The first African musician to win a Grammy was Miriam Makeba, a South African singer and activist, who won Best Folk Recording in 1966 for her album with Harry Belafonte. Her win, while not personal, was seen as a significant milestone with multifaceted economic and innovative influence. It opened up new opportunities and collaborations for African musicians, such as Fela Kuti and Ginger Baker, Paul Simon, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who collaborated on the album Graceland in 1986. The album went on to win a Grammy. Since then, several African musicians have won Grammys in different categories. Ali Farka Touré, a Malian guitarist and songwriter, won three Grammys for Best Traditional World Music Album and Best World Music Album, Angélique Kidjo, a Beninese singer and songwriter who sings in multiple languages, and Nasty C, a South African rapper and producer who won a Grammy for Best Rap Album.

The Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards is the most prestigious and influential in the music industry. Every year, they recognize the achievements of artists, producers, songwriters, and engineers across various genres and categories. The 66th edition of the Grammys, held on February 4, 2024, was a historic night for many artists, especially for African musicians. For the first time in its 65-year history, the Grammy Awards introduced an African category, Best African Music Performance. This development has sparked a whirlwind of discussion, acknowledging the opportunities and potential pitfalls.

The Grammys boast a global audience, with an estimated 16.9 million viewers across the US and international platforms in its 2024 edition. This exposure can translate into significant economic benefits, including increased streams, downloads, and lucrative touring opportunities. For example, when Afrobeats artist Wizkid won the Grammy for Best Music Video for “Brown Skin Girl” (Beyoncé featuring Wizkid, Saint John & Blue Ivy Carter), his popularity soared as he gained more fans, streams, and recognition worldwide. This success culminated in his album “Made In Lagos: Deluxe Edition” becoming the first African album to surpass one billion streams on Spotify and topping the Billboard World Albums chart. In 2022, he was nominated for two more Grammys: Best Global Music Album for Made In Lagos: Deluxe Edition, and Best Global Music Performance for “Essence” (featuring Tems).

Increased recognition can translate to higher artist earnings, larger fan bases, and more significant investments in the African music industry, creating opportunities, collaborations, and innovations among its stakeholders. As of 2021, the music industry in Africa employs about one million people, directly and indirectly, and contributes to the social and cultural development of the region. The industry is worth an estimated $28.25 million and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 11.48%. According to Dataxis, Africa’s music streaming revenues alone will reach $314.6 million by 2026. This global attention can also serve as a powerful motivator for young musicians across the continent.

However, in the last few years, the bigger African entertainment seems to grow globally, the more it appears to take away resources and opportunities from the local markets. This is particularly evident in Nigeria, which is home to Africa’s largest music industry. Artists like Burna Boy, Asake, and Rema, are increasingly embarking on international tours and collaborations, lured by higher profits. Touring within Nigeria is the less profitable option for artists. Last week, Nigeria’s naira dropped to a record low against the dollar on the official market. Aside from earning in a weaker currency, insecurity, and poor infrastructure increase their expenditure. This leaves local show businesses reliant on brand-sponsored events and the year-end “Detty December” culture, raising questions about the sustainability of the local music scene.

An award like the Grammys stands the risk of tokenism. Africa boasts 54 countries, over 2000 languages, and hundreds of unique music genres. Some critics already opined that the “Best African Music Performance” Grammy category may marginalize and isolate African music from the mainstream categories. A single award risks becoming a token gesture, failing to truly represent the depth and diversity of African music on all fronts. For example, choosing Grammy winners involves submissions, eligibility checks, and peer voting by music professionals within the Recording Academy, who vote in categories matching their expertise. On its website, the Recording Academy says the voting process is based on the highest level of excellence and integrity and is constantly evolving to reflect the musical landscape and our membership’s needs. However, over the years, the Grammys have been accused of being discriminatory, especially towards artists of colour.

Moreover, the lack of diverse representation (on all fronts), could unintentionally create unhealthy competition within the African music scene, dividing artists and audiences along genre or national lines. In the new African category, five of the seven nominees were Nigerian. Nigeria has also been the only country with nominees for the global album category. Economically, it makes sense. Afrobeats is big business. In 2022, Afrobeat amassed 13.5bn Spotify streams. 70% of all music streams revenue were Afrobeats. Last year, streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music recorded more Afrobeats artists exceeding one billion streams. Plus many Afrobeats artists have affiliations with major labels, like Wizkid (RCA), Burna Boy (Warner), and Davido (Columbia/Sony). However, socially, this may fuel existing rivalries between countries (generate new ones) similar to the online debate that erupted when South African artist Tyla, won the Best African Music Performance’ Grammy, last Sunday.

Of course, these are not necessarily inevitable outcomes. African music is gaining traction and recognition on the global stage, and this trend is likely to continue and grow in the next few years. In the end, the Grammys are not the only measure of success or quality, they merely represent a significant milestone for African music on the global stage.

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