Meet Afro B, The UK Artist Whose Hit Song "Joanna" Put Him Atop The Afrobeats Wave
The international artist explains why a hit song should have room to breathe, Afrobeats’ global takeover, and why all African descendants need to realize they are one people.
Afro B is tired. Or at least, he’s got to be with the nearly gap-free schedule that’s been carved out for him this week. It’s a brisk Friday in February, and while he’s chummy upon arrival at VIBE’s Midtown office, the London-raised Afrobeats artist with deep Ivory Coast roots is trying to keep his energy level up.
He hasn’t stopped running around since he landed in New York a day or so ago, already hitting a bevy of popular local radio stations. And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the stops he has to make before preparing for his 3 a.m. performance alongside Funkmaster Flex at Brooklyn’s Milk River tonight. Well, tomorrow. Yeah, R.I.P. to that sleep schedule.
But why nap when you’re running off the high of a world finally catching wind and diving into the genre of music he’s long held close to heart? A DJ by trade, the man born Ross Bayeto has always been plucking and curating songs for his listeners to really move to, but now when it’s his own music? Game over.
“I call it Afrowave, just a wave of what's happening at the moment,” he says of the rise of Afrobeats music and his rapidly rising place in it. It’s been a full year since his banner song, “Drogba (Joanna),” hit the airwaves, but there’s virtually no way to tell. Based on how fired up the dance floors of the U.S., UK, African countries and beyond get when it comes on, the song hasn’t aged a bit. It still sounds as fresh as when it first rang out in London clubs. Afro B knows better than anyone that there’s no expiration tag on a vibe, especially when the music ignites a new moment every time it reaches a new international border.
“This song has lasted long, long and it's still lasting,” he says. “But it's just touching. The world is a big place, so it's just hitting people that haven't heard it yet. I just have to keep going.”
With “Joanna” under his belt and another potential hit on the way ("Shape Nice," a new collaboration with Vybez Kartel and Dre Skull drops on Feb. 25), it’s now about maintaining that momentum, riding that wave into the next level of his career, and representing the sweet sounds of the culture he loves so much. “If I'm standing for Africa and the culture,” he says, “I need to push what's going on inside it.”
VIBE: Tell me a little bit about what brings you to New York.
Afro B: For 10 years, I've been pushing this Afrobeats genre and African music and the culture. I had a [DJ] residency at a club called NW10 [in London] and they predominantly played dancehall music and R&B. So, it's kind of hard to break free because I only have sets that would last for 5-10 minutes, or two songs in and the crowd's not dancing because they're not used to what I'm playing. As time went on and we're getting big records from Wizkid and stuff, that's when more people warmed up to it, and, yeah I'm here today. I made the transition from the DJ to an artist five years ago. I made the hit “Joanna,” and that's what brought me to this club world, to New York.
Were people hesitant at first when you were like, "okay, I'm not DJing anymore?"
Yeah, of course. ‘Cause people are used to me just shutting down the clubs, making it lit inside. But then they're like, "oh why are you making music, why are you leaving this behind?" At first, I was the DJ making music, now I'm the artist that can DJ. Every week I got a rager show. An Afrobeats rager show that's promoting it every Saturday, 11 p.m. until 1 [a.m.].
What made you want to decide to be an artist? Specifically, an Afrobeats artist?
When I was growing up I always listened to African music and I used to play keys in church. So, yeah. The typical story. African music has always been in the blood. I've always been proud about being African and just promoting where I'm from. That's definitely the reason.
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Can you break down Afrobeats for those who are unfamiliar? It's easy to just say anyone of African descent making similar music is doing Afrobeats, but maybe that's not the case. Can you break down if there are any distinctions surrounding the genre? Sub-genres like Afropop? Afrobeat without the “s”?
Right now it's a bit confusing because there's so many elements merged into one thing. You could hear a track and hear like a dancehall melody in there with a hip-hop hook or the straight-authentic African. So, it's hard to pinpoint where exactly it is, but Afrobeats is the name we're giving it. But Afrobeat without the "s" is more traditional, then over time the sound just started to evolve and evolve, now it is what it is today.
Are people open to it being called or labeled Afrobeats?
