Afrikan Boy's music has attracted a lot of different labels in the few short years he has been in the music industry. Naturally, in a world where little is heard of music from beyond the West, the "world music" tag has become the default catch-all descriptor, though it is not without its flaws. Despite being technically correct (it is, after all, music from the world), this label is one that Afrikan Boy finds contention with. Eager to redefine the label but also cautious that this does not dominate his music or his message, the young Londoner is playing a difficult balancing act as both participant and observer of the term, and the music that falls within its parameters.
Afrikan Boy's 2007 debut single, "Lidl", was an overnight success that took even its creator by surprise. Despite the track being responsible for much of his early success, he is quick to move the conversation on to newer material and, indeed, the future. Afrikan Boy is passionate about his own music, but it’s the subject of Afrobeat and the music that inspires him that really fires him up. From Fela Kuti through to ATL hip-hop and Brazilian percussion, here is a man who travels the world—literally and figuratively—to find new music and new sounds. Complex UK speaks with Olushola "Afrikan Boy" Ajose about his findings.
Interview by James Keith (@JamesMBKeith)
Your music is often described as grime or "world music", yet your music draws its influences from a wide range of cultures and genres. Does this simplistic description frustrate you?
I'm really glad you asked me that because, normally, people just ask me about my music being grime or talking about Afro-funk when, really, that's only a tenth of it. Maybe it's because it's "Afrikan Boy", they just immediately assume it's Afrobeat. I think people just look for the easiest group or genre to categorise me, to be honest—whether it’s grime or world music or whatever. As for world music, though, that term is going under a massive transformation right now. Some people don’t like being classified as world music because there are very specific acts associated with it. Others might say I’m Afrobeat, but I don’t do Fela Kuti Afrobeat.
Personally, I’d say my music is alternative or Afrogrime. But even that isn’t accurate, because my beats aren’t traditional grime beats. It’s a name that hasn't been mentioned before so it’ll be associated to me. I don’t blame people for the labels, but what my music does is sample an Afrobeat or a Fela Kutti beat and take that Afrobeat section and put it in a hip-hop context, in a hip-hop skeleton. It has the Afrobeat spirit, but in a hip-hop body. But then I’ll have DJs saying, "Nah, this is Afrobeat." So I’ll always have that battle, even with other musicians! With my new album, The AB CD, it's the biggest statement because it shows you all of my influences—old and new.
Do you think it's difficult to create music with influences from other countries/cultures without being written off as "world music"?
I don't take it personally. It just reflects on the people who are classing it as that. You can call it that, I don't have a problem with it. My music is appreciated all over the world, so it's all good. It's just not appreciated in England or Nigeria or America. It's appreciated in places I have never been before.
You're always collaborating with new people. Is there anyone out there you want to collaborate with? Are there any we can look forward to?
I’m gonna do something with Sean Kuti. Why? Because he's a real hip-hop head at heart, but he has Afrobeat desires he wants to fulfill. I'd love to do something with Buraka Som Sistema again, because of their beats. People are still waiting for another collaboration with M.I.A, but with one of my songs this time round. I want to do something with Karol Conka from Brazil, too, because her beats are really percussive and she's got this wild Portuguese flow.
What was it like working with DJ Shadow on "I'm Excited"?
My collaboration with Shadow came around through my manager. I agreed to write a song with this really weird and interesting beat. When you listen to the beat of that song, it's nothing like anything I've done in the past. So I found it challenging to work with that beat because it was so out there, but also, I was working with a legend so I felt like there was a little bit of pressure on me there too. I actually had to record my bit quite close to seven times because Shadow's such a perfectionist to meet Shadow's needs. He had a really specific vision and it was the most anticipated album of his career after a long hiatus. It was also the first single, so I don’t blame him for making me re-record it seven times [laughs]. If you’ve waited that long and you’re putting out the first single, it has to be right, right? I can really relate to that. But it was cool because, in the end, we made an amazing video that got nominated for a VMA, in 2011.
You were featured as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympics with Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn, Fela Kuti, Spoek Mathambo and M1 of Dead Prez. What was that like? It must have been incredible!
That was one of the most creative experiences I've had in a long time. They had the Africa Express train with over 80 artists, which was a proper old train from the seventies, the kind you used to be able to smoke on. It was just crazy! I say this a lot but you really could smell different countries [laughs]. You could hear different instruments. If someone walked through with a tape recorder, like, you'd have the most amazing album. You had the meshing of sounds, with the Senegalese old, old, old school African musicians, who were looking at this white boy, Reeps One, who was making all these crazy sounds with his mouth. It was an unrepeatable experience. It felt like I was charging my creative batteries.
Your new album, The AB CD, is out now. But is it true that you've already started work on your follow-up LP?
It is! There are tracks that I’ve started writing on my phone, in voice note form. When it comes to the studio, they’ll start transpiring. Right now, I’m kind of just listening to sounds, taking in experiences and influences. There are so many things that are just creatively bringing my brain to life. My process is to just not force it, relax, and let everything flow. When the right beat comes, that beat will always bring out what needs to be said. And with my track "Made in Africa", from The AB CD project, the beat pulled out the message because it suited it so well.