The journey of the Afrobeats isn’t complete without the storytellers, news makers/journalists. One of such is Sesan Adeniji.
Sesan Adeniji is one of the most authoritative Nigerian music journalists, Music PR strategies, and A&R. He’s a connoisseur of Highlife, Afrobeat, and Afrobeats culture.
He is also the Publisher of Mystreetz Magazine – the most consistent Nigerian music industry journal.
Sesan’s influence in the Nigerian music industry spans over twenty years (20 years). For eleven years (11 years), he was the Managing editor for Bubbles Magazine. With a penchant for chasing facts and assembling historical editorials and artefacts, in 2011, he became the Executive Producer of Mystreetz TV, the first music documentary channel aired on terrestrial TV in Nigeria.
He’s an Associate Producer, Researcher, and co-director on ‘Journey Of The Beats’ – one of the most compelling Afrobeats docuseries
In the interview with Rayo Kasali for Simple TV / Magazine, he spoke about the evolution of Nigerian music pre the slave trade, and the era of returnee musicians. He also shed light on the birth of highlife up to the influence of the hip-hop generation.
Read more below;
In your view, which generation started the new era of Afrobeats?
If you ask me to talk about when Afrobeats became a phenomenon? For me, it has always been a process. First and foremost, Afrobeats is an umbrella name that covers different genres of sounds coming out of Africa; also, every player that contributed to the growth of that movement is part of Afrobeats.
The question you should ask and what a lot of people have not paused to think about is “what is the ‘Afro’ in the beats? Afro is a terminology to describe anything that is coming from a black man, be it music, fashion, lifestyle, or technology that is coming from the black man is Afro. At the point in time when the idea of Afrobeats began, if you are doing beats as an artiste, you are doing Afrobeats but not the one by the likes of Fela.
Afrobeats is not just a sound from a particular artiste. It is a sound from different folks, different times. For me, that is what is most important. Some people have issues with the word Afrobeats (with an S), but identification is key. For us to get to a stage where we have something we can identify with, I think it’s a plus.
Around 2003, I attended a meeting organized by some high life icons where they spoke about how hip-hop done by Nigerian artists is a threat to the traditional sound. I remember leaving that meeting with their conclusion that Hip-hop is a fad. They were wrong. Hip-hop was a global phenomenon, a global movement, and it was something that could not change.
At that time, some of us advocated tagging our music as Afro hip-hop. Because if you Google hip-hop, part of the sub genre is hip-life – that is the hip-hop they were doing in Ghana. You will also see hip-hop done in South Africa. As far back as 2003 and 2004, the word “Afro hip-hop” will have become known. But now, it is part of the Afrobeats movement.
If you are a hip-hop artist, you are doing “Afro hip-hop,” same for if you are house music that is “Afro-house,” if you are a trap artist, it is also “Afrotrap.” All these are under the umbrella of Afrobeats.
We know at different times in the world, there will be music that becomes popular. Now it is pop music, so pop musicians with an undertone of reggae and singing are trending. But that does not mean the rap guys will not become influential soon.
When do you think people will start to see Afrobeats as an insignia to us instead of us being categorized under world music?
For clarity, Afrobeats (with an S) is not a genre. It is an umbrella name. For those saying I’m not doing Afrobeats, I am doing Afro-fusion- they should rethink and join the conversation. Over the years, we have had several influences on our music. During the era of Bobby Benson, we had influences from Ballroom and Jazz, years before Afrobeat.
The growth of our music has come a long way, and it has been significant because of different influences. In the era when the slave returnees came back with Ballroom and jazz music, the music from the likes of Bobby Benson thrived. When we began to domesticate the sound, the influences we were consuming, we began to have our music. When we domesticate jazz and ballroom, the likes of Bobby Benson rose to stardom with tracks like Taxi Driver. It was a fusion of different sounds – ballroom and jazz. When we infused our language and traditional sounds, we created high life music. At that point, we had several high life kings. The likes of Rex Lawson, I.k Dairo, infused his accordion, the Juju guys came with their element into it to create another fusion, and the music became great.
Whatever we are doing today is a lot of fusion. But fusion is not a term – it’s a process, so you cannot say you are doing Afrofusion. What are you infusing with it? – The only way we can tag ourselves is Afrobeats. All those other fusions we have in our music come under the umbrella name Afrobeats. If somebody comes out to say they are doing Afrofusion, I think they are lucky that the world is even talking about us right now. They should know that identification is key – there is nothing wrong in saying you are doing Afrobeats.
