Afrodepression: towards another aesthetic for Black despair
03 October, 2023
This blog post was written for the College's celebration of Black History Month 2023.
As a teenager growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, in the early noughties, I knew when Afrobeats - also called Naija Pop, Naija Hip-Hop, Afro-Fusion, and Afro-Pop - became a formative sound. Originating from Nigeria and Ghana, Afrobeats fuses older West African genres (Highlife, Fuji, Juju, Apala, Afrobeat) with newer sounds from the Black Diaspora (Reggae, Dancehall, Hip-Hop, R&B), creating a refreshingly modern dance music receiving global attention.
This contentious name Afrobeats, a tribute to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s Afrobeat, whose legacy looms large over the genre, has stuck. However, the inventive Afrobeats musicians adopt new names to mark their territories within the genre. With the emergence of a new Afrobeats star, the genre is blessed with another “subgenre” with that predictable prefix, ‘Afro’.
Tomide Marv wrote in his satirical piece for Zikoko Magazine, "…Afrobeats isn’t just on Obama’s annual playlists or making the British break dance to it, it’s also given birth to sub-genres that are easily recognisable by their lyrics and delivery and vibes.” Marv’s laugh-out-loud listicle identifies Afroyahoo, Afrocultism and Afrodepression, among other “new sons” of Afrobeats.
Regarding Afrodepression, Marv wrote, “If you’re seeing ‘shege’, and you say afrodepression thrice, Omah Lay will appear to hold your hands and cry with you. This music style is best described as crying on the dance floor, with a half-filled cup of Gordon’s in one hand.”
“Shege” in Nigerian parlance means strife. Omah Lay, the patron saint of Afrodepression, came into the limelight during the COVID-19 pandemic. His well-received debut EP album, Get Layd, explored heterosexual affection with particular attention to the male gaze and female agency. Although his LP album Boy Alone sticks to the escapist ethos of Afrobeats, it also possesses a stark vulnerability. This tendency comes from his confessional lyrics, pervasive dysphoria, and palpable despair—a clear distinction from his forebears' improvisational and sensational escapist lyrics.
Listeners quickly christened Omah Lay’s music as 'Afrodepression'. Nigeria has a population of over 225 million people with a median age of 17.2 years. With less than 300 psychiatrists to look after this overwhelmingly young population, mental health services are not adequately accessible. But music is accessible, and the musicians utilise their favourite stomping grounds—the studio booth, the dancehall, the beer parlour—as safe spaces to explore their often biographical material.
Libianca, originally from Bamenda, Anglophone Cameroon, wrote her hit song, ‘People’, drawing from her lived experience with Cyclothymia, a mood disorder like Bipolar Affective Disorder. ‘People’ begins in a declarative tone that quickly becomes accusatory: "I’ve been drinking more alcohol for the past five days…did you check on me?” Throughout the song, there is an imminent sense of overwhelming despair.
Released in December 2022, ‘People’ is already one of the most streamed Afrobeats songs ever. Jazz music is timeless today because, at its core, it is the sublimation of black despair into beautiful music. It may have taken a pandemic for Afrobeats to revise some of its escapist ethos for a more contemplative and vulnerable treatment of despair, but it is a welcome development.
To immerse yourself in the wonderful world of Afrobeats, please listen to this 35-track Spotify playlist.