For one weekend in the middle of the summer of 2016 – Nigeria invaded America. With its music. With its swag. At Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, New Yorkers were held hostage by a celebration of the sound that’s come to be known as Afrobeats and its latest upstart hybrid, Afropop.
The first ever One Africa Music Festival in America has been a long time coming. Nigeria’s music has dominated the charts and the clubs across Europe for nearly two decades… and the export had been packaged and ready to deliver to the biggest market for music on the planet for years. It was just biding its time.
A concert of Nigerian musicians would have created a buzz regardless. People have been jamming to various forms of African music for decades. Today’s sound is a successful cosmopolitan combo of jazz, highlife and funk occasionally mixed to a blend of percussion and electric piano. It’s sung or rapped in English, Pidgen English, or a local dialect and arranged to a beat unmistakably African. And though most non-Nigerian’s only understand a few lines, the music has been filling up dance halls everywhere but in the United States since the turn of the century.
Many of Nigeria’s superstar artists today are relatively known. Fela paved the way. His fame and international acclaim during the 1970’s and 80’s lit the path to glory for his son Femi in the 90’s, Tuface not long after and then DBanj who opened the doors to the country’s two biggest stars today Davido and Wizkid. But to make real noise in the US, a sonic boom would be required to create a truly resonating blast. Enter Paul Okoye, CEO and MD of the management consultant firm, Upfront and Personal.
“I don’t like small things,” Okoye, the Lagos impresario who organized the show tells the Village Voice. “If I come to New York, I need the best place where Africans can showcase themselves.”
Okoye like many successful Lagos businessmen talks a good game, but on July 22, He and his Upfront and Personal team matched it by putting together a unique and by most accounts unforgettable night of harmony. Hosted by Nigerian R & B veteran Banky W, the line up included – Davido, Flavor, multiple award winning singer songwriter Tiwa Savage, the multi-continental and self-styled “Classic Man” Jidenna – and was headlined and anchored by Nigeria’s latest incandescent talent – Wizkid.
Wizkid, has dominated the Nigerian and African music scene for a few years, but his 2014 smash single “Ojuelegba“, a song that pays homage to his working class roots in a tough and unforgiving district in Lagos, propelled him into the stratosphere. A remix of the song with Drake and multiple social media endorsements for the song by other artists including Alicia Keys -helped him crossover into the mainstream and finally into the global narrative. Impressed by his style, Drake featured the 26-year-old artist on his fourth studio album, Views. Their first single, One Dance, has been at the top of US charts for weeks.
He came on stage to wrap the show and for the fifteen minutes he was on, captivated the audience.
“Wizbaba killed it. They made the right choice ending with him.” That’s according to one visibly animated audience member. Behind him a group of mixed race girls argued breathlessly after screaming every line of every song.
But the applause wasn’t unanimous. Some in the audience grumbled aloud saying on occasion, the show had appeared rushed. One woman who came to showcase Nigeria to her colleagues said, “It looked like all the acts were crammed together and hurried to save time.”
A representative with Upfront did confirm that their window narrowed because the show didn’t start on time. She declined to comment if any specific artist or artists had arrived late or had been unprepared to come on at their scheduled time. Still, the complaints weren’t many.
Femi Adeogun tells CED, “I could care less that the show didn’t kick off at 7:30-PM American time. I’m still on African time. It didn’t start early – but it didn’t disappoint. We saw everyone we came out here to see. Nigeria and the US have been officially introduced on the stage. Now lets see what happens moving forward.”
For Okoye and his team, the show appears to be a triumph. Though official gate figures have not been released, Barclays center was sold out. The arena did stop selling alcohol and closed most concession stands after 10-30-pm which may ultimately contribute to declining numbers but it’s hard to argue against its success after filling a world class US venue to capacity.
As Banky W tells the audience, “Tonight would not have been possible without Paul-O. So many people have been talking about doing this for years, but the first time, somebody finally gathered the sponsors into one room and hashed out a deal for this to happen.”
Upfront and Personal says this is just the first of many more festivals to come. According to one member of the executive team, the company has another music bonanza planned for Houston in October. After that concert, they’ll take the festival on the road, hosting events across the US, introducing the heartland of America to the intoxicating and addictive strains of Nigeria’s special brew.
As Jidenna tells the Voice, “America is finally dipping into music from the African continent. And artists in countries like Nigeria know exactly what is cool in the U.S. and U.K.”
CED says Game on.