You can shed light on it to explain what makes you sound different. But do not indirectly belittle the brand Afrobeats by not identifying with it. Now you see the likes of Flavour saying “Na we dey here” because it is now trendy to be wherever you are and speak your language. There was a point when Yoruba rappers became major-player; they identified with their music. Now we are identifying with the sound coming out of Nigeria and other parts of Africa. It will be an injustice not to identify with the brand Afrobeats. Sticking with the name Afrobeats, more people will hear us.
Now our sound is not just a sound – it has cut across fashion. Puma is doing deals with Davido, Tommy Hilfiger with ‘Tems, and Wizkid with Dolce and Gabbana. These are artists with different fusions. It is trendy right now to affiliate with Nigerian artists doing different versions of Afrobeats. For me, we should stick by the name Afrobeats. We have come a long way. The world now knows we have the numbers and people in different parts of the world organizing big shows – it is an injustice if any artiste cannot affiliate with the brand Afrobeats. We should be proud of what the brand Afrobeats is becoming.
Is Afrobeats a marker for Africa’s time?
It is a marker for our time. Like I said before when we domesticate the sound and influence we were consuming, Afrobeats became a phenomenon.
Several musicians that came back after slavery brought back several musical instruments like the guitar. In the 80s, when we domesticated pop music we were listening to, several Afropop artists emerged like Onyeka Onwenu and Alex Zito. When hip-hop came into Nigeria, we domesticated the sound to produce our superstars.
Where we are today, Afrobeats itself is a force to reckon with in the world. Afrobeats is a cultural movement right now; people want to affiliate with it. Afrobeats as a brand can not die. We have the numbers and the artists that can shut down concerts. There are Nigerians in terms of the promoters, dancers, and entrepreneurs doing great all over the continent. Afrobeats is here to stay for as long as the black race continues to exist.
Can we say Afrobeats is a cultural nuclear fusion spearheaded by music?
Like Hip-hop, Afrobeats is a culture. Beyond the music, we have fashion and more art. The Afrobeats entrepreneurs are changing lives.
Everybody involved with the brand is here to stay for a long time. Just like the way reggae and hip-hop cannot disappear, Afrobeats too will not. It will evolve to a greater height. Kudos to everybody that contributed to Afrobeats growth; they are several unsung heroes that need to get their flowers.
We should be happy that we have something unique. When Wizkid gong recently at the 2022 BET Awards was for a major category. We have moved beyond the Best International act. That is an extraordinary achievement.
Do you think our media needs to step up in shaping the idea behind the emergence of Afrobeats to stem the flow of possible cultural theft?
If you talk about cultural theft, we will witness some funny questionable moments, some folks will attempt to claim undue credit, but the truth will come out. Now we have two major Afrobeats documentaries out, shot by Nigerians here. If you ask me why people might give credit to Beyoncé for promoting Afrobeats, what she did with her Lion King Project is also a significant achievement. We should not take it away from her. She won’t have done it if it does not add up.
What we need to do from a journalistic point of view is to begin to tell our stories rightfully without any form of selective amnesia. As I mentioned earlier, the artists are not the only ones affiliated with the growth of Afrobeats. They are unsung heroes in the media landscape. The likes of OGBC, Raypower, Cool FM, and Star FM became a mecca to Afrobeats artists at a time.
When you also talk about the impact of journalists and entertainment writers, I was privileged to come into the industry entertainment music writers began to share opinions and build careers. We had entertainment writers back in the day, but they were famous for doing bits and pieces on music and society. When I came in the early 2000s, we focused on writing stories all about Nigerian artists. The goal was solely to have a music magazine. I started with Bubbles Magazine, and as a first, I remember putting Plantashun Boiz on the music magazine cover. There were no photographers to help us in this town; we had to buy a camera to shoot those artists to look good. There was also the exquisite Hip-Hop world magazine that was also doing great things, but we were writing a lot of stories about Nigerian artists. It was the tear sheet from those stories that Nigerian artists took to embassies to get visas. It was a cultural movement, a statement.
