If anybody has a story to rap about, it’s hip-hop artist K’Naan. Born in Mogadishu, the Somali rapper (real name: Kanaan Warsame) fired his first AK-47 at the age of 8; at 11 he blew up half his school when he accidentally detonated a hand grenade. By the time he and his mother fled Somalia in 1991, he had already seen three of his friends shot dead. The family settled in Toronto, where the young refugee learned English partially through rap songs. He released his first album in 2002, and his follow-up, Troubadour, to wide acclaim last year; its single “Wavin’ Flag” has been chosen as the official anthem of this year’s World Cup, to be held in June in South Africa, and will be featured in Coca-Cola ads that will play in 150 countries. Addressing the issues of poverty and political freedom, the song blends African and Western pop with rock and rap, in the style known as Afropop. “With my experiences and where I come from, the sounds and melodies that speak to me, I could not possibly put all that into the narrow idea of music popular in the West,” says K’Naan. “I felt I needed to bring all my experiences together, put them in a pot and serve them like that.”
As Africa’s stature rises in the world, so does its unique brand of music. Growing economic power and increased access to technology are strengthening the continent’s global ties and making it a bigger player on the cultural stage. Afropop is spreading far beyond its borders, with artists such as Akon, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Corneille, and Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo becoming successful in the West. Fela!, a new musical about the life of Nigerian Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti coproduced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith, has been such a hit on Broadway that it is now being made into a film. “What Afropop artists are doing is like when punk came in,” says K’Naan. “This is the alternative and this is the future. Afropop sounds have their origins in ancient history but are as cool as the streets of New York, so when you successfully mix them you have something very special.”
Though the roots of Afropop can be traced to the 1920s, it really caught on during the 1950s and ’60s, when African countries began to gain independence. “There was this big influx of ideas from around the world—everything from soul and rock and roll to Cuban sounds—and those hybrids began to be [fused] into local sounds and ideas,” says Banning Eyre, a producer of PRI’s Afropop Worldwide. Genres like benga and jùjú took hold, and artists like Orchestra Baobab and Kuti found success beyond the continent. But Afropop’s big breakthrough in the West came in 1986 when Paul Simon collaborated with South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Grammy-winning album Graceland. It’s not just artists from Africa who are performing Afropop today; bands like Vampire Weekend, whose new album Contra came out earlier this month, Fool’s Gold, and Franz Ferdinand have used Afropop influences in their music. Coldplay’s song “Strawberry Swing” features Afropop guitar riffs. “Things like iTunes and YouTube have taken Afropop out of the ghetto of world music and helped [propel] it to a wider pop and rock audience,” says Kidjo, whose new album comes out this month. Collaborations between African and Western pop acts are on the rise, and Western musicians like Damon Albarn, Toubab Krewe, and Extra Golden are citing more African influences. “It’s been a very natural process playing Western African music,” says Toubab Krewe’s Drew Heller. “That back-and-forth influence between America and Africa—the contemporary and traditional—can easily live side by side.” And make themselves heard.