Lessons we need to learn about record labels moving into African music

African music, record labels
Burna Boy signed to Atlantic/Warner on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Aug. 13th 2019

If we are not careful, we are in the beginning of the creativity of African music and artistry being captured and abused by the American corporate system? Universal Music Group, a $7bn corporation owned by French and Chinese money with subsidiaries all over the world recently announced the establishment of Def Jam Africa.

This will be a newer label division within the continent as Universal already has a refined prominence within the continent. The new label is dedicated to representing “the best hip-hop, Afrobeats and trap talent in Africa, and will follow the blueprint of the iconic Def Jam Recordings label,” possibly the most important American hip-hop/R&B label. Def Jam’s contribution to hip hop and R&B is undeniable; the biggest stars from Public Enemy to Jay Z, Mariah Carey, J-Lo and Justin Bieber were or are signed to Def Jam.

It is a great feat to achieve commercial success without the help of a major label and distributor of the artist’s music. The deal with a major label would increase their chance and other future African artists of success on the world stage not just in Africa but at what cost?


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We have seen huge stars such as N.W.A, Toni Braxton, Ma$e, Jojo and many more fighting their record labels after realizing the messy contracts they signed at the beginning of their careers.

They have chocked creativity trying to force the artist to create music for the radio, failed to deliver on marketing and sometimes completely put careers on hold due to their overreaching contracts. The constant tension between artist and music labels is something that the African artist may not have been privy to — as these litigations, labels and the attached artists have grown in the United States, there is now a better understanding of the music industry and convenient evidence to enlighten the budding artist of their rights, limitations and the importance of these deals on their imminent success, licensing abilities, royalties and ownership of their music.

It is somewhat terrifying to imagine the details contained in the deals that the African artists may be offered; Mr. Eazi, a well-known music producer and artist, in a recent interview with Billboard Magazine recalls his “first deal in 2016 was 400,000 pounds [$522,068, adjusted for inflation] for three albums” and just a few year later was “about to sign a huge label imprint deal in 2018 for about $6 million but didn’t”.

These well-endowed titan gatekeepers of the global music distribution industry and their lawyers burrowing into this unsullied music scene see an opportunity — a cheap opportunity and may do more to bend and break the soul of African music bowing to the corporate pressures of producing music for commercial success in Europe and the USA for the least amount possible.

The way music is created around the world is different; contracts and copy-write laws are still in their infancy in Africa and thus reduces the cost of acquiring the music rights which may be a serious curtailing of the authentic path of the African vibe and dilution of the humanity in the music we see from the African continent. If all the front-runners forego their creative path to the conglomerates coming from outside of Africa they may be forced to use a blueprint from executives and A&R of the record labels that is not adjusted for the way that particular music is enjoyed. That is how hip-hop almost lost its edge in the mid-2000s.

Many African artists have struggled to gain worldwide success like we see of American and European acts — it is not until recently that we have seen Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido break into the mainstream American music scene with Wiz setting the pace after the smash radio hit “One Dance” with Drake in 2016, collaborations with Chris Brown and even joining Beyoncé on the “Brown skin girl” record.

We can safely say he really ushered the American audiences to the vibrant African music scene and more so the Nigerian Afrobeats and Afropop vibe. This was all facilitated under his RCA affiliation whose influence was noted on the modestly received “Sounds From The Other Side” album in 2017.

The heavy hitter musical collaborations on this album did not help the album retain staying power and since then Wizkid’s star power is slowly waning with his 2014 Ojuelegba record keeping his GOAT credentials relevant. The album was a slightly over-polished African music album; it felt very manufactured with a track, Daddy Yo using reggaeton beats; this was obviously frown upon for the African music front runner. Chris Brown and Trey Songz star power did more to dampen the quality of the album than enhance it with their star power; there was little to no chemistry felt in the songs — think Omarion singing Swahili with Diamond Platinumz or Beyoncé on the Shatta Wale Already collaboration.

The core fan base that drove WizKid was not particularly moved by the shift in tone and purpose of the DJ Mustard engineered project. With other unbridled African artists releasing new music at a dizzying pace, the prevalence of social media and streaming’s almost zero cost distribution process, the record label’s hold on his artistry or lack of guidance is proving to be an expensive career ending decision on his part.

The mistakes from Wizkid must have been noted by the Atlantic and Warner team because the freight train of a rollout for Burna Boy’s “African Giant” was on par with an established hip hop act comparable to a DJ Khaled or J. Cole.

Burna was featured on every major interview platform, from the Breakfast Club to Jimmy Kimmel to Trevor Noah’s Daily Show. It was a well-executed scheme to get his name on every playlist not just relegated to the World/Other section that he performed at sold out shows across the country and ended his run with a Grammy nomination.

His album barely had any mainstream features — his Future and YG collaborations were surprising and were not taunted to help boost the album sales; his experience with Damien Marley and Angelique Kidjo were more dominant in his interviews which exhibited his authentic sentiment to the album’s origins and intended audience. It was a befitting of a star and was very appreciated by both his core fan base and the new ears in America; this may be the beginning of a successful entry of African music to the American audience that bore similar traits to the dancehall era of the 2000s ushered in by Sean Paul under a smaller Atlantic Records.

With another mega star, Davido signed to RCA/Sony Music and experiencing success with his 2019 album “A Good Time” going platinum a couple months after release perhaps marks a turning point: after his 2016 debut album “Son of Mercy” with the label failed to meet expectation due to the forceful hand of Sony executives, Davido insisted on making music his way and released the smash hits, “If”, “Fia” and “Fall”.

He then rode that success and with newly acquired knowledge about the streaming effect on music delivered a platinum album with all the songs created by Nigerian producers. If the creative nature of the artist and dedication to the authentic material of the music is left intact after the signing of the artist, it will be a recipe for success.

If the Wizkid and Davido experience is to carefully be studied, we hope these lessons will be employed with Vinka from Uganda who was signed to Sony Music in 2019. With Tiwa Savage from Nigeria signed in 2019 the recent Def Jam signing of major stars like Cassper Nyovest and Nasty C from South Africa, and purchasing of a majority share of AI Records in Nairobi, Kenya in 2018, it appears United Music Group is in the lead in this new scramble for Africa.

This time we have history as a guide and with wide spread access to the internet, we shall all collectively keep watching the African music scene and support the uplifting of local talent, genuine artistry and responsible business decisions by the talent and record labels to maintain the soul of African music.