How African Music Performance Finally Made It Onto the Grammy Ballot
A new award category for music from the continent reflects its exploding cultural and commercial appeal in the United States and beyond.
Last December, the Recording Academy convened a listening session of artists, label executives and stakeholders both in the United States and across Africa to discuss the rising influence of music coming from the continent. The meeting, which lasted several hours, was a key part of the process that led to the addition of a category that will be presented for the first time at the 66th Grammy Awards on Feb. 4: best African music performance.
“There’s a threshold that you like to see for a genre of music before it actually could make for a healthy category,” says academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr., who led the meeting alongside global music genre manager Shawn Thwaites. “When you talk about music coming from Africa, you’re seeing Afrobeats grow, you’re seeing amapiano and other genres coming out of the continent over the last three to five years. That started the discussions around, ‘Is it the right time?’ ”
The new category reflects the exploding commercial and cultural appeal of music by African artists in the United States. Its growth over the past few years has been almost linear: Davido’s 2017 single “Fall” was the first Nigerian song to be certified gold in the United States by the RIAA in 2020; Wizkid and Tems’ “Essence” became the first Afropop song to reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2021; Burna Boy’s Love, Damini debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 in 2022, becoming the highest-charting Afro-fusion album in chart history; and in May, Rema and Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down” became the first song to ever top both the U.S. Afrobeats Songs and Pop Airplay charts and peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100. (“Calm Down” was released too early to be eligible.)
“I don’t think currently there’s better or more advanced music being made anywhere outside the continent,” says Seni Saraki, CEO and editor in chief of The NATIVE Networks, the Lagos, Nigeria-based media and content company that launched a joint venture with Def Jam in September 2022. “From what we call Afrobeats — which is, really, just popular music from Nigeria — through amapiano, the rap music, Afropop, I genuinely think this is some of the most exciting music in the world right now. And the academy is becoming cognizant of that.”
The new category is also an attempt to address some of the controversy that has arisen around the global music album award, renamed from best world music album in 2020 due to “connotations of colonialism,” but still seen as little more than a catchall for non-Western music. As the music industry has itself become more global, the academy recognized that the time had come to offer a home for music from the African continent. But it also goes beyond the popularity of Afrobeats, which itself is more of an umbrella term: The academy listed some 30 different genres that could qualify for the category, including alté, fuji and high life.
“People know about Afrobeats and they’re learning about amapiano, but they don’t realize there are so many other genres on the continent that are underserved, and they can’t just be put in a bulk category called ‘world music,’ ” says Tina Davis, president of EMPIRE, which has invested heavily in African music and artists. “And much respect to the Recording Academy because they actually took the time to want to find out. [Mason] went to the continent to just learn more about it.”
The industry has also taken notice. In the past few years, an explosion of new signings, joint ventures and licensing deals for African artists and labels from U.S.-based companies and distributors has brought a new generation of stars like Rema, Asake and Ayra Starr to join the continent’s established hit-makers. “There was a time a few years ago when I was at RCA and it seemed like we were the only ones on it,” says Def Jam chairman/CEO Tunji Balogun, who signed Tems and worked closely with Wizkid and Davido while an A&R executive at RCA and has since signed Adekunle Gold and Stonebwoy to Def Jam. “Now every week, there’s another label signing someone. The budgets are open.”
“I think you see more labels paying attention to it, you see the marketplace paying more attention to it; there’s a spotlight on it,” RCA co-president John Fleckenstein says. “The Grammys are the big leagues of awards, one of those artistic validations that many artists dream about. It’s a bit of an awakening that we are more global than we’ve ever been.”
There is, however, a little reticence around the new category; in the past, artists from genres like hip-hop, R&B and some of the Latin sectors have looked at the genre categories as boxes that merely nod to their music while gatekeeping them from the more prestigious general-field categories like song, record or album of the year. Further, a category called best African music performance, while welcome, is itself incredibly broad, covering a continent with 54 countries and 1.4 billion people.
“It’s a really important moment for the Grammys,” says Temi Adeniji, managing director of Warner Music Africa and senior vp of strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa. “But then the next step is, how do you actually roll this thing out? Even regionally — East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa — it would be great to see a diversity of nominees, and that would reflect a real understanding from the Grammys of how large the continent is and how diverse the sounds are that are coming out.”
Talks of additional categories around African music, as well as a possible African Grammys, could be part of a future that Mason says this category is just the start of. “We want to serve music people, regardless of where they are,” he says. “I don’t know what that means yet, but we will continue to try and make sure that we are reaching as many music people regardless of their geography.”
The Potential Nominees?
Five songs that are in strong contention for a nod for the inaugural best African music performance Grammy.
Wizkid feat. Ayra Starr, “2 Sugar” (Starboy/RCA)
Following the crossover success of his “Essence” (featuring Tems) was this breakout hit from the Nigerian superstar’s More Love, Less Ego album, featuring a powerful vocal from Starr, who is herself blossoming into a major force in African music.
Libianca, “People” (5K/RCA)
With an arresting, emotional vocal performance, the 22-year-old Cameroonian American singer — who previously appeared on season 21 of The Voice — has captivated fans and the industry alike. “People” spawned remixes by artists such as Ayra Starr, Omah Lay and Becky G on the way to a long-running No. 2 peak on the U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart.
Davido feat. Musa Keys, “Unavailable” (Davido Music Worldwide/RCA)
The lead single from one of the year’s best albums in any genre, “Unavailable” showcases Davido at his irresistible best, combining Magicsticks’ amapiano production with a slick verse from South Africa’s Musa Keys to craft one of 2023’s more enduring anthems.
Adekunle Gold feat. Zinoleesky, “Party No Dey Stop” (Def Jam)
Insistent, urgent and eminently catchy, Gold’s debut Def Jam single blends the street melodies of fellow Nigerian Zinoleesky with his own knack for songwriting for a club banger with substance. It’s aspirational yet relatable, much like the album on which it appears.
Asake feat. Olamide, “Amapiano” (YBNL/EMPIRE)
Asake’s meteoric rise over the past few years led to a headlining slot at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in September. This track, alongside label boss and Nigerian music legend Olamide, is among his best, celebrating his trademark amapiano vibe and orchestral backing vocals, yet elevating both artists.