Introducing a new wave of African-Canadian pop music
Emerging artists seek to push past traditional genre boundaries, aiming for pop charts and dance clubs
Talk to most Canadians about African music and – if they have anything to say at all – they'll more often than not reference something at least 30 years old: the sound of Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland, the fiery seventies funk of Fela Kuti, sixties pop hits by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, or the percussionist Olatunji, who sold millions of records in the 1950s and launched an amorphous industry dedicated to "world music."
Only recently, on Drake's 2016 smash single One Dance, featuring Nigerian rapper Wizkid, did North American ears perk to the idea that African music might sound remarkably similar to modern pop and R&B – and is, in many ways, pushing it forward.
Back in 2011, the British DJ Abrantee called this new sound Afrobeats (plural) – not to be confused with Afrobeat (singular), the genre defined by Fela Kuti and practised today by Brooklyn's Antibalas or Ottawa's Souljazz Orchestra. Afrobeats (plural) simply refers to modern African pop music from anywhere on the continent, music of the digital age that wouldn't fly at most folk festivals or with self-appointed purists snapping up seventies reissues in Western record shops. In the past five years, it's become the new sound of the London underground and bubbling up to the pop charts there.
A new wave of African-Canadian musicians doesn't necessarily fit under the purposely ambiguous Afrobeats label, but neither do these artists want to play only "world music" festivals: They want to play around the world, aiming for pop charts and dance clubs. That seemed briefly possible in 2009, when K'naan had an international hit with Wavin' Flag, which proved to be a fluke rather than the beginning of a trend here. That might change with a series of strong new releases.
Leading the pack is Kae Sun, who already has a leg up: His 2013 song Ship and the Globe racked up more than four million YouTube views after it was featured on the soundtrack to a popular Korean TV drama. (How much money did that net him? "Not a whole lot!" he says with a laugh.) Although his music nods to reggae and the occasional influence from his Ghanaian heritage, Kae Sun's music is pure pop: There's no reason this melodic singer with an angelic voice shouldn't be on the radio next to Tegan and Sara or Ariane Moffatt – the latter being one of Quebec's biggest stars, who appears on his new album, Whoever Comes Knocking (out March 2). Kae Sun used to write primarily on guitar, but this time out, he was working primarily with software and synthesizers. Despite his music's obvious mainstream potential, the first-generation Canadian feels musically pigeonholed as an African-Canadian.
"It's a frustrating thing," he says, a day after returning from a trip to Namibia where he screened his short-film installation Oceans Apart. "Not because I'm of African descent – I'm very proud of that. But for African artists, people often don't even call the music R&B or hip hop; they want it to fit into a 'world music' category.
"None of the records I've ever done come from that framework; if they did, I'd embrace that, but that's not my experience. I find it very challenging, particularly in the Canadian context, because some of these [pop] artists I listen to and enjoy greatly, and I want there to be more of an exchange; we operate in the same language, the same textures, the same approaches. So why are we separated? It's tricky to navigate."
Kae Sun moved from Ghana to Hamilton when he was 18; he now lives in Montreal, where he hangs out with the artists who run the Moonshine label, which is releasing Whoever Comes Knocking. Moonshine is also the name of a monthly Montreal club night – held on the full moon – started by friends who wanted to dance to pan-African sounds. One of those is Pierre Kwenders, who left a career in accounting behind to make an innovative electronic take on Congolese rumba; his most recent album, Makanda (released in September), was produced by Tendai Maraire of psychedelic hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces. "I wanted to build this bridge between Congolese rumba and the music I learned here," he says. "I want people who listen to my music to also be curious to search and go listen to the stuff from where I'm from."
Kwenders came to Montreal from Kinshasa; he sings in English, French, Lingala and Tshiluba. His new album features a Zimbabwean-American singing in Shona. Kwenders is less likely than Kae Sun to make a pop crossover, because his music is just as eclectic as his linguistic choices. "It's not really Congolese music," he says. "It's not really North American music. It's not really Afrobeats. Whenever there's something that sounds a bit Afro, people say it's Afrobeats – it's not. There is house music in Africa, there is dance music, disco. It doesn't make sense. That's the world we live in. We like to put things in categories to make it easier for some people."
That's not unique to Afrobeats, of course – the term "rock music" could mean anything from Chuck Berry to Bon Jovi. At one point, it could even refer to Cold Specks, the project for Somali-Canadian artist Ladan Hussein, whose 2012 debut was centred around haunting electric-guitar lines and her soulful voice; on her 2017 album, Fool's Paradise, however, she, as with Kae Sun, goes a more electronic route, eschewing guitars entirely – and she also sings in Somali for the first time.