We reported about the artists and their great works. From there on, we began to follow artists as they dominated Africa. I was there when they started to win big at the Ghana Music Awards. I was there in 2006 when the hip-hop Afrobeats generation moved to Channel O Music Video Awards to lay our claims in South Africa. That night, 2face Idibia won awards for Ole, Lagbaja, and Weird MC, and Mode 9 won the most. Sauce kid was there with Tee Billz, Question Mark, and Storm Records. I also attended the 2007 MTV Europe Music. Afrobeats superstar D’banj won that night. These are some of the great stories we need to continue to tell. Afrobeats culture is here to stay.
On the industry going international before this era?
There was the high-life era with Bobby Benson, I.K. Dairo, and Victor Olaiya – that was in the 70s, and do not forget that the 70s was also when the Fela Afrobeat began to dominate. Sunny Ade was signed to Island Records and performed at Reggae Sun splash. Ebenezer Obey performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In the later years, we had Majek Fashek sign with Interscope.
How do you think we can get to the level where we can sign big deals with foreign labels without sacrificing creative freedom?
I beg to differ, your question is that there is a fear that if these foreign record labels sign Nigerian artistes that they tend to meddle in the creativity but don’t forget it wasn’t the foreign record label that was here in Nigeria, it was part of the movement of where we are coming from, Davido had that issue, it started from the likes of King Sunny Ade.
At the death of Bob Marley when Island Records needed an artiste that is outside the major European countries to become a major artiste they spotted King Sunny Ade but at the point in time the idea of the way they wanted to sell him was different because they saw him as jazz. It is fair enough to want to do the music in a certain way, that was the issue that King Sunny Ade had but it was a plus because there was a movement, we should not forget that it’s a growth. When Majek Fashek was signed to Interscope he had that issue as well, but this international label was resident outside the country not here, they didn’t get to see them, they see them as music, instrumentalist, somebody sees King Sunny Ade and he sees Jazz music, that this guy is a fantastic keyboardist in terms of the composition, it is fair enough to be able to put that into it, they don’t understand but it was a movement for us, without that we wont be here today.
Without King Sunny Ade signing for Island Records, without Majek Fashek signing for Interscope Records without knowledge learnt from that, we will not be here today. When Davido first had his deal with Sony, he had that issue as well but he was able to solve it, he got his producers, his writers who understood the terms and audience.
We have actually come a long way, anybody should not have that fear today because we have gone beyond that, we are now dictating what is happening, every Nigerian artiste is dictating what is happening – that’s how big Afrobeats has become because in terms of business they know we have the numbers, we have the artistes, and our artistes independently can write, produce their music, and even open shows.
Everybody wants to affiliate with us, for Madonna to feature Fireboy Dml on her biggest greatest classic, that’s not fluke because Madonna is not an artiste, she is a religion, for me that’s one of the biggest collaboration that happened but you know our young generation don’t know what it is, that is the most significant collaboration that happened for us. We can begin to talk about the Ed Sheeran but someday we will look back and understand, Madonna is whom a lot of these female artistes aspire to be, for her to jump and put her signature on it, then it’s big. I will keep repeating it that it’s a disjustice right now for any artiste that cannot affiliate with Afrobeats, those Afrofusion talk is people trying to divide us, trying to think they are special, yes they are special but they don’t need to divide us, lets stay with it.
You can say you are doing Afrobeats but your own kind of Afrobeats contains this fusion, but for you not want to affiliate with that brand – its just bad.
What do you think can be done to create an identity for every sound without creating rancour?
There should not be rancour, identification is key, now we have something that we can identify with called Afrobeats, this is an umbrella name that everybody can contribute to, tagged under or affiliate with. I think the problem that people see is that Nigerians are enjoying it because we are very dominating.
Don’t forget, now we have some of the biggest videos, we used to go to Ghana to shoot videos, I remember sitting down with Faze during his first album and we talked about videos from Ghana, but what we do as Nigerians is that we go somewhere, we understand it, we spread it, we become better, like the first law of photography is – learn it and become better. Everyone will become better, you can’t stop Nigerians because we are very dominating and every tribe has their own but that’s the way Nigeria is. I think the biggest issue some people are having is the affiliation of Afrobeats to Nigeria. In high life music too, there was a lot of movement within Ghana and here, but if you check it, even back in the days, with the likes of Jimi Odumosu, we pushed more.
