From afrobeat and high life to the burgeoning alté scene, the music of the African diaspora is finally starting to get the global recognition it deserves. Stylist sat down with some of the women leading the change: Nigeria’s queen of pop, Simi; Burna Boy’s multi-talented sister, Nissi; and the industry insiders at Platoon Africa.
Earlier this year, African music icon Angélique Kidjo accepted her Grammy for Best World Music Album in Los Angeles. “Four years ago on this stage, I was telling you that the new generations of artists coming from Africa are going to take the world by storm – and the time has come,” she said. Kidjo hailed musicians including Nigeria’s Burna Boy, who has collaborated with everyone from Ed Sheeran and Stormzy to Sam Smith, praising him for “changing the way our continent is perceived”.
Though genres from across the world have clear roots in African music, for too long the output of an entire continent has been relegated to the ‘World’ categories, dismissed and othered out of the mainstream. But over the past few years, both African artists and their influence have finally started to take up the space they deserve: from the global success of WizKid and Tiwa Savage to the celebration of African creativity that was Beyoncé’s Black Is King.
But what’s powering this long-overdue renaissance? The talent and global appeal has always been there, but a lack of resources and support from industry gatekeepers has undoubtedly held many creatives back. Enter Platoon Africa: an offshoot of Apple’s artist services company that is empowering a roster of fresh musicians to break into the global market on their own terms, offering everything from recording studios and distribution to legal and accounting advice.
“African artists are braver than they’ve ever been before, they’re empowered to be themselves without apology and take pride in their heritage,” says Hagar Graiser, Platoon Africa’s music lead. “But people are also paying attention thanks to certain political conversations coming to the fore – narratives of decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s been this battle in Africa: the big international band is the headliner and the local band is on the bill in tiny font. Our artists have always been amazing, but it’s only now we’re really valuing them correctly.”
Platoon Africa’s head, Linda Ayoola, agrees, referencing the ‘Beyoncé effect’ as both a driver and a marker of the recent cultural shift. “The fact that someone of her status is shining a light on the talent coming out of Africa is incredible, because it makes other people sit up and listen,” she says. “But the bottom line is, African artists are talented and hard-working, it was only a matter of time. So we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure they are the main event, not just the support act.”
Platoon itself was co-founded by music exec Denzyl Feigelson, a South African farmer enlisted by Steve Jobs at the turn of the millennium to help create the original iTunes Store. Based in London, its early days saw the discovery of then-unknown talents Billie Eilish and Jorja Smith, but it wasn’t long before Feigelson turned his keen eye towards the burgeoning musical talents in his homeland. In 2018 the company opened a creative hub in Cape Town and today Platoon Africa oversees the campaigns of a long list of artists, including Simi, Nigeria’s undisputed queen of pop, and Nissi, Burna Boy’s multi-talented little sister.
For Nissi, who describes her music as “Afro-rooted and globally positioned”, the sky is the limit – she need only look to the chart-topping success of her brother. Inspired by her grandfather, who worked closely with afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, she’s been making music since she was a child, and now she’s determined to carve out her own lane with her unique brand of cross-cultural pop. “I’m a sponge: everywhere I go, I take something away with me, whether it’s the grime and drill sounds of the UK or the classic pop of Ariana Grande,” she says. “I don’t ever want to be boxed in as an artist or as a woman.”
The 26-year-old credits having a creative, open-minded family (“a real blessing, especially in Africa”) with giving her the space to pursue her dreams, as well as the women before her who have paved the way. One such woman is Simi, a powerhouse with 8.1 million Instagram followers who regularly tops the Nigerian charts and is now garnering attention worldwide, thanks in part to this year’s smash hit Duduke
“You’ll struggle to find a female artist who is mediocre,” she says, “because to make it as a woman in this industry you have to be brilliant at what you do
This ethos of empowerment runs like a thread through Platoon Africa. “What’s most exciting to me about our roster of women is that they want to lift as they rise, developing other young artists as well as focusing on their own careers,” says Graiser. “And I think that’s because we go a step further at Platoon: we don’t just ask people what number they want to reach in the charts, we also ask them who they want to be in the world. We treat them as entrepreneurs and future leaders of their communities.”
And Platoon Africa puts its money where its mouth is, even recently introducing health insurance for its South African artists to further make music a viable option for the country’s creative hopefuls. “We want to make sure we’re providing people with the tools to commercialise their art, but in a bigger sense, we want them to see that there is room for them,” says Ayoola. “Everyone can sit at the table, we just need to empower our women to take their seats.”
The results of their mission can already be seen, with a new wave of fully formed African artists raring to share their fresh perspectives and creativity with the world. And, at long last, the world seems ready to receive them.