Electronics are the great equalizer in global music: Traditional arrangements and rhythms from any culture don't sound as alien to ears anywhere else in the world, ironically enough, when they're set to completely synthetic soundtracks. Some electronic artists tap into the Afrofuturist movement, a larger utopian philosophy in science fiction that also encompasses the music of Sun Ra, George Clinton, Detroit techno and Flying Lotus.
In Canada, few tap into Afrofuturism more explicitly than AfrotroniX, a.k.a. Caleb Rimtobaye, a Chadian Montrealer who has played with his two brothers in H'Sao, a harmony-rich band who have toured every continent since their inception in 2001. In his more recent solo work as AfrotroniX, Rimtobaye dons a Daft Punk-ish helmet that looks like sculpted Venetian blinds, and sets his stirring Tuareg-inspired electric-guitar lines to thoroughly modern beats and AutoTune vocals. "We can and we must redefine the future of Africa and push the African music scene," he told the website OkayAfrica. "[We must] aspire to a more futuristic view – which is to me the idea of emancipation."
Also on the futurist tip is Zaki Ibrahim: born in Nanaimo, B.C., now of Toronto, with a lot of time in Cape Town – her father's hometown – in between. Ibrahim's new album is called The Secret Life of Planets, released on Jan. 31: the date of the "super blue blood moon." She's been hanging out with astrophysicists at the University of Toronto and discussing the Pythagorean concept of "music of the spheres," connecting astronomy and the physics of music – the latter came into play as she and producer Alister Johnson worked with an array of analog synths. She's into what she refers to as "vibrational energy work," infusing her work with a decidedly spiritual bent. The album title nods to the 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder, an artist whose influence is obvious on Ibrahim's work, along with other polymaths such as Prince, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. Yet there's nothing remotely retro about her sound, which draws from hip hop, house music and the most progressive strands of modern R&B. Although it has elements of pop and dance music, The Secret Life of Planets is as hefty as its title, with plenty of layers for deep listening.
Does she hear South Africa in her new record? "Every time I went there as a child," she says, "it was like entering a new space – it felt like different musical eras, from house music in the nineties to stuff my aunts and uncles listened to: contemporary soul and guilty-pleasure, baby-making music from the late seventies, early eighties. Alister loves boogie and disco, a lot of Gap Band. The South African influence for me is all of those sounds. There are songs on the album that would definitely be more appreciated by South Africans rather than Torontonians or New Yorkers."
Ibrahim lived in Cape Town for much of the past eight years. Although she had been there often to visit family before that, it was a 2009 tour with Toronto house DJ Nick Holder that tapped her into South Africa's huge electronic-music scene. To both of their surprise, Holder was practically a household name there, mobbed on the street for selfies and playing sold-out shows in big cities and small towns everywhere. Ibrahim was unhappy with her career in Toronto, feeling misunderstood by the major label she'd just signed to. Holder told her, "Toronto doesn't deserve you. You should stay here." Ibrahim thought about it for a brief second, then said, "I think you're right." So she did, working on the material that would become the 2012 album, Every Opposite, which vaulted her from obscurity onto the Polaris Music Prize shortlist – without a label or publicist behind her, and while living on the other side of the world.
Most diaspora artists don't go back to Africa to tour, Kae Sun says. "The ones I know that do go back just settle: They move their career there," he says. "You can't make very much money playing shows there, unless you're really well known." Kae Sun has made a couple of visits to the continent, but hasn't been back to Ghana since 2012, before his career took off – although he's headed there later this year. Kwenders, 32, regrets that he hasn't been back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo since he first moved to Canada at 16, half a lifetime ago; he vows that will change in 2018. Ibrahim, however, still considers herself a nomad, recently adding Ethiopia to her list of frequent stopovers, while working on a film soundtrack there.
Africa is alone among the continents in that it's often referred to as a monolith: No one ever identifies as a fan of North American or Asian music. But African music is assumed to be a singular genre – hence Afrobeats, though the use of the plural at least implies diversity. The Canadians now cross-pollinating with various points on the continent push those cultural boundaries even further.
Kae Sun plays Quebec City on Feb. 21, Montreal on March 2 and Toronto on March 8; Pierre Kwenders plays Victoria on March 6, Vancouver on March 7, Calgary on March 9, Edmonton on March 10; Caleb Rimtobaye will be performing with H'Sao on a tour of the Maritimes starting Feb. 21 in Charlottetown.