So I don’t think anyone should have an issue with it, and like I said because it’s an umbrella name and people don’t know it, see we are in the beginning of this movement, by the time people understand that Afrobeats is an umbrella name… and I hope every documentary begins to state that fact, don’t miss it, make sure that if you interview someone and you get it wrong you don’t put that tick inside of it because there is a lot of false narratives out there that may do damage to us because its either you don’t tell the story well or you don’t talk about some of the guys that contributed to it – we should make sure that whenever we are talking about Afrobeats let’s nail it down, it is not a genre, it is an umbrella name for different artistes doing music out of Nigeria and Africa and it’s a culture.
The idea of putting the culture out is that its not just about music, it’s the fashion, the producers, writers, documentary person, and we need to importantly point these out. We should be proud that we have Afrobeats. Have you seen American music awards, everybody is proud, if you say country music people are proud about it but they have different people do country music with different things. If you go to the Caribbean’s when you talk reggae music there are different sounds, undercurrents. This is what we fought for, we should be glad in this generation to see that Afrobeats has become something that the world wants to affiliate with not just because we are begging, we have the numbers, resources, and we have the talent, if its not something that is business worthy the world doesn’t want to associate with it, if it’s not sound enough the world will not put it in front of them.
You think P. Diddy will jump on Burna Boy’s stuff if its not good enough, though he knew that if he does that he opens another chapter in his legacy and it will be in record that at a point in time, Burna Boy, the first artiste in this hip-hop generation of our that won an award worked with Diddy. It will also be on record that the first artiste that put a lot of Afrobeats artiste on an album is Beyoncé, it is a statement. So if we have Nigerian artistes that don’t want to associate with this and claim Afrofusion then am sorry for them, I know how far we’ve come to sit down on the table and in front of award ceremonies and to receive awards in front of the general audience on the day of the award show they will know that it’s bad for them not to affiliate with Afrobeats.
What inspired the documentary “The Journey of The Beats”?
“The Journey of The Beats,” or the other one that you see by Ayo Shonaiya which is “Afrobeats Backstory,” the most important thing for me as a journalist back in the day is documentation, we don’t keep records.
When I came in to this industry I was particular about that, I called my Magazine diary of the music industry. I can say that I started the first music documentary channel in this country called MyStreetz TV, when it wasn’t even trendy for someone to say let’s do a music documentary channel, I did that, I was keeping records, and everything from the time I came into this industry, maybe 2001/2002, everything that I’ve done I still have the records today, and that’s what is driving me.
If you check “Afrobeats Backstory” is part of the records that they keep, but if you check “Journey of the Beats”, it’s bringing different folks that understand the music industry to tell the story of this industry without leaving anything out.
Documentation is key not just for the future generation to see but also in reporting, you can’t call yourself a journalist when you don’t understand stuff, one of the rules of journalism is getting your facts right before choosing to distort it, because when you get it right you wont need to distort it. It was not trendy when we started writing music magazine, people were calling me to give me different ideas on other things to write about but I wanted to do music, promote these young artistes, put them out, shoot pictures, let them look good, and look at where we are today – documentation is key to understanding where we are coming from and where we are going.
We have actually come a long way, this generation, we should be proud of Afrobeats today, when D’banj and Don Jazzy went for MTV Awards, they did not give D’banj award in the major show, if we remember all those stuff we should be proud of what we have now.
Now blacks in America are proud, at a point now you cannot stop, if you check part of the Afrobeats backstory, it wasn’t trendy for them to come to Nigeria because there was a lot of Ghanaian influence in London and Jamaican influence, we should be proud, now when you hear Afrobeats automatically you think Nigerian, but its not just Nigerian now, it’s Africa, people should not feel bad, I think the problem most African countries have is the first thought that comes to head when you think of Afrobeats is Nigeria, don’t hate the player, hate the game, it doesn’t matter, we own it, its our sound, if anybody jumps on it now, some rappers in South Africa are even doing more of music rap than Nigerians, there is a way we can learn from each other. I think Nigerian cinematographers learnt from South Africa and Ghana, we’ve taken a lot of stuff from them, they can also take from us, and if they cant take from us then am sorry.
How significant is Afrobeats documentaries and our story telling?
