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Last summer, thousands of music lovers of African descent gathered on the sands of Portimao, Portugal, waved their beloved countries’ flags and witnessed performances from the best in afro-pop, reggae, and hip-hop at Afro Nation, the premier traveling beach festival unifying music of the African diaspora. This was a euphoric scene for acts who had never performed for a large Black festival crowd, Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. Nigerian promoter Adesegun Adeosun Jr., aka SMADE, and business partner Asika saw a need for a space to celebrate African music in Europe and created a globetrotting festival as the answer. Most of the featured acts have been from Nigeria, where the music industry is rapidly growing, the U.K., and Jamaica. As the festival evolves, Afro Nation will feature more artists of African descent from Europe, Central Africa, Latin America, and more.
“I want this event to be reflective of all African people,” Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. “I also want it to pay homage to the countries that the events are in,” he adds. Afro Nation is expanding to reach fans of the diaspora in more regions. In December 2019, the festival was held in Accra, Ghana. In March, Afro Nation was scheduled for San Juan, Puerto Rico, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-day line-up would have featured 30 artists representing afro-pop, dancehall, soca, and hip-hop. Afro Nation still has festivals scheduled in Portimao, Portugal, in July, and Baja California, Mexico, in September. There are plans for at least one more location in the future, Osika says.
Afro Nation’s platform thus far reflects a global moment in which musicians across the African diaspora are blending sounds in new ways that are changing popular music. Connections between Afro-pop and Jamaican dancehall are especially evolving according to artists on Afro Nation’s line-ups, such as Jamaican dancehall artist Shenseesa, South African rapper Sho Madjozi, and Nigerian pop artist Teni the Entertainer. “Afro Nation is major for the continent, the culture, and the commonality that we share no matter how far we have all drifted into different parts of the world,” Teni, who performed at previous Afro Nation events, wrote in an email.
For Women’s History Month, VIBE spoke to the three sensations about their latest music, why Afro Nation is a game-changing platform, the evolving musical connections between Jamaican and African artists, and their women inspirations in music.
Shenseea, a versatile singjay, deejay, rapper, and singer, grew up in Jamaica’s capital city Kingston. The 23-year-old broke out as dancehall’s most promising star in 2016 with the flirty “Loodi” featuring Vybez Kartel. Since then, she has released a steady stream of energetic records, showering each riddim with conviction and lyrics of self-reliance that speak to women and girls like “Shen Yeng Anthem,” “Trending Gyal” and “Blessed.” Shenseea is inspired by fellow Jamaican dancehall artist Spice, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna, who she calls “a complete boss.”
Thus far, Shenseea has collaborated with dancehall veterans like Sean Paul, and internationally with Trinidadian soca star Nailah Blackman and American rappers Swae Lee and Tyga. American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall artists are common cross-cultural link-ups. But now Shenseea says there are more musical connections between popular Jamaican dancehall artists and African-based artists too. “I feel like it has been going on, but more so between the reggae artists,” she says. “Now it's evolving more between dancehall artists and African artists.”
Here is a quick history. Popular music in the Americas, including Jamaica’s biggest musical export reggae, is rooted in West African music. Reggae has several influences including Jamaican folk music mento and American R&B, and its predecessors ska and rocksteady. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved West Africans brought their rhythms to Jamaica and subsequent generations reimagined the sounds that circled back to Africa. Late reggae legend Bob Marley, a Pan-Africanist, and The Wailers toured the continent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this era, artists like Ivorian musician Alpha Blondy created a marriage of their traditional sounds and stories of home with the socially-conscious riddims birthing African reggae.
As technology digitized music production, dancehall music evolved out of reggae and dub music and defined a younger generation in Jamaica. It would also inspire African artists, too. In the 2000s and 2010s, dancehall influenced “Afro-dancehall” artists Shatta Wale and AK Songstress of Ghana, and Patoranking and Wizkid of Nigeria. Ghanaian hiplife’s soft synths and dancehall’s percussion are said to have influenced the popular Nigerian sound “pon pon,” in 2017, according to OkayAfrica. DaVido’s inescapable “If,” is the most commercially successful “pon pon” track. Mr Eazi’s “Banku” style also borrows from Nigerian and Ghanaian pop and dancehall. With this has come more collaborations across the genres. Like Jamaican dancehall hitmaker Popcaan enlisting DaVido for “Dun Rich” in 2018, and Burna Boy collaborating with Serani and Jeremih on “Secret” in 2019.
