Finding new meaning in timeless music

A new wave of artists is turning African music into a force that honors the past and transcends boundaries.

This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which the authors explore what this year’s critical moments might mean for the next. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.

Tipping Point: In April, Burna Boy, the Grammy Award-winning singer, became the first artist from Nigeria to headline and sell out a show at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Music unites so many forms of life on this planet, from the chirping of birds, the chirping of crickets, and the whining of whales to the murmur of the stream and the rustling of leaves. It is the cornerstone of memories for many of us, myself included. Childhood, maturity; Good and bad times.

As a child growing up in Benin in the 1960s, music was all around us. Traditional musicians taught us beautiful songs about the stories and legends of my country. Our culture was largely oral, so many people knew hundreds of songs and spells by heart, all sung in intricate rhythms. But contrary to popular belief, that music is not set in stone. Although some of the melodies have been around for centuries, the songs and folklore are constantly evolving as they travel and adapt to the times. That is what makes them timeless.

A few years ago, for example, I was in Salvador, Brazil, and I witnessed a Candomblé ceremony where descendants of enslaved people sang Yoruba religious songs. To my surprise I recognized some of these. They had survived for hundreds of years and now resonated with a new meaning.

On the surface, it seems that the world is changing rapidly, and not always for the better. There is division everywhere and modern technology has reduced our attention span. Gone are the days of eight-minute numbers with endless solos. Now, many songs are two and a half minutes or less long enough to fit on a reel. Thousands of songs are released every week. Some of them go viral, creating new trends and styles that go out of style just as quickly.

It may all seem different and overwhelming, but deep down we’ve always been looking for the same thing, and we’re still looking for it. We are always looking for something new, something that feels fresh and familiar at the same time. Something that ignites that sense of excitement and feels like an unforgettable memory in the making. Seen from this angle, everything new in the world, and in music, is not bad. It’s a way to have more: more music, more memory, more connection around the world, a more resonant and meaningful way to express ourselves.

Especially African music benefits from such a rapid evolution, to the point where it seems to take the world by storm. When they were just starting out, artistes like Yemi Alade, Wizkid, CKay and Fireboy DML used new technology to produce sophisticated music without relying on big money from major labels. Streaming platforms have made it easy to reach an audience, touch people directly.

Working with this generation of African artists inspires me because the way their music feels and makes me feel is the perfect combination of familiarity and freshness. Young artists like Burna Boy, the first Nigerian act to headline and sell out Madison Square Garden, are shining on the world stage because they are no longer looking to imitate Western music. They look to the traditional music of their countries and to the many artists who came before them, like Fela Kuti, Salif Keita or me.

They follow the advice I often give, which is: the world doesn’t need another Jay-Z, we already have one. Traditional music in Africa is so rich with amazing rhythms. You must use that treasure in the same way that Chopin, Gershwin and Bartok drew inspiration from the popular songs of their homeland.

Now the freedom and energy that have always been the backbone of traditional African music are being translated, transported and enjoyed around the world. The rhythm of Afrobeats, that mixture of the African clave that meets dancehall, Latin and dance music, is entering the mainstream. Those drums convey the power and warmth that are the heartbeat of Africa. They echo our common DNA, as we are all of African descent, and the image of the continent is changing to reflect that.

How far have we come from enslaved people singing in secret, wiping out the folk songs of indigenous people around the world? The popularity of these new artists is the first sign of a profound change in the way the African continent is perceived, for the ways in which our people, in all their different forms and cultures, claim a new and wider influence.

A specific song can be a turning point in life – I know that listening to Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” was for me. It had an uplifting feel that sent you to a place of community and belonging, even if you didn’t understand the lyrics. The musical change we see today, along with the technological advances that make it possible, is creating a change of global proportions. African music no longer hides behind the mainstream genres it influences, such as blues, jazz and rock. It is now a great force of its own, shining with the naked eye, and I hope it marks a change in the way Africa as a whole is seen and treated, as people see their shared roots in it.

If people everywhere are dancing to Afrobeats, no matter who they are or what they look like, then maybe we all have more in common than we’ve been led to believe. After all, these rhythms – of music, of humanity, of memory – are cyclical. They cannot be forgotten because they are deeper and stronger than words. Music is memory incarnate, transcending time and borders, keeping track of who we are and how we have changed.

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