I think it’s major for the world to know where we are coming from and where we are going, because it’s still part of identification and selling our story to the world, I keep saying am privileged to come into the industry when we domesticated hip-hop, when it became major and we were selling to the world, I’m also happy to be there as a journalist at the time when we started winning outside Africa, because Afrobeats started winning in Nigeria, winning in terms of spread in Nigeria, then Ghana, and South Africa and when we dominate the world, I’m privileged to be a part of everywhere we went then and see how our artistes are winning.
Right now I’m also privileged to be one of the journalists, that did the research and co-produced, co-direct one of the major Afrobeats story today, it’s a privilege for me because there is a lot of guys that also know stuff like I do out there.
Standing from that point of view, I think it’s important for us to tell our story to the world because if we don’t tell it, they will tell it for us, now people are not going to tell us their American/European version of what Afrobeats is, no we are telling our story.
Let our artistes promote Afrobeats, talk about their producers, dancers, directors, let’s begin to spread. I like what they are doing now; some of our producers are also producing for international record companies. Let’s tell this story, let’s document, and with what we are doing here, this documentation is key for people to see our story.
Journey of the beat is showing only on Showmax?
Journey of the Beat is a Showmax production, executively produced by Obi Asika, who is one of the legends of this Afrobeats movement.
Without Obi Asika we don’t have the story of Junior & Pretty, there is so many things he has contributed, some of the shows we used to see on Channel O then was being produced by him.
For me, “Journey of the Beat” is the most compelling Afrobeats story, it is a complete Afrobeats story and it is showing exclusively on Showmax.
As Sesan Adeniji are you related to Adeniji Adele King?
No. I’m Sesan Adeniji, from Osun state, I’m not from Lagos, and I think the one you are referring to be from Lagos.
My journey into journalism, few people know that I did music, then I started writing for someone that was working in Daily Times, Bisi Ewetan, she opened my eyes to journalism because I was writing poems for them to put in the paper, and shout out to Tajudeen Adepetu, he asked me to come work for an African movie magazine, and that’s where my story started from, I was the production manager for that magazine before I met Goke and he told me about Bubbles Magazine and I started working for Bubbles and I just didn’t work there as a writer, I was writing for Bubbles and also looking for money to keep the magazine afloat.
I thank God for where I am today and I look back to see there is so many things I have done even till today that has not been done before and why didn’t they do it because people think if something is not a trend they should not do it but I can say I did it first.
There is a lot of people contributing to the industry, don’t just write about the artiste, let’s talk about the writers, cinematographers, dancers and all that have influence in the music industry.
I believe if we all go together, we will grow together, an industry where the artiste alone is growing is a dying industry, let’s take ourselves along, everybody must grow together and that’s just the truth.
Where do we go from here, the future of Afrobeats?
Like I said, everywhere we go we need to carry everyone along, as we are telling our story, let’s tell the story of everyone involved in the story, it’s a privilege for me to be talking about Afrobeats, because I’m part of an Afrobeats journey and part of Afrobeats first documentary.
Our music is doing well, we are beginning to get better deals, there is a lot of money to be made outside the music in terms of fashion, styling, and different stuffs we can pull money from. We have gone beyond the kind of things that happened to some of the earlier artistes that signed deals, now we are controlling the narrative at record deals and record companies. I think there is a lot where we are going but where we are right now, it is important for us to tell our story right, carry everybody along.
To me, I’m more like another situation where people tell you things that are not proper, we should be able to put the story out, carry everyone along everywhere we can go to, the future is bright. The world should hear us; they don’t have any choice than to hear us because we have the numbers.
Everywhere we go to let’s tell a lot of stories, we should not forget, when we want to document let’s get people that know, we can’t say we forget things when we have opportunities.
For this generation, we are not the lazy generation, if you check the news anything that is good that is coming out today on social is from the music, everything that is coming good is coming from Fintech, so right now the only good narrative about Nigerians is from the music, and it’s from Afrobeats. It’s a privilege; I’m so honored to be alive to see this.
You can also watch full interview on Youtube;
Interview: Rayo Kasali @therayokasali
Photography: Rayo Kasali @therayokasali
Camera: Ibrahim Olowolagba @scopevisualsng
Assist: Adetola Adebayo & Alex Edun
Creative Director: Rayo Kasali @therayokasali
Executive Producer Edun Adedamola @adedamolaedun