Debates are ongoing about Drake's claim to the African sounds of "One Dance" and "Madiba Riddim," but there’s no denying Young Paris’ status as a cultural ambassador. Drake’s diasporic voyeurism does help to rouse Americans’ curiosity about Afrobeats, but if the genre is going to cross over, its Young Paris, whose Afrobeats EP was released March 24, who is best poised to lead the takeover.
The 28-year-old rapper/model/producer was born to Congolese parents and raised in Europe and Brooklyn. His father, Elombe Badila, co-founded the National Ballet of Congo. He is both product and student of Africa’s musical legacy, often sharing historical insight like, “Any African will tell you this—Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana—will tell you the Congolese were the biggest home for music in Africa for many, many years. We actually introduced recorded music as a bigger denomination in the continent.”
Young Paris is careful to distinguish between Afrobeat—the fusion of highlife, jazz, and funk popularized in the ‘70s by Fela Kuti—and Afrobeats, the current, contemporary iteration of African music. As he sees it, the Afrobeats wave is rising worldwide, and it will be a long time before it crests. With the power of Roc Nation behind him, Paris could be the lens through which more people come to embrace, and respect, the sound.
His new EP Afrobeats spans the continent to show the versatility of the burgeoning genre. From the powerhouse, hardcore kudoro of Angola to the upbeat Afro-pop vibes of Nigeria, Paris has infused the 8-track composition with sounds that “go around the diaspora of Afrobeats,” he tells Complex in the studio while putting the final touches on the project.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Afrobeats is a pretty ambitious title. What’s your intention behind naming the project after the entire genre?
It’s so hard to pay attention to Afrobeats because it’s moving so fast. I feel like with this project i had to look at it in third person but also view it from the culture. It’s almost like I’m classifying a genre with this project. So Afrobeats is really to say, “This is a genre, this needs to be classified.” When you go to iTunes, you go to Pandora, you go to Tidal, we need our category that says Afrobeats. I have somewhat of an executive kind of business mindset, and I’m also a musician, so I’m looking at it like, yo, we gotta own our shit while it’s ours.
This is my way of saying, they’re calling it Afro-fusion, Afro-jazz, Afro-pop and Afro all these crazy things, and I was like let me a tastemaker and just say let’s call this Afrobeats and have all these subgenres within it.’ But I just love what everyone’s doing on the continent. Right now Africa’s having an amazing wave of contemporary music, and this project is really to embrace that but also to showcase my interpretation of it.
So you’re canonizing it, but also helping it to crossover.
I find that a lot of times when you’re trying to introduce a sound, from how I’ve studied the game, you can’t come in too foreign because it becomes like a foreign sound. Alot of Afrobeats, the reason why it’s hard for it to translate to this audience is because they’re singing in Yoruba, the traditional language, and people don’t really know the lyrics, so it’s kind of hard for it to catch radio. But the songs that have more English have been able to kind of stick. So Wizkid, he’s basically mastered that because he knew to sing it in English and people can kinda sing along to his vibe, and that just works more.
So studying the whole vibe, I was like, I don’t want the sound to be completely foreign. I want it to be in a way where it kinda has the trap vibe to it, it’s kinda got that hip-hop shit that we do, but it has that swing on it, the Afrobeat sound.
When you speak of classification, it seems like “world music” at the Grammys could be the umbrella. You don’t think Afrobeats fits into that category?
I don’t look at this as world music. I don’t like the world music concept. I think when you think about world music, you think of like old, traditional Chinese sitar, the Brazilian samba genre, and all that. It’s a worldy vibe; it has nothing to do with pop culture. But they just try to castrate shit. If they do it to Drake with fuckng hip-hop and pop, they’ll do it to anyone. I don’t really like that concept. It’s corny. Not that world music is corny, but just to try to put artists in boxes…
Your music is typically a fusion of contemporary genres—there’s dance, pop, hip-hop. With all the mixing, what distinguishes it as Afrobeats
Once there’s an African artist on it. And a lot of times you hear Wizkid’s stuff it sounds like reggae, it sounds like South African music, or it’s way out [there]. It’s not the exact Afrobeat sound, but it’s Wizkid, so it’s still Afrobeats. I found that the way to classify to this degree if I was to look at it from a strategic standpoint: Is this an African artist that embraces being an African artist and it has an African vibe to it?
Wale could jump on a track and just start rapping on one of these beats and people would embrace it ’cause he’s an African.
So what I try to do is, even if the beat sounds like a regular beat, my melodies will [have an] African dialect vibe. I’ll add ambiances that make u feel like, OK, this is going to another place. This feels a little bit more harmonized, it’s got different rudiments that we do within our culture, different adlibs adding the African ambience to it. Usually if it’s an African artist—I mean Wale could jump on a track and just start rapping on one of these beats and people would embrace it ’cause he’s an African.
People often compare you to Fela Kuti. What do you make of that?
I would never be able to accept that comparison because Fela is Fela. My mentality is very traditional and contemporary, so I find in a lot of ways, people really dive into the details of this project and try to make that comparison. I won’t accept it out of my own humility, but I get it. I embrace my culture, I show it boldly whatever I do, wherever I go, and I’m also able to translate that to the world, and I do it with pride and still have success. So I understand it. I think it’s a huge compliment. But I’m more interested in walking in the footsteps of my father—which is somewhat of a similar story.
A lot of this stuff is really feel-good, it’s not so much sit-down-listen-to music. It’s not like a rap album where you’re listening to all the lyrics and you’re like, yo, that’s hard. It’s more like you’re in a vibe and you’re enjoying it.
It’s more high-low. I’m obviously socially conscious, but I try to keep my content more open now where everyone can kinda relate to it.
Are you worried about what will happen to the sound once it’s mainstream? If you heard a whole bunch of Justin Biebers on Afrobeats records how would you feel?
He’s already been doing it! Oh my god. But they’re not doing it with African artists yet. It depends. Like, Drake and Wizkid together on a song makes the culture bigger, so you need those looks. Seventy percent of the reason why all artists collaborate is to cross audiences. Afrobeats, there’s millions of hits, millions of dollars being made, but it’s not hip-hop yet. It’s not this global, understood genre. I found that when you’re the small guy you gotta kinda play by the rules. I think If it’s the right song and Justin does it with an African artist, it’s a good look for Afrobeats. But I think that if it’s just a bunch of Justin Biebers on a track that sounds like this, then it’s just taking the culture.
So you're always thinking big picture.
We’re just pushing the sound over here—literally kicking the door down. Drake really did open new sounds to where the radio is going. You find a lot more tropical rhythms, from what Alicia Keys was doing, Justin Bieber, Rihanna… I find that they’ve been touching on that vibe, but when people want the culture they’re gonna know that Afrobeats is the culture. All it takes is just a few big records on the radio for everything to just turn on. Everybody’s just making music and just seeing where it goes.