Music as Soft Power

Nigeria and the Afrobeat Revival

From travelling bards to the Buena Vista Social Club and Gangnam Style, music has long been used to convey a multitude of ideas.

Whether used in ancient Egyptian social rituals, or blasted out at the Brit awards to make politicians blush, music has been consistently politicized throughout history. From facilitating international relations, providing a medium for social protest, to simply making a statement, music has become an archetypal conduit for political expression.

UK-based consultancy firm Portland’s Soft Power Report claims that “a nation’s brand is much more credible when exported by athletes, musicians, artists, and businesses, than by politicians.” Indeed, many people believe politicians to be well trained in the art of self-marketing, while Oscar wins and Olympic medals speak for themselves.

Thus, music can be a string to any country’s guitar when it comes to building a global reputation and flexing a bit of soft power.

These days, there is a chorus of voices singing the praises of the African music industry. The latest IFPI Global Music Report includes a triple page focus on the continent’s musical crescendo.

In 2016, Nigerian artist Wizkid shot to fame following his appearance on the world’s biggest selling track of that year, Drake’s One Dance.

Last year the UK launched its first official exclusively Afrobeat radio station, with the US following suit not long after.

This is not the first time that African music has made noise in the news. Take the case of Yousso N’Dour, Senegalese musician, businessman, and politician, who was described by Rolling Stone in 2014 as “perhaps the most famous singer alive” in Senegal, and even Africa.

In 2012, the Senegalese administration capitalized on his worldwide acclaim, and appointed him to the position of Minister of Tourism. His role as Minister was short-lived, as a year later a new government came to power, however he has since been employed in the cabinet of the Prime Minister, and as special adviser to the President, charged with promoting the West African country abroad.

PwC’s 2017 report on the African Entertainment and Music (E&M) sector predicts huge growth in five top markets: Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania. In Nigeria, the biggest of these, the industry was worth USD47 million in 2015, and is expected to explode to USD86 million by 2020.

Demographics are certainly playing their part: Africa is home to around 200 million people aged between 15 and 24. And so is technology: some are predicting more than 10 million smartphone users in Africa by 2021, while 2017 revenue from music streaming in South Africa increased by 334.2%.

So, which parts of the whole need fine-tuning to ensure the continent can harness its E&M potential?

Local talent

While the continent is not shy when it comes to producing and nurturing musical talent itself—not just Wizkid, but his compatriots Davido, Ghanaian Sarkodie, South African Black Coffee, and Zimbabwe’s Tinashe all feature on Forbes’ list of top African artists in 2017—homegrown producers, record labels, and music distribution platforms are less numerous.

Although Yousso N’Dour and his fellow artists have been at large for several decades, it wasn’t until 2016 that Senegal launched its first music download service, MusikBi.

Labels like 03 Media, and African Cream Music are emerging to plug the gap, but with Spotify due to enter the South African market in the next few weeks, with an eye to expand across the continent, local companies are sure to feel the pressure to compete. What is more, seeing as the latter would have arguably more vested interest in protecting the rights of in-house talent, the industry might be right to be concerned about being eclipsed by international players before it has had the chance to take off properly.

However technology could also prove to be a silver bullet for musicians seeking exposure, as well as the local labels that represent them. Through social media many new acts are able to create fan bases organically, winning the attention of global audiences and international investors.

Diversifying tourism

The United Nation’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that between 1990 and 2014 revenue from tourism in Africa grew from USD17.4 billion to USD43.6 billion, or 8% of the continent’s GDP.

However, distribution remains massively skewed in favor of those countries that can boast virgin beaches or stunning safari parks, and for the others, diversification and tourism marketing have long been on the agenda.

In this instance, the potential impact of music tourism is not to be sniffed at. At the top end, the figures are astounding. Glastonbury annually contributes over GBP100 million to the UK economy. In the US in 2016 Coachella and Stagecoach together generated over USD700 million.

But African festivals are becoming increasingly popular. Felabration, an annual celebration in honor of Nigerian Afrobeat activist Fela Kuti, and the All African Music Awards (AFRIMA), both held in Lagos, or the Lake of Stars festival, held on the banks of Lake Malawi, already attract hundreds of visitors from neighboring countries and from abroad.

Nigeria is already pressing ahead with its ambitions to use music as a vital tool in attracting domestic, regional, and international tourists. Currently, in Lagos 60% of all demand for tourism centers on E&M.

But it is South Africa that is blazing the trail here. Estimates indicate that the country’s creative economy generates 2.9% of GDP, and creates 562,000 jobs, the same amount as the mining sector.

A few leaves could be taken from its book: such as the commitment of policymakers to monetizing E&M potential with initiatives such as the Mzansi Golden Economy Strategy and comprehensive data collection that encourages further investment in the sector.

Regulation and infrastructure

By far the biggest thorn in the side of the African music industry is its lack of supporting regulatory infrastructure. In an interview for TBY, Sam Onyemelukwe, the Managing Director for Trace TV and Venator Partners, a Nigerian media and entertainment business, stated, “approximately 80-90% of the value of artists and songs is being played into the air and disappears.”

Again, it seems that government backing is needed on this front. In the same interview, Onyemelukwe highlighted that in Nigeria, “there is a royalty collecting society; however, it is unable to enforce its mandate because it has a limited repertoire, and in addition is not supported by the government.”

In Mali, a country blighted by growing instances of music piracy, there is even more onus on the government to develop laws to deal with the problem. Insider experts claim that an illegal CD sells for up to five times less than an officially authorized one. In 2014 the Malian Ministry of Culture and Tourism brought in a new decree governing music rights, but was not able to shrink the black market.

However, the digitalization of music, and, in particular, the rise of streaming, is forcing all nations worldwide to readdress the relationship between regulation and the music industry.

For once, African countries are not necessarily starting off on the back foot. Now could be the time for administrations to implement radical legislature adapted to new trends.

If these creases can be ironed out, the African music industry looks set to reach its massive potential in terms of numbers. However, more than that, it is the subliminal force of musical diplomacy and national reputation that African nations are aiming to harness, as Mike Dada, founder of AFRIMA puts it, “music is a social orientation tool that we can use to promote the country and the continent, and sell us to the rest of the world.”

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