It's mostly the Nigerians that always have a debate on what we should call something. Yeah, most people are familiar with just calling it Afrobeats. I call it Afrowave, just a wave of what's happening at the moment. I still call it Afrobeats at the same time. Wave is my thing. That's my brand. Just a wave of what's happening at the moment, the new school kind of African sound.
So who else would you put in the Afrowave category?
Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy—Burna Boy bounces from dancehall sometimes. There's a lot of UK artists doing that sound, like mixing rap with Afrobeat melodies and dancehall. There’s an artist called J Hus. Kojo Funds. Yeah, there's so many names, man. And the Ghanaian artists as well. There's even a whole French scene that's crazy as well, but they call it Afrotrap, which is more uptempo. Then you got the Angolans and South Africans that have their house vibes. There's a lot of different angles. We should just call it African music but Afrobeats is what the majority call it, the English speakers call it.
Let's talk about the song I got to know you for: “Joanna.” Or “Drogba.” Who is that?
He's an icon from my country, Ivory Coast. He used to be a top soccer player—we say football—who used to play for a team called Chelsea and he had incredible impacts. Everyone from my country just saw him as a hero because you know he was representing us. So, in African music, there can be a lot of shout outs towards different people that are making noise or have a lot of money or whatever. There will be artists that will shout out politicians, footballers, maybe NBA players or just random female names like what I did with Joanna.
Yeah, I was about to say, who is Joanna? What does she have to do with anything?
We concentrate more on the vibe than the lyrics. When I was in the studio, I was putting more the melodies first and then picking out the words that I thought I could hear. Joanna's what I picked out. Do you want me to explain the lyrics? So "your busybody" means there's a lot going on. “Your busybody busy tonight/Joanna don't leave me outside. Your busybody giving me life." Yeah, that's it. And then, "how you going to play me like Drogba," and that's kind of a metaphor ‘cause he plays soccer. Don't play me like how he did. Don't play with my feelings, you know what I mean?
Why do you think that now it seems that the U.S. is catching up to songs like “Joanna”? Usually we’re late to the international party.
Yeah, I released it this time last year. Last year, I took multiple trips here [to New York], just making the most out of it when I was out here. Pushing the song, going to different shows and just drilling it into people's heads. So amongst the African community here that were bringing me out here, it was popping amongst us. I think now it's gotten to a point they did word of mouth to the mainstream people. And now, yeah, now it's picking up here. It's gotten to a point where it's hitting different territories and then it's fresh there. Then it's just like a brand new song again.
Do you think it's necessary to come in and put in that groundwork?
I feel that social media's good, but when they see you in person, it's something else. It's feeding your energy, connecting with you, and just getting a better understanding of what it is. When I was coming up, it was a few people calling it reggae and dancehall and then I had to correct them. "This is Afrobeats," and I was showing them different artists and my other songs so that they get a better understanding of what is.
That seems like your DJ sensibility kicking in, too. Working it into the crowd. You just understand the crowd.
Yeah, and then it just builds up from there. And also another thing that helps, I attached a dance challenge to it, mainly on Instagram. That was the #DrogbaChallenge, and the craziest thing is, a lot of people that got involved with the challenge were not African. So I was getting Colombians doing the dance, Indian, Dubai, people from out here [in the U.S.]. That gave me an indication that this tune is actually spreading like wildfire. Let me just keep pushing the challenge to see how far it goes. And even after now, I'm still getting videos of people dancing to the song, so that was like a way to market and make it spread.
Where's the craziest place that you've seen your song or your work appreciated?
I think it was at an NBA game. I'm not sure what game it was, but just to see the DJ play it. It was a [Dallas Mavericks] DJ Poizon Ivy that played it. And then she just sent me the video, but I didn't know it at the time. She played it during the break time and just ran the tune. That was a big moment.
What songs do you think paved the way for this global movement that Afrobeats is having?
The first one I recall is Dbanj’s collab with Kanye West. That opened doors. I think that Snoop Dogg did a song with Dbanj as well, but that didn't impact as much as the one he did with Kanye. That was called “Oliver Twist.” There’s an artist from the UK called Fuse [ODG], he had more impact in that, the European and the Middle East and the UK as well. So he has songs called “Azonto” and “Antenna.” Obviously, the cosigns from Drake as well with “One Dance,” and I think Beyonce posted a couple clips and had like Afrobeat music in the background. Little things like that are just helping it elevate. And Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You" had some African influences so, that was helping it come from underground to mainstream. Just getting cosigns from the major artists.