The marriage between these sounds is impacting how Black fans experience music worldwide, which is especially pushed by second and third generations of people who migrated from Africa and the Caribbean to the Americas and Europe. In major cities, you’ll find Afro-Caribbean parties, where DJs play music across the diaspora. Afro Nation takes it to the next level by bringing these artists together on a bill.
The innovation of this sound is a diaspora-wide project. In the mid-to-late 2010s, UK, British artists J Hus and Afro B popularized the fusion of Afro-pop, dancehall, American and British hip-hop, and R&B music, in new genres known as “afro bashment” or “afroswing.” In 2019, Jamaican-American DJ Walshy Fire’s 2019 Abeng brought together afro-pop, with soca, and dancehall artists. Shenseea has some diaspora link-ups on the horizon. She already worked with Shatta Wale, the African dancehall king, on “The Way I Move” in 2018. Recently, she recorded an unreleased track with Mr Eazi and is in talks to work with Patoranking and Davido, she tells Vibe.
TENI THE ENTERTAINER
Teni is also tuned into these evolving connections between the Caribbean and Africa. “You can hear it in the drums and melodies,” the 27-year-old singer and songwriter says. “We love to have fun and dance and that extends into our music.” In 2019, the New York Times dubbed Teni a member of the new guard of Nigerian musicians. In October, she released her Billionaire EP which showcases her afrobeat fusion. The title was inspired by her time in Los Angeles. "I saw all these great cars and I just imagined a world where we can all afford things we like no matter the price," she says. On the Pheelz-produced afrobeat, she croons her wealthy ambitions. On the earnest “Complain” she singraps over JaySynths' afroswing beat.
Teni’s entertainment career began with her comedic viral videos. Her breakout hit was the 2017 “Fargin,” which spoke out about the harms of rape culture. Teni admires African music legends Brenda Fassi, Angelique Kidjo, and Mariam Makeba. Them "using the power of their music to influence governments and shape economies is beyond incredible,” she says.
In the future, Teni wants to experiment with more Caribbean artists. “I have gotten into the studio with Kranium and I'd like to still do a lot [more] with him,” she said of the Jamaican singjay who fuses dancehall and R&B. “I'd love to do something with Koffee. Her music is amazing,” she added.
Koffee, a Jamaican reggae artist who won over the world with “Toast” last year, and is the first woman to win a Grammy for best reggae album, is on South African rapper Sho Madjozi’s wishlist too. For generations, South African artists like Lucky Dube and NC Dread have embraced reggae and dancehall. The 27-year-old wants to contribute to this tradition by recording with Koffee and rising reggae singer Lila Ike. "The song would be about the fact that our joy does not come from having no problems,” she wrote via email. “It comes despite going through tough things.” Bringing her pain to the studio has proven to be viable for Madjozi.
On her biggest hit, the viral “John Cena,” named after her favorite WWE wrestler, she raps over a hard-hitting gqom beat, the popular South African electronic dance music, about heartbreak. On her 2018 debut album Limpopo Champions League, which is dedicated to the northern province she hails from in South Africa, you can hear more of her sonic influences which include the high-energy gqom on "Wakanda Forever," trap on “Wa Penga Na?” and R&B samples on “Going Down.”
Although Sho Madjozi and fellow artists are fusing the diaspora sounds in their music, she sees the Afro Nation platform as a necessary space for people of African descent to share these cultures in person. In these moments, “we notice how strong we really are" and "how powerful this gift of culture is,” she says. Hip-hop queen Lauryn Hill is her icon and inspired her to stand firm in her truth. Madjozi’s realness shapes her assertive lyrics and her vibrant style. She performs in “xibelani” skirts to pay homage to her Tsonga heritage, a group of people native to Mozambique and South Africa. She adorns her hair with her signature colorful Fulani braids. “My whole statement is to be free,” she says. “I hope it shows Black girls everywhere to not be shy or small. This world is ours as much as anyone else’s.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff has been battling a fierce case of pneumonia, and he believes he may have the coronavirus.
"i'm recovering from pneumonia in both of my lungs... I lost my sense of smell and taste, which is a main sign of the virus￼￼￼. I would NOT be here if not for my guardian angel of a wife￼," he posted on Instagram.
"Pls say a prayer for all the sick...it's a lot more than you know!"
