Wizkid, Essence and ‘Afrobeats to the world’

Essence’s success has spiraled into a moment for Wizkid and Afrobeats, the culture that nurtured and birthed him. Nigerian pop music is on the Hot 100 now!

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Wizkid's ‘Essence’ debuts at number 82 on the Hot 100, a first for any homegrown Nigerian artist.(Photo by Chantal Azari)

Wizkid’s Essence has cracked the most coveted chart in the world — the Billboard Hot 100. His single, Essence, off his Made in Lagos in Lagos album, becomes the first Nigerian pop artist to hold the distinction. It debuts at number 82, a first for any homegrown Nigerian artist. It also makes Wizkid the third African artist to simultaneously chart on the Hot 100, and the Billboard 200, after earlier exploits by Cameroonian saxophonist, Manu Dibango (1973) and South African legend, Miriam Makeba (1997). 

Featuring Nigerian singer, TemsEssence has become the global song of the summer, moving from a slow-burning fan favourite, to a mainstream monster. It’s racking up numbers. Kevin Hart is dancing to it. Lori Harvey spends candle-lit nights on the exotic beaches, whining to the record. There are clips of huge crowds at festivals singing along to it, a palpable lust for life electrifying the air. Major global influencers are creating content to its rhythms. And if you stray on Snapchat or Tiktok, you’ll discover a world of summer revelers, soundtracking their sunny adventures to “you don’t need no other body!’

Essence’s success has spiraled into a moment for Wizkid and Afrobeats, the culture that nurtured and birthed him. To cash in on the momentum, Wizkid has announced a stateside tour, with nearly all stops sold out. In some cities, tickets resell for up to $300, while standing spaces can go for as high as $149. On social media, listening to Essence admits you into ‘cool gang’ territory. Co-signing the song in any form affords you some level of virality. And if you stand in front of a mirror in the dead of the night, and whisper ‘Essence’ thrice, a few members of the ever-growing Wizkid FC fanbase will be by your side to amplify your expression, and laud your elite taste in personal entertainment.

Essence-mania is in full swing, and it’s breaking records for more than Wizkid. While the RCA-signed superstar can hold his head high for making all the right creative decisions, and delivering on his artistry, the effects of this moment eclipses personal accolades. The Nigerian music industry wins. A network of professionals and creatives sweating it across Lagos, Accra, London and Los Angeles will feel vindicated in pushing for global success. Major label execs who banked on the genre are smiling home. Wizkid’s success at this level elevates his home industry, and the Afrobeats to the world movement finally reaches its zenith of achievement.

How? The current foundations of Nigerian music industry were laid in the early 2000s, at a time when hungry kids in Lagos and other parts of the country got fed up with playing second fiddle in the culture, and stated that they wanted to hear themselves on radio, and compete with the then-dominant Hip hop, reggae and R&B music from America. I remember Banky W scoring his first hit, ‘Ebutte Meta,’ by delivering an impassioned cover of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella.’ Psquare, Africa’s legendary music group, blatantly sampled sound and lyrics from a string of R&B and hip hop hits. We started out by aping the USA. Our currently celebrated originality wasn’t always so potent. It was a gradual, collective growth process of our artistry, as musicians, producers and filmmakers stripped America away—one release at a time—replacing it with local elements as we advanced.

The war against foreign content has long been won on the home front. When our musicians march through the continent, they are greeted by equal parts love and disdain. Wizkid and Davido can pack stadiums with thousands of screaming, grateful fans. But when you flip that coin, you find Omah Lay and Tems getting arrested in Uganda for daring to spread the music. Afrobeats is the dominant pop sound of the continent. It’s made us heroes of the people, but enemies of other music industries looking for some shine. Soft power belongs to Nigeria. And we’re wielding it to creative advantage.