What does it feel like when you as an international artist see your music get bigger than where you're from?
It's crazy because it's gotten to a point when I'm not surprised a celeb is vibing to the song because people that I grew up listening to are vibing to it as well. So I was like, damn. The other day I received a clip of Trey Songz singing it on the mic, I think he was hosting a club night. Ashanti. It was Cardi B in the background, and her sister was vibing to it. And they're fully posting it on their main page and stuff. 50 Cent's son as well. I use it as an indication to show me that, I should keep pushing it because it could get to a serious level. ‘Cause I think the issue is that they give it a certain time, then they'll just move onto the next song and then they don't let the song that could potentially blow up everywhere enough time to grow. Like I said, [“Joanna”] came out this time last year, I'm still pushing the same song. And I’ve only dropped two songs. Well, two songs with a remix in between. That's it. Add more to the fire.
So you're letting it cook. Because attention spans are so short now, that I think people are scared.
But that's what's crazy. This song has lasted long, long and it's still lasting. But it's just touching. The world is a big place, so it's just hitting people that haven't heard it yet. There's large amounts of people, I just have to keep going basically.
Do you think it's necessary to have a cosign?
It helps it, it helps speed up the process. It going from underground to mainstream. And it also makes a listener who's not used to the sound warm up to it or accept it. Whereas before if it wasn't cosigned by these people, nothing worked. "What the hell is this?" And then just continue listening to whatever they listen to. So, it is kind of important to get those cosigns from major people or major influences for sure.
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Some Afrobeats songs will be in English, then weave in native language or dialect slang. Do you think there's a way for songs to still have a huge impact globally and really connect without incorporating English?
I don't think so, ‘cause I think people need to connect somehow. And I feel that they connect through the lyrics as well as the vibe. The vibe is always there, but if they can understand what's going on, what the artist is saying, what message the artist is trying to send, then they can connect with it more. That's why I feel that “Joanna” works because 95 percent of it is in English. Then there's a bit of Pidgin, a bit of French.
Are there people you'd like to collaborate with down the line, both within the Afrobeats space and then outside of it?
Inaudible. Within, I’ve already ticked off who I wanted to collaborate with, which is Wizkid. He did the remix to “Joanna.” Vybez Kartel was in the wish list as well, so, I've ticked that. That's on the way. American-wise: Drake, Swae Lee, Tory Lanez, the melodic people that can add to the vibe. I grew up listening to 50 Cent, Akon. All of the melodic people. I think these days people prefer vibes more than lyrics because right now, there’s a lot of mumble rapping. We don’t know what’s happening, but it sounds lit, innit? Instrumentals are right. Young Thug is an example. He sounds wavy, but we don’t know [what he’s saying].
I looked at your video for your song, “Melanin.” Shout out to you for casting those all those shades of black women. What is it that you love most about the black woman?
Everything, man. Everything. I feel like I want to promote them, put them in the forefront, because watching a lot hip-hop videos or whatever, they don't promote the black woman. They'll promote all these models and whatever, Instagram models, but they're not promoting the black African beauty. And if I'm standing for Africa and the culture, I need to push what's going on inside it.
Who do you make your music for? Who do you have in mind when you're creating your music?
Everybody. Global. I just want to promote the culture, give them an insight. Shine a good light towards Africa, because I feel like when people think about it, they just think it's poor. If you’ve noticed, for a lot of music videos, they always go to the streets, the projects or whatever, to shoot a video. Like, there's other parts, you know. They always do it. I think the Americans do it the most. I think, "why are you always going there?" Omarion's video, he's in the middle of nowhere, he's in a tribe, and I'm thinking, we're not like that. We're normal people! At the end of the day, everyone's African. We understand each other. The only difference is probably our accents, at times, but you know, there's poor people in America. There's poor people everywhere. We're all the same. But, I don't know, sometimes people think there's a difference between African American and Africans, when that isn't the case. I just wanted to add that, that everyone's one. They should be together. Unity. That's what I stand for.