Why Couleur Café focuses on afropop: ‘A new consciousness has arisen’

If you go to Couleur Café this year, you can enjoy a good portion of Afro-pop. The African music scene has been booming in recent years, and we are now reaping the benefits. “It is no longer ‘world music’, everyone can relate to it.”

The afro-pop stars of Couleur Café

There is a lot of young African violence on the Couleur Café poster, but with Youssou N’Dour the festival also has the godfather of the Afro-pop in the house. Very symbolically, he can kick off on Friday on the Red Stage. At the end of the same day, Fally Ipupa the curtain. Ipupa is the Romelo Lukaku of the Congolese pop scene, his arrival buzzes throughout the African community, but you don’t have to be black to dance to his modern version of the rumba.

On Saturday you should definitely go to the Red Stage for the young Nigerian violence called Yemi Alade and Rema† Then stick around for the kuduro of Angolan Pongo and, oh Carolina, let the festive dancehall of Shaggy pass you by and dash to the Green Stage for the afrofusion and West African highlife of the young Nigerian Omah Lay

After your Sunday pistolets and breakfast cereals, the companies are opened by the rap, ragga and soul-lined afrobeats of Zambian Sampa the Great† A few thirst quenchers later it’s the Molenbeekse raï singer’s turn TiiwTiiw to prove on the Green Stage why he is the most viewed Belgian on YouTube. On that same stage, the Nigerian hit sensation mr. Eazi then show why he already earned a place at the American Coachella festival. BCUC, which closes that same evening, is also an outsider: the South Africans mix traditional African music with funk, punk rock and hip hop into a rousing, all-scorching hybrid. Exactly what you expect from Couleur Café.

The worldwide popularity of hip-hop has made it a coveted commodity for festival organizers. Also for Couleur Café, which has been focusing on the genre for a few years now. “Hip-hop has become the new pop music, but that means that the prices for artists are also going up,” says Irene Rossi, programmer at Couleur Café, which this year gained a competitor in ‘his’ Ossegem Park with the CORE festival. “We do not want to and cannot go along with that bidding. That is why we have shifted our focus. In recent years, a new crop of interesting afro-pop artists has commanded attention. We’ve always programmed artists from Africa, especially crossover artists from the cities, not necessarily traditional African music, and now we’re paying extra attention to it.”

That is not unwise, because afropop, or afrobeats, has been on the rise for a while. Not to be confused with afrobeat, without s, the rousing mix between traditional rhythms, jazz and funk that came from Nigerian activist and musician Fela Kuti. His legacy has not been forgotten, but in the meantime a whole new generation of young musicians has emerged who are no longer concerned with his political struggle. Musicians who do not deny their tradition, but who do look resolutely ahead. Who have definitely shaken off the label ‘world music’.

The flag bearers of that generation include Wizkid, Burna Boy, Rema, Yemi Alade, Omah Lay and Mr Eazi. The last four are on the Couleur Café poster and all come from Nigeria, currently the focal point of the African scene. But creativity is also brewing in Angola, Ghana, Congo, etc. A striking number of innovative (dance) genres come from South Africa, which has always been a haven for good music, including hybrids such as gqom and amapiano that set dance floors ablaze worldwide.

Black Lives Matter
The Western pop scene has been chasing the rise of Afro-pop for some time now. Canadian superstar Drake had a worldwide hit in 2016 with ‘One dance’, a song for which he collaborated with Wizkid. And for his new album released last week honestly nevermind he had the South African DJ and producer Black Coffee produce a few tracks and the Congolese singer Tresor was allowed to sing along in the background. For her soundtrack The lion king: the gift Beyoncé then went to knock on the door of Burna Boy, Yemi Alade and South African Moonchild Sanelly, among others. Here in Belgium, Stromae and Damso strengthened the ties with their African roots.

More importantly, there is also pushing in the other direction. Nigerian R&B singer Fireboy DML had one of his songs remixed by Ed Sheeran, yielding a profit for both him and the British superstar. Wizkid did the same with Justin Bieber, becoming the first Nigerian singer to hit number one in the US last summer. At the beginning of this year, Bieber also collaborated with Nigerian singer-songwriter Omah Lay. Burna Boy sought refuge in the UK and worked there with the neo-soul singer Jorja Smith. P-Square, pioneer of the new Nigerian afro-pop scene, already invited American rappers such as Akon and Rick Ross to collaborate a few years ago.

Congo-born Fally Ipupa is one of the absolute superstars of Afro-pop

“The most important thing was that those artists from the UK and the US adapted to the African artists, and not the other way around,” says Gailor Kiaku, radio host at BRUZZ and co-founder of the Brussels label Jeunes Boss. “That was cool: artists known here were open to immersing themselves in a different style.”

