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Burna Boy makes musical history: What is behind the rise and rise of Afrobeats?

Afrobeats superstar Burna Boy performs in London
Afrobeats superstar Burna Boy performs in London Copyright Burak Cingi/Redferns
Copyright Burak Cingi/Redferns
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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The musical genre is becoming more and more popular - a point made by artist Burna Boy, who made history last weekend by becoming the first African artist to headline a stadium show in the UK, playing to a sold-out crowd of 60,000 fans.

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The popularity of Afrobeats has been soaring lately - and that’s now confirmed thanks to Burna Boy, who broke records last weekend when he became the first African artist ever to headline a stadium show in the UK.

Playing to a 60,000-strong crowd at the London Stadium, the Grammy Award winner also brought out famous friends, including Dave and Stormzy to perform alongside him.

Burna Boy and Wizkid, among other stars, have helped Afrobeats become ever more popular - but what’s the background of the genre and what makes it so beloved?

Amy Harris/2023 Invision
Jumping for joy - Burna Boy performs at Coachella 2023Amy Harris/2023 Invision

Afrobeats is, at its core, a mix of African and Western influences which initially developed in Nigeria and Ghana, as well as the UK during the 2000s and 2010s.

The genre is not to be confused with Afrobeat (without an s), a musical style which developed in the 1960s and 1970s and took influence from Fuji music and highlife alongside American jazz and funk. The name was coined by the late Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti but he and his long-time collaborator, drummer Tony Allen, are credited for laying the groundwork for what would become Afrobeats.

The AP
Afrobeat (with no s) pioneer Tony Allen pictured in 2017The AP

Afrobeats - with an S - does take inspiration from Afrobeat, it’s a more diverse fusion of a wide variety of genres, including British house music, hip hop, R&B and dancehall, to name but a few.

Unlike Afrobeat, which fits fairly snugly into a clearly defined genre, Afrobeats is more of an umbrella term for contemporary West African pop music.

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Wizkid performs onstage during Afro Nation Miami 2023 in MayGetty

Nigerian native Burna Boy’s huge success in selling out a UK stadium marks an exceptionally important moment for the genre, following its rising popularity in music charts across the world and on social media platforms like TikTok, where it’s frequently used in viral dance challenges.

It’s gone from a niche musical style - when Burna Boy would play to just a handful of people - to being embraced by some of the world’s biggest superstars. Names including Beyoncé and Drake have featured Afrobeats artists in their songs and have been credited for their role in its increasing popularity.

Beyoncé collaborated with musicians including Wizkid, Tekno and Yemi Alade on her Afrobeats-inspired album ‘The Gift’, while Canadian superstar Drake has worked with Wizkid on mega-hits including ‘One Dance’.

Last week, Grammy Award-winning Burna Boy overtook fellow Nigerian Wizkid as the most streamed artist hailing from the African nation across all streaming platforms.

Top Africa Chart reported that Burna Boy topped the list with 8.47 billion combined streams, just pipping Wizkid to the post, who still boasts an impressive total of 8.39 billion streams.

That’s another string to Burna Boy’s bow, following on from Rolling Stone magazine ranking him number 197 on its list of the 200 greatest singers of all time earlier this year.

At his headline gig in London, fans travelled from as far afield as Ghana and Nigeria - and many heralded the multicultural mix in the crowd, saying it was a testament to the artist’s talent and the power held in his musical stylings.

It’s likely his star will continue to rise when he performs his catchy Afrobeats bops at the Champions League final in Istanbul this weekend - assuring that the genre will go even more stratospheric.

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