Afrobeat, a genre pioneered by Nigerian musical great Fela Kuti, is huge in West Africa and growing in the U.K. but it hasn’t reached mainstream U.S.A., according to stakeholders.
Kanja Muchoki plans to change all that.
Kanja claims to be the first Kenyan to do an afrobeat song that was recognized all over Africa. His record, “Lights Out,” was one of the biggest of 2013 in Kenya, he said. Now he hopes to blaze a trail by breaking the first Afrobeat record in the U.S.
Fela Kuti coined the term Afrobeat upon his return to Nigeria from a 1969 U.S. tour with his group, Nigeria ’70. Afrobeat features chants, call-and-response vocals, and complex, interacting rhythms, according to an article in MITPress. It started out as a combination of traditional Nigerian music, jazz, highlife, funk, and chanted vocals fused with percussion and vocal styles.
Born in the U.K. to Kenyan parents, and raised in the U.S., Kanja studied the evolution of Afrobeat. Now he’s making it his own, infusing electronic dance music with afropop to create a new sound.
Kanja spoke to AFKInsider from Atlanta, where he was working in April on his next Afrobeat single, “Spend It All.”
“Spend It All” is a new twist on afrobeat and “it’s definitely going to make you dance,” Kanja said. It will be the first record to blend Afrobeat and electronic dance music. The music video features MTV artist and Naija supermodel Demi Grace — “she’s looking to break into Afrobeat,”Kanja said.
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The rapper built a fan base in the U.S. several ways, according to his manager, Eleanor Earl: Kanja won a B.E.T. (Black Entertainment TV) competition. He opened for other up-and-coming artists such as Raheem DeVaughn, J. Holiday and Fabolous. He played the college circuit — “key for any artist,” Earl said — and he used social media as a major marketing tool.
Opening for other artists got the buzz going and made promoters aware of Kanja. People who promote concerts and tours allowed Kanja to open for other, bigger stars, and Kanja landed an hour-long special on The Africa Channel.
The TV special was a major breakthrough, Earl said. “It opened up opportunities in other places in the world.”
In addition to being an excellent performer, Kanja is an astute businessman, according to his manager. After donating performances early in his career, he got paid for later gigs.
The son of a Kenyan entrepreneur, Kanja grew up in the U.S. in the Washington, D.C.-Maryland areas, where he developed his sound, but he spent years living in Kenya and the U.K.
It is precisely because he knows and worked in all three cultures that he is convinced he will succeed in breaking the first Afrobeat record in the U.S., he said.
“There’s no one here focusing on afrobeat in the U.S.,” he said. “Nobody’s been able to present it properly. There’s no afrobeat record on the charts here. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to break the first afrobeat record in the U.S.”
Afrobeat has a fan base in the U.S., and when afrobeat stars from the U.K. and Africa tour the U.S., they sell shows, Kanja said. Aside from himself, on the forefront of Afrobeat, Kanjanames Akon and identifies with P-Square, a Nigerian R&B duo — identical twin brothers Peter and Paul Okoye.
Kanja doesn’t just want to sell shows.
“Me, I’m trying to get to the Grammies,” he told AFKInsider. “I want to be the king of Afrobeat.”
Kanja met his manager, Earl, when he was studying for a degree in theater arts at Hampton University. Earl, who wears many hats, is also an assistant professor of English and cinema studies at the prestigious university. And she’s a singer, songwriter and has managed comedians, poets and writers.
“I’m around students all the time and many of them Google me and learn I’ve worked in the music industry and entertainment,” she told AFKInsider. “Kanja would often come to my office with his music and I’d give him feedback. I made suggestions on improvement and he was very diligent.”
After Kanja graduated, Earl started managing his music career in 2006. The rest is history, she said.
Kanja has had some impressive mentors. He has worked with super-producers including Drumma Boy — they’re working on a track together — and hip hop/R & B producer Carl E. “Chucky” Thompson. He counts among his supporters actor Obba Babatunde and Nigerian businessman Ikechukwu “Iyke” Anoke.
And then there’s business tycoon Chris Kirubi, who helped promote Kanja in Kenya on FM radio — Kirubi owns Capital FM, one of the largest radio stations in Kenya.
Kanja said he got his business acumen from his father, a successful businessman who showed him how to handle money. He talked to AFKInsider about endorsements — “as a musician, you make money through endorsements” — networking — “wherever I am I know how to network myself to the person who makes the decisions” — and cash flow — “I am able to get funding for videos.”
“I’m very creative on how I like to make money,” he said. “I create avenues to maintain my lifestyle.”
Earl talked about some of the feedback and challenges she and Kanja have encountered getting Afrobeat accepted in the mainstream U.S. market.
“When they initially hear Kanja’s music and see pictures of him, they say he’s too heavy handed being so Afrocentric,” Earl said. “Maybe he can tone it down a little to make it more appealing to the American market.”
Her response? “That was a resounding ‘no,'” she said. “That was completely missing the point. That was my response. As the African American, I was supposed to tone it down. No.”
The world premier of new Afrobeat single “Spend It All” was held May 17 in Atlanta.
Earl says she encourages Afrobeat artists in the U.S. to collaborate, share fan bases and help bring the music to the U.S. market. “There’s strength in unity,” she said. “Imagine four, five of them in a space together, collaborating. Reach out via Twitter and say ‘hi’ to Kanja (@kingkanja) because he’s very open.”