Young people from the African diaspora have always listened to Afropop, says Kiaku, who herself has Angolan roots. “But the fact that afropop is now breaking through worldwide is a new phenomenon.” This has to do with, among other things, the way in which these young people begin to perceive music: the connection with their roots became more important. Black Lives Matter was a wake-up call, a catalyst. A new awareness grew, not just among the black population. “You saw that people became more interested in African culture, and certainly also in African pop music.” They discovered that revolutionary sounds are coming from South Africa, that Ghana is going hard in the drill. “Things that had been simmering for a long time, but were propelled to the surface by the events of the past few years.”

The link with the music styles from Latin America that have conquered the world in recent years is quickly made. “Just like over there, African musicians have their music very modern and appealing made,” nods Kiaku. They grew up with the internet and social media, they know where to check out new music trends, which it does well on platforms like TikTok. “You can tell from someone like Rema that he has listened carefully to American R&B and watched clips from big stars.”

The popularity of afrobeats is limitless for the time being. “Afrobeats will be on a par with hip-hop because what makes hip-hop great is not that it’s recognized as a genre, it’s also seen as a culture,” Fireboy DML told US magazine. Rolling Stone

Do these artists threaten to lose nothing of that culture by making love to Western sounds so openly? “Yes and no,” says Kiaku. “There are musicians who have completely disconnected from the afrobeats, such as Apollo G from Angola, who really raps like in the States. You can only tell where it comes from from the lyrics. But roughly speaking, you can always recognize that part of Africa, in the beats, in the instruments. Look at a dance genre like amapiano, which is a perfect middle ground between tradition and electronics. Compare it with the Belgian and French scene: the French always envy us for that little bit of Belgian individuality that distinguishes us from all the rest. We will never lose that.”

That is perhaps what makes afropop so attractive and accessible: that golden mix between what is familiar and his feel for newfangled pop movements. “In the past, African pop music was only something that the African diaspora could identify with, but suddenly there was a generation that subtly combined both the sounds from here and the tradition from their homeland. That increased the attraction. Everyone could relate to it.”

1805 Couleur Cafe Rema official2

Rema is one of the promising voices of the thriving Nigerian afrobeat scene

This important finding has not gone unnoticed by the record bosses. Africa and Asia are the fastest growers in the music market. “African population is on average between 18 and 24 years old,” Kiaku nods. “That’s a big potential streaming market, a generation that also in tune is with the rest of the world. Major labels have therefore started investing in the African music scene. The artists are getting more resources, new studios have been built. Copyrights have been regularized.”

In short, it has become more interesting to be an artist in Africa. “Flavormakers do the rest,” says Kiaku. “They are looking for new styles and artists, they want to be involved from the start and they post their discoveries online. People pick up on that, and that’s how a new ‘game’ is created, as we say. It’s a snowball effect.”

The internet, of course, plays a major role. Look at the Ghanaian singer Amaarae who scored a huge hit on TikTok with Kali Uchis’ remix of her song ‘Sad girlz luv money’. “She has me amapiano get to know them,” says Kiaku. “Meanwhile, you see that style being picked up in the UK and in France. It also catches on here. The Brussels DJ collective Brikabrak is working hard on it. Even in a club like Mirano you now have a amapianoconcept, featuring DJs from the African diaspora.” That diversification in the predominantly white DJ scene was unthinkable three or four years ago, says Kiaku, who also occasionally crawls behind the turntables. “I recently did a DJ set in Plein Publiek, I could only dream of that before.”

A billion views
Now it comes down to attracting a diverse audience to Couleur Café. “We’ve put a lot of effort into that this year,” says Irene Rossi. “For the first time, we have had separate posters and leaflets printed that focus on the artists from the Afro-pop scene. We started sticking these and handing them out in Matongé, Molenbeek, Anderlecht, but also in communities in Antwerp. To that end, we have recruited people who know those communities well. We also work on it through social media. It is not an obvious audience that goes to festivals.”

That audience does not only come from their own country. For Congolese superstar Fally Ipupa, the community descends from Paris and Amsterdam. Rossi has also made a special poster for the Brussels-Moroccan raï singer Iliass Barnia alias TiiwTiiw. “On YouTube, he is the most streamed Belgian artist, with more than a billion views. He collaborates with international artists from hip-hop and de stairs† But few people know him outside the Maghreb community. We want to bring that community to Couleur Café, but we also want to introduce TiiwTiiw to a wider audience.”

Between raï from Morocco and amapiano from South Africa there is a huge difference, but that diversity makes the African scene just as rich and interesting. “Young people today have broad taste anyway,” Rossi says. “They can love Led Zeppelin, but also Burna Boy. Above all, we want to diversify and reflect what is happening in Brussels. Besides afropop, we also focus on hip-hop, reggae and dub. That all works very well. As long as it’s a party live. After all, that is the DNA of Couleur Café.”

Couleur Café 2022

On 24, 25 and 26 June Couleur Café will once again take up residence in the Ossegem Park at the Atomium. BRUZZ is also back with interviews, news, atmospheric reports, photos and much more.