The Nigerian music market shows its ceilings pretty early. Once upon a time, passionate kids were told they needed to conquer Lagos, make some money via live performances, and go home to hug their family and flex their wealth. But  hyper-competition became a way of life in Lagos, and the pie had to be extended for bigger rewards. And then there was Accra, which fed us creatively while we wormed our way into Ghanaian hearts. Gambia, Angola, Uganda, Kenya, and other markets assimilated the music for its quality, the narrative of opulence and unabashed hedonism. To listen to Nigerian pop music is to live, whether in the moment, in the sounds that buoy spirits, or the expressive lyrics that build an aspirational universe.

The Hot 100 placement has been a pipe dream for so long. 2baba’s 2004 classic, African Queen, made a generation of local music creators dream. The record travelled from its base in the Lagos neighbourhood of FESTAC, to appearing in major movies, earning sync dollars, and winning awards. When D’banj owned the UK in 2011 with Oliver Twist, he unlocked another level for the industry. His work in London contributed to the UK capital taking on some cultural responsibility, as more diasporan Nigerians could get involved with the culture from a visceral level. Wizkid’s ‘Ojuelegba,’ off his ‘Ayo (Joy)’ album, took the sound to Drake, who curated his version, and found a way to incorporate Wizkid and African dreams into ‘One Dance.’

The rest of the story has become the top canon of African music. The ‘Afrobeats to the world’ world movement came into play. It was the tagline for all the hopes on the shoulders of the music industry. The world believed in Lagos, and the major labels tapped into that with experimental business. Between 2016 and 2018, Sony, Warner and Universal put boots on the ground, opening offices in Lagos. Four years later, the city has become another global stop for the music business. Think of any music company with a global reach. They’re all currently operating in Lagos, either with their full weight and access to their systems. Or they’ve found a local partner navigating the city for new business. Tunecore, CD Baby, Empire, AWAL, Orchard, Spotify, Audiomack, TIDAL, and many others have made Nigeria a new home. Lagos has always been distinguished for its passion and joie de vivre. Right now, that energy has crystallized into business.

We’ve come a long way, and our approach to exploring new markets has seen many iterations. America has always held a fascination, but we’ve been struggling with the one path to achieving market assimilation. I remember sitting at tables with the Nigerian heads of major labels, while also working at one. The undisputed goal for every music business professional was to crack the Hot 100. And for a while, everyone went one route — collaboration with a foreign act. It’s conventional knowledge to approach a new market, by joining forces with a local champion. That’s how the business is supposed to operate. But collaboration has never worked for us in that sense. The strength of our culture and the increasing depth of the clout it provides, has us in spaces where we are now constantly making music with our American counterparts. From Young Thug to Nicki Minaj, to Chris Martin, we have racked up those features. But ollaboration didn’t bring us the Hot 100. 

Instead, we’ve finally cracked it, using home based creative resources, albeit with muscle from RCA Records. Essence might be enjoying an organic run now, but it received massive push from the record label. Influencers were signed to seed it into the market as a focus track. It was given radio push, and supported via multiple channels of promotion. Marketing and promotion can only put a record in front of you. Those moves can’t really make a song the love of your life, enough to power it to the charts. For that, you need acceptance. The US market has embraced Essence. Loved it so hard, it cracked the Hot 100.

It had to be Wizkid. It had to be the bloke from Ojuelegba that broke through the ceiling for Afrobeats, entrenching the sound in the USA. Wizkid has had a career of many firsts, acting as a mascot for all that is right and ambitious about the movement. For the first time ever, Nigerians can look at the Billboard and swell with pride. We are in the main game now. We’ve doubted Afrobeats’ potential as a global genre. The Hot 100 just makes it clear on the scoreboard. Congratulations to Nigeria, to Wizkid and everyone who’s dreamt and worked for this. 

We’ve come full circle and realized the dream of the ‘Afrobeats to the world.’ What comes after the dream is the tedium of maintenance. The Nigerian music industry is defined by ambition. The novelty of new achievements never lasts. No time. What the future says is already in front of us. For now it’s Wizkid and Tems. I don’t expect those two to enjoy that privilege alone, for long. We are coming, and we’re coming with all that we have. Afrobeats to the world? Nah. The world is coming to Afrobeats.