Afrikan Boy: English Head, Nigerian Heart
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Afrikan Boy is shaking up London’s nightclubs by blending cultures into explosive new music.
By Jack Doyle
Being an African musician in London hasn’t always been easy, but today’s generation is going back to their roots and storming the music scene in the process.
Listening to Afrikan Boy, you’d think he’s all East London — drawling accent, smarmy lyrics and pure cheekiness — and he is. But his jubilant verses, wild beats and vibrant clothes reflect London’s thriving African community, whose members are no longer compromising their identities to meld into modern-day Britain.
Afrikan Boy — born Olushola Ajose — is among the many artists leading the Afrobeat music movement, which combines African pop and British grime and dubstep. His collaborations have attracted some attention, but his fame, like many Afrobeat musicians, comes from electrifying live performances, especially in London’s clubs.
His Nigerian heritage is a battle flag calling card that shapes his distorted, percussive beats.
His new single, “Going for Gold (Dear Mama),” showcases a maturing artist performing alongside Nigerian singer Sele, blending African pop with darker electric riffs and cutting lyrics.
Raised in Woolwich, a East London district that boasts one of the UK’s largest African immigrant communities, Ajose’s upbringing was inherently multicultural, with strong ties to his native Nigeria, something he celebrated in the music video for his hit song “Hit ’Em Up.” He also liberally samples from other distinctive musical cultures he heard growing up, including reggae and hip-hop. His Nigerian heritage is a battle flag calling card that shapes his distorted, percussive beats.
His songs contain clever references to “the Black President,” Nigeria’s 1970s Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti. Kuti’s legacy is one of pan-Africanism and Black Power, which Ajose explicitly echoes in his music videos, suggesting a self-awareness of the politics involved in taking African music global — and no small dose of ambition.
This guy is hip, savvy and, at age 25, willing to take more risks than older Afrobeat Londoners like Dizzee Rascal when it comes to promotion. He hasn’t taken money for several of his releases, nor does he perform on pirate radio, a popular way for grime artists to get exposure. But his counterintuitive approach is getting him noticed, so much so that Afrikan Boy was chosen to represent the U.K. in the 2012 African Express tour, which showcased the best of African music to coincide with the London Olympics. His sets brought down the house.
But Ajose is much more than an electric performer. Channeling American hip-hop giants, he’s packaging himself — and his genre — as a brand. He heads YAM, an “African-inspired streetwear” fashion collective, and last year he released a free mixtape, “What Took You So Long?” as a nod to the age of Internet piracy.
For someone who toured with M.I.A., the new father and psychology student is surprisingly humble, and his keeping-it-real nature bleeds into his music. And he often turns a bleakly honest gaze on his own culture. “One Day I Went to Lidl,” the song that shot him to YouTube fame, contrasts being caught shoplifting to being caught by immigration officers. There’s humor in the lyrics — amid truths that can sting. Ajose is no stranger to poverty or hunger, and his Woolwich neighborhood was among the areas hardest hit by the London riots.
People of color make up over half of London’s population — and a disproportionate number of the city’s poor. But with performers like Afrikan Boy making bold strides, the city’s music scene is taking on a whole new beat.
- Jack DoyleContact Jack Doyle