physical, our resources are a treasure that the world has always wanted to take credit for, and music is no different.
The discourse around music is incomplete without discussing the appropriation of Africa’s musical culture and how a co-sign from overseas has been the only way to give it the credit it deserves. Social media provides valuable insight into the music economy, creating the illusion that success is achieved entirely through an international co-sign.
Drake showed love to an up-and-coming Amapiano act, Uncle Waffles, between the end of March to mid-April of this year. Drake is the most prominent music artist globally, and looking in any artist’s direction is enough to change a fickle audience’s minds and music tastes.
Nigerian Afrobeats songstress Tems featured on Drake’s “Fountains” from his Certified Lover Boy album, a collaboration that benefitted the streams of Tem’s EP If Orange Was A Place.
Some artists believe that developing a sound palatable to an international audience is crucial for international success, and A&R representatives from major record labels are likely to tell an artist the same thing. A personal brand that is inoffensive and art that does not need translation is presented as the easy road to success, and I like to call this the Trevor Noah effect.
Trevor Noah’s career as a comedian gained some rocketship power that placed him among the stars when Jon Stewart handed The Daily Show over to him. He built a prestigious reputation for himself as one of South Africa’s most famous comedians.
Suddenly, we started seeing him on our TV screens, and he became one of America’s favourite comedians from South Africa. His English name, light skin, and professional-sounding English diction made him acceptable to an American audience since he had a Jon Stewart co-sign.
He interviewed more African artists than ever before and grew out his Afro, making it cool to have an international co-sign from a fellow African creative. The resolution I have come to from this Trevor Noah effect is that an international co-sign is only as powerful as the genius of the co-signee.
An African artist’s purity is rooted in their authenticity and affection for their roots. A Drake co-sign does not create artistic genius; it simply acknowledges it. If the apparent creative genius is true, it will stand the test of time. Humbling oneself to the art of music means embracing the authority of the art rather than giving an artist the power to dictate what is authentic or imitation.
Staying true to and believing in yourself is one of the most cliche pieces of advice we give to one another. Believe it or not, that makes Africans so vital in music and dance culture. Afropop, Afrobeats, Amapiano, and other traditionally African music genres are unapologetic about the audience to which they are appealing.
This exclusivity makes it enchanting to an international audience. The desire to translate our lyrics and our joy has vanished, and soon enough, so will the need for an international co-sign.
The International Artist category in award shows like the Grammys or the BET awards used to offend me because I think the world of the artists who are only included in a 20-second segment of a 3-hour award show. When South African house DJ Black Coffee won the Grammy Award for Best Dance/Electronic Album, my belief in an African’s ability to independently share their treasure with the world was restored.
After the news that Nigerian artist Burna Boy is set to perform at a sold-out Madison Square Garden show, I started to believe in the power of an internal co-sign over an international co-sign. Their fan support might have carried artists like Black Coffee and Burna Boy on good days, but their self-support carried them through their worst days.
Drake is not wrong for co-signing Uncle Waffles on social media, and an international co-sign is neither a curse nor a shackle. However, I believe in making it work for you instead of working for them. Africans are using the power of their homegrown music to foster a global impact in the music industry for the first time in history.
The international co-sign is no match for the purpose-filled self-belief that African artists are overflowing with, and it is about time we invest within to avoid being left without.
Words by Nonjabulo Malinga