While the legendary DJ doesn't appear to have an official diagnosis, he wouldn't be the first celebrity to have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson, Kevin Durant, Scarface, Slim Thug, and others have all been diagnosed. Afro-jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango died after contracting the coronavirus. According to New York Times, the United States has the highest number of reported infections in the world.
It’s an unseasonably warm day in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, balmy enough for locals to start thinking about grilled food and beaches, but cool enough to remind us it’s still winter. It’s mid-February; the thud of a global pandemic hasn’t hit the city just yet. People are still outside, milling around without masks, latex gloves, and pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer. Upstairs in the Sixty Les Hotel, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner looks right at home, sitting on a loveseat in a red pullover hoodie, red patent leather sneakers, and leopard print Chanel earmuffs. His fingernails are painted purple, his eyes are hidden behind tinted glasses with big white frames. There’s a designer duffle bag by the window, the clothes inside it spill out across the counter. The intro of a 16-bit version of “Mortal Kombat” plays through a video game console in a loop on a wall-mounted TV.
The clothes and the room scream “Thundercat,” the iconoclastic bassist, producer, and vocalist from Los Angeles, who, in recent years, has worked with everyone from rappers Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller, to singers Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae. Whatever the feature, you know Thundercat is there: his swift, fluttering basslines always cut through the arrangement, no matter the voice on top of it. The style of Thundercat’s solo music goes back 30-plus years—to a blend of funk, jazz fusion, and soul evoking the 1980s when luminaries like Zapp, Cameo, and The Gap Band were mainstream stars. Mix that with the headbanging vigor of hardcore punk and metal, along with the childlike joy of old Saturday morning cartoons, and you just might get to Thundercat’s sound. It’s complex like the man, though he’s never taken himself too seriously. Still, he’s evolved over the years, from producer Flying Lotus’ eccentric sideman to a headliner with big font on the marquee.
But today this is a different Thundercat—he’s equally reflective, profound and optimistic. As he walks through the making of his cathartic fourth LP, It Is What It Is, he’s honest about the bumpy road leading up to it, and how addiction nearly derailed his life. “I had to acknowledge that I was an alcoholic,” Thundercat says. “It doesn’t mean that you have to confess it over yourself, but it’s one of those things where, if you don’t do it, that’s what causes the poison to seep through you. Erykah [Badu] used to say to me, ‘You’ll stop when you’re tired.’ And I got tired. I realized it was the same thing over and over and it was fun for a long time. I wouldn’t drink to stay in the room. I’d drink to be on the Space Needle right now.” It Is What It Is follows Thundercat’s 2017 album, Drunk, a whimsical LP that trekked through the ups, downs, and residual effects of drinking. While the album found Thundercat navigating the absurdities of everyday life, it also provided a glimpse into the artist’s own challenges. “I was there around Drunk and he was literally drunk,” says friend, producer, and collaborator Mono/Poly. “He told me that the times I thought he was there, he said he was still blacked out. He said he would drink to the point where it wasn’t the same Steve. It was literally a different person.”
The genesis of Thundercat’s solo career dates back to 2010, to a song called “MmmHmm,” where he played bass and sang lead on one of Lotus’ most popular tracks. Thundercat then released his debut album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, a lean, mostly instrumental set of rubbery funk jams and evocative jazz fusion. Through songs like “For Love (I Come Your Friend)” and “Walkin’,” he came off like a new-age Jaco Pastorius, an emerging talent bringing light to an instrument meant to stay in the background. His sophomore album, 2013’s Apocalypse, signaled his breakthrough: powered by the MDMA-loving ode “Oh Sheit It’s X,” Thundercat became a star in underground circles and a fave amongst crate-digging music nerds. But there was a dark cloud hanging above the album: before its completion, his friend and collaborator, pianist Austin Peralta, died of viral pneumonia aggravated by drugs and alcohol. The record’s latter half dwelled on his passing. The album’s closer, “A Message for Austin…,” was a somber goodbye to one of L.A.’s most promising musicians. A 2015 EP, The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam, examined death from the void. “Where’s this cold, dark place?” he sang from the imagined perspective of a soul in purgatory. “This must be the end / Time to shed some skin.” A year later, Thundercat won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance for his work on “These Walls,” one of several stellar tracks from Lamar’s groundbreaking sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat was a major player on the LP, producing or adding vocals and bass to 10 of its 16 songs. He was part of a cohort of musicians who gave Butterfly its lush jazz aesthetic.
