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It has been more than 20 years since the audience identified that something new was emanating from the airwaves. The audience has grown from its original size and location in West Africa and the Diaspora to a global stage. Expectedly, the biggest Afrobeats practitioners have been invited to high-profile festivals and shows, including Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk Concerts.
The video series of live concerts hosted by NPR Music directly responds to the mega concert and its flair for physically exerting energetic performances, loud music, and revellers. Founded in 2008 and initially focused on indie rock music, it has expanded its reach to other genres like Hip-Hop and the relatively nascent Afrobeats is not exempt.
Tiny Desk Concerts has delivered surprises and classic performances in its years of celebrating the intimate set list have shaped how musicians are perceived. A case in point is American rapper-turned-singer T-Pain whose session burst the Autotune myth that had plagued his otherwise remarkable career. At the Tiny Desk Concert, T-Pain sang accompanied on the piano, the rest is history; his set discredited his naysayers and his place as a fine vocalist was established.
Afrobeats has always had mixed reviews about its live performances from time. Last year, a viral Tik-Tok video by a disgruntled attendee about subpar performances from Omah Lay and Rema at Afro Nation in Portimão, Portugal, triggered a response from both artists.
They summarily blamed the organisers for the poor sound, a valid concern, particularly in the live music scene in Nigeria. Historically, Afrobeats was conceived in the studio booth and live performance has its own exerting demands on musicians whose vocal contributions were often finessed by their producers, the true unsung hero of the genre. Without a durable practice of performing with session musicians on a live set, many Afrobeats musicians have approached stage performances with dutch courage and an excessive reliance on the audience’s goodwill.
Enter Afrobeats at Tiny Desk Concerts, a good measure for the essentials of performance craft, especially in an intimate setting. Summarily Afrobeats’ performances have been a mixed bag, with female musicians out-performing their male counterparts. Tiwa Savage and Tems (shy yet graceful) gave a fairly good account of themselves. While Adekunle Gold put up a set strong in concept and vocal performance, Burna Boy and FireBoy DML’s sets gave less than expected.
Here is a summary of the rather forgettable performances.
“…It was evident early on that his performance would be strictly business…” Bobby Carter quips in his liner notes on Burna Boy’s 15-minute-long non-interactive set where he performed all four songs to his microphone, eyes shut and hands tucked in the safety of his pockets.
Understandably, this performance was sandwiched between two sold-out concerts in Washington DC, and Burna Boy is not superhuman, but he hardly required heroics to please an easy audience. He came across as disgruntled and out of sync with his band. The spotlight strayed from him to the backup singer, Christina Matovu, who sang with heart and rapturous joy.
At the height of the Covid-19, Tiny Desk Concerts took a cue from the work-from-home policy and started the Tiny Desk Home Concerts. This opened the show to a larger cohort of Afrobeats musicians, including Fireboy DML whose spin on Afropop, Afro-Life, privileges R&B in the cocktail and enjoys slower tempo and vocal pyrotechnics. Fireboy underserved himself by his choice of songs. The intended climax with the smash hit ‘Peru’ was a shabby curtain call. For a song that relies on its clever and irreverent song writing, slowing the pace made it a languid nursery rhyme at best.
The Alternate Sound band backs Davido on the leisurely retrospective four-song set featuring his all-time hits ‘Gobe’ and ‘Aiye’ at the Tiny Desk Home Concerts. Producer Abby O’Neill in their liner notes hardly reflects on the artistic merits of this set. Davido is his ebullient self all right, and his choice of songs should have served him if his songs were decluttered for live performance. By slowing down the music’s tempo and letting the song lyrics breathe, Davido may have fare better than aiming for a verbatim remake of his studio product with his hard-hitting (and missing) session musicians. For context, compare Davido’s performance of ‘Aiye’ with the Kenyan band Kiu’s cover of the same song.
Suraya Mohamed, in her liner notes, seemed unconvinced when she wrote that the first song of the set ‘Ayewada’ “just might get you dancing”. Things went further south as the set progressed. Naira Marley’s humorous lazy rhymes without heavy-hitting studio production values sound more vapid than vulgar. Again, no thanks to Alternate Sound band and his go-to producer Rexxie both in attendance. Rising star Zinoleesky guest-appearing on ‘O’dun’ is underwhelming with his embarrassing grunting vocals, as is backup vocalist Elizabeth Famuyiwa on Marley’s biggest hits ‘Coming’ and ‘Soapy’. Naira Marley’s appearance in Tiny Desk Concert is simply how not to perform music.
It may seem foolhardy to judge an entire genre by how it fares in a studio based in Washington DC, America, but international appearances have been an obsessional measure of this genre by her practitioners. Before it could match the Grammys standard or find a category to compete in, Afrobeats musicians had been singing about this lofty aspiration. Blame this American/Hip-Hop mirroring on its beginning, but if Afrobeats musicians are to master the craft of performance, they may learn a great deal from their forebears in the Highlife, Juju and Afrobeats genre.