Pan-African Rhythms: Uniting the Continent Through Music

by Katherine McVicker, Founder of Arts Connect Africa and Director of Music Works International

In a few short months, it will be 38 years since Paul Simon’s seventh studio album, “Graceland,” was released. The album won the album of the year Grammy in 1987 and became (and still remains) Simon’s bestselling album of all time. This success was not just because of its eclectic mix of genres such as pop, rock, acapella, Zydeco and South African music genres like isicathamiya and mbaqanga, but also because it was a political statement, particularly because it came at a period when western musical artists and organizations had decided to impose a boycott of South African art and music because of the country’s apartheid policy. 

But more importantly, the album launched the international careers of some of the South African bands featured on it, such as LadySmith Black Mambazo, which won its first Grammy Award in 1988, started touring the world after that. The band has won four more Grammy Awards since then.

There have been efforts to recreate such a cross-cultural project since then, the most notable being Beyonce Knowles 2019 “The Lion King: The Gift,” in which she featured the likes of Wizkid, Burna Boy, Mr. Eazi, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Niniola Apata, Busiswa, Shatawale, and Niniola Apata, among others. 

One thing that the two projects, and those similar ones on a smaller scale are pointing out is that African music is the music of the future. With Africa currently having the youngest population at the moment, it is no doubt that Africa will play a major role in the arts and creative industry in the future. The trickle will soon become a flood. As such, one would expect that cross-cultural projects like Graceland and the Gift will happen more regularly.

As the successes of Graceland and, to some extent, The Gift have proved, there are a lot of benefits that a cross-cultural music project can bring. To cite a hypothetical example, what if Temilade “Tems” Openiyi, who has lately become the face of the non-mainstream genre of Nigerian music known in fan circles as “Alte,” collaborates with American jazz artist and Grammy Award winner Samara Joy on a Graceland-type project that will include a joint EP and support for a humanitarian course for the local communities of the two collaborators?

For Tems, a collaboration with a Grammy award-winning artist like Joy could bring international credibility to her music. To understand the implications, it is worth noting that in Europe and North America, Jazz has a tremendous influence on popular music culture. Its artists often dominate music awards like the Grammys. African artists who have won or have been nominated for Grammy awards, like Fela Kuti, his son, Femi Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Angelique Kidjo, and Hugh Masekela, among others, are either full jazz artists or have heavy jazz influence in their genre of music. In other words, a Jazz EP might be exactly what she needs to finally achieve the type of musical appreciation on the world stage that her music deserves and that her predecessors like Kidjo and Makeba have achieved. Apart from Tems, Omah Lay and Johnny Drille, are another pair of  Alte Nigerian musicians who already have the strong enough fanbase, while Richard Bona and Chief Adujah are two African American jazz artists that could benefit from the new African market that a culture exchange can bring.  

For Samara Joy, a collaboration with an artist with a local fanbase like Tems might be an opportunity to make inroads into the African market and create a fanbase for her music in Africa. While African fans might not be big on jazz like Europeans and Americans, the success of Fela and Hugh Masekela proves that jazz combined with local content and aesthetics can thrive in the African music scene, which would be a win for an artist like Joy who gets to expose her music to new audiences. And what’s more, since Joy is African American herself, her music will not come with the accusations of paternalism and cultural appropriation that detractors assailed Graceland with when it was released.

But even beyond the artists themselves, a culture exchange project would be a delight for concert promoters and other music industry professionals across different African Regions and also give global touring opportunities when the American Artiste decides on reciprocity to the collaboration partner artiste from Africa.

Graceland was perhaps the first highly successful example of a music and culture exchange between Americans and Africans, but it will not be the last, because it is no longer an exaggeration to suggest that African music is the future. However, there needs to be a mechanism that will ensure that firstly these exchanges can happen more often and secondly, that it is a true cultural exchange that both parties benefit as equally as possible. That way from around the world can enjoy the taste of African music, and African music can bring some value to the African continent itself. Building that structure is what we are trying to achieve at Arts Connect Africa.