A different spirit looms over It Is What It Is, that of beloved rapper Mac Miller, who died in 2018 of an accidental drug overdose. He and Thundercat had become close friends in recent years, and others say Miller’s death was a catalyst for Thundercat changing his diet and getting sober. “It was so quick,” Mono/Poly recalls. “I saw him after a few weeks and he was just skinny and shi*t. Then he told me later on, he was like, ‘I couldn’t eat. My girlfriend broke up with me, Mac died, I was forced to change.’ He said it was literally because of all those events happening to him that he felt differently.” As a result, It Is What It Is feels more serious than Thundercat’s previous LPs; it contemplates personal losses from somewhere in the cosmos. Featuring Childish Gambino, Lil B, Ty Dolla $ign, and Zack Fox, it’s subdued and more mature than Drunk, which tackled adult themes through LOLs and tongue-in-cheek songwriting. This album strips the veneer and dives right into the anguish. “Just need some sort of sun,” he yearns on “Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26.” Then on songs “King of the Hill” and “Unrequited Love,” Thundercat leans further into the breakup that partially fueled his evolution, looking inward and outward to assess how the whole thing dissolved. On the former, he shuns blame: “Say you ain’t got time for games … just admit you don’t know what to do.” On the latter, he laments: “Nothing feels the same ‘cause there’s no one like you.” But like any Thundercat release, the album has comedic moments that lighten the mood. “Dragonball Durag” is a body rolling slow jam with a subtle shout to his cat (it wouldn’t be a Thundercat album without one). “I may be covered in cat hair,” he sings, “but I still smell good.” The song is also quite literal. “It’s about finding a f**king Dragonball durag,” Thundercat says with a laugh. “You gotta search for sh*t like that. I lost my mind and bought all of them so nobody else could buy ‘em. It’s like anime nerd sh*t, ya know? The joy of finding a Dragonball durag for me was like, ‘There’s nothing better to end this moment ever.’”
The song “I Love Louis Cole” unpacks a weird night: during a hangout with Cole, Thundercat allegedly punched the producer’s friends before falling asleep on some laundry in his room. “We really do have such a nice time when we hang out,” Cole writes in an email to VIBE. “[We] get into deep conversations or watch weird videos or record together. My verse in the song is about real-life events that have happened when he’s come to my parties.” But that’s just Thundercat being Thundercat: Mono/Poly remembers a time when the bassist bought a 7-Eleven hot dog en route to a vegan cafe. “He doesn’t finish it fully,” Mono/Poly says. “Then we go to SunCafe and a waitress comes up and he has this f**king 7-Eleven hot dog in his hand, and she’s like, ‘Do you want me to throw that away?’ I was just dying, like, it’s typical Steve sh*t.” Funk legend Steve Arrington appears on lead single “Black Qualls” as a guiding light through Thundercat’s fear of prosperity. In an interview, Arrington says he’s long been a fan of Thundercat’s ability to bend genres while giving a distinct flair to the bass. “Not only does he have the dexterity and the ability to play what he thinks, he’s a new voice,” Arrington says. “I look at him as a guy like Herbie Hancock and others who were tremendous voices on their instruments and then developed their own artistry. I think Thundercat is that for today.”
Midway through the album’s title track, drifting from airy ambiance to stampeding percussion, Thundercat salutes Miller before letting the melody fade into the clouds. “Hey Mac,” he says softly, Miller’s voice rising in response. It was his way of saying farewell to a dear friend. “Mac’s death was traumatizing,” Thundercat admits. “It was really painful because I’ve seen it happen before. Me and Mac became friends on the back of Austin Peralta dying. With Mac dying, I genuinely got angry and sad. I was heartbroken. I started slowing down [on the drinking] before his death. The album is called It Is What It Is because it doesn’t get any easier. I just try to cherish the moments I had with him.”
Ultimately, It Is What It Is scores two transitions—Thundercat’s and Miller’s. It finds Thundercat dismissing destructive habits for a more enlightened reality. It’s also his way of honoring a friend who’d want him to keep going. As he discussed Miller, his breakup, and his music, Thundercat seemed incredibly vulnerable, his spirit becoming lighter as the conversation unfolded. In years’ past, maybe he’d deflect with a joke, but because he’s gone through so much, maybe it’s time to fully embrace the hardship. “I learned that sometimes you gotta let go. I learned that it just hurts,” Thundercat says. “You can pray for guidance through these moments, but sometimes it’s just meant to stick to you. I learned that it is what it is.”