He’s Changing the Way You Listen to African Music

Why you should care

Because African music is more than Afrobeats.

The world’s going gaga over Afrobeats, as Africa’s music is commonly plugged, but tune into Afriquency’s curated playlists on iTunes or Spotify and you’ll encounter sounds, rhythms and languages barely heard outside the continent. English lyrics meld with Yoruba or Chichewa. Layered sound smoothly segues from one beat to another. Soulful, bold voices ring out, expressing stories and dreams, histories and hope.

From Afro hip-hop to Afro jazz and Afro soul, plus Zambian deep house, Malawian Afropop, Afro dancehall from Nigeria, an entire playlist dedicated to South African reggae artist and Rastafarian Lucky Dube, with songs in Zulu and Afrikaans and more, the sheer range is electrifying. It’s a vine bearing rich fruit thanks to entrepreneur Yoel Kenan’s mad vision for Africa’s musical talent. “I’m running a marathon, not a sprint,” he says.

Yoel

Kenan’s vision for a continental music scene is finally paying off.

It has been a long road to the platform that Africori — Kenan’s digital music licensing and distribution company based in Johannesburg and London — occupies today. Hundreds of artists and labels are signed up, including biggies like Ghanaian hip-hop artist Pappy Kojo, Kenyan rapper Nyashinski, South African producer Gemini Major, House Afrika Records and Sol Generation Records, as well as obscure artists from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia. Now, Francophone African musicians from Sierra Leone, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and more are jumping on the bandwagon, and Kenan is on the move all the time. After all, Africa is an “artistic volcano” waiting to erupt, and offering services like curating African music playlists via Afriquency for a global audience is just one of the leaps Africori has taken recently to make sure the world is up on more than Fela Kuti.

“Our vision has always been the same — betting on the African market to generate legitimate revenue through digital streaming,” says Kenan, 53. “I expected growth earlier, and it can be frustrating; development time is longer in Africa than other parts of the world. But the rewards are fantastic.”

 

On a continent where musicians have been making money only through telecom giants, who buy songs to use as ringtones, digital streaming revenue would be a breakthrough, especially given rampant piracy and hazy royalty laws. Africori works to make sure its artists have a global streaming footprint and retain the rights to their music.

Black artists from a ravaged continent were inherently suspicious of an excited music entrepreneur from Europe full of promises. 

According to a report by Midem, Africa accounts for just 2 percent of global music revenue, so there are plenty of opportunities considering that 500 million Africans are expected to use smartphones by 2020. Musical genres are not just limited to local interpretations of jazz, funk, R&B, electronica, gospel music and pop, but also include native forms like waka, juju, gqom, kwaito, soukous and zouglou. “Ninety percent of Africans love their local music, and by its nature, African music can travel and [entertain] both the diaspora and non-diaspora,” says Kenan. That means the financial rewards for streamers can be contained within the continent alone.

But technological advancements have been slow, alongside Kenan’s long-game vision. But now his pace is frenzied: He’s constantly traveling between Europe and Africa, bringing new artists on board, expanding Africori’s reach. “A lesson I’ve learned from the past is to stick with [whatever you’re doing], whatever it takes, however long it takes,” he says thoughtfully.

As a business graduate in Paris nearly 30 years ago, Kenan’s first taste of the business was organizing concerts in the French capital before setting up an indie label and introducing English-language bands to the French market. As he rose through the ranks at major labels, he promoted the likes of Bobby Brown, Nirvana, Mary J. Blige and Counting Crows. In 1998, he ventured into digital streaming with Universal, and three years later joined MP3.com. Tracking music consumption across domains became his obsession. “I realized that every time I came up with a new idea, big brands were afraid,” he says.

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Music business before the digital age: Kenan in Los Angeles in 1990.

A Moroccan Jew by heritage, Parisian by upbringing (aside from a few years in Jerusalem), Kenan first visited Nigeria in 2003 and was fascinated by its bold music and character. He wanted in as Africa’s developing markets took off. But until the formation of Africori in 2012, all Kenan did was travel around the continent, meet artists, build relationships and assure them he was there to stay. Black artists from a ravaged continent were inherently suspicious of an excited music entrepreneur from Europe. The company’s first investor, Kenan says, took a chance simply because he had been around “long enough.” 

“In a continent where there’s serious lack of infrastructure for artists, no education and fly-by-night companies and even majors who don’t tend to deliver, Yoel has brought about a whole revolution for African music digitally,” says Mpho Merriweather, Kenan’s partner and project manager. 

Over the past few years, Africori has grown not only in licensing and distribution, but also in educating musicians about the business — from copyright to royalties to piracy. Kenan and his team also provide marketing support to artists, booking gigs and generating international exposure. 

Adam Tiran, who joined the company as an intern in 2013, studied African Studies at SOAS University of London and has been a DJ and radio producer. Today, he’s head of operations, because Kenan’s vision has kept him around. “He had a foresight that no one else seemed to have,” Tiran says. “Yoel understands artists and their creative needs, although as a visionary, he’s not big on providing details!”

Now that Africori is “flirting with profitability despite continuous reinvesting,” Kenan’s goal is to turn five African artists into global breakouts. But he keeps his expectations conservative, and in situations where people get too excited, “I say, ‘Let’s see.’ ” Given Africori’s extensive musical catalog and more than 200 streaming partners across the world — plus plans to foray into China’s and India’s streaming platforms — Africori’s spotlight seems to have finally switched on. While big players are circling the market, Kenan isn’t worried. “We can compete with any major distributor today. We have the credibility.”

OZY’s Five Questions With Yoel Kenan 

  • What’s the last book you read? Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 
  • What do you worry about? Not living life to the fullest (although I worry a lot less than I used to). 
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Music. 
  • Who’s your hero? My father. 
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? Spending time in Latin America. I had a ticket to Brazil and I couldn’t take the flight. I’ve never been.

Read more: The young product guru giving independent artists a voice at Spotify.

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