Africa Unsigned is an Amsterdam-based start-up music label founded by Pim Betist that promotes African artists. Under Mr Betist’s watch, Africa Unsigned has invested €525,000 (about $725,000) in helping more than 40 artists and bands tour and release albums that represent what they deem the “new African sound,” such as Kenya’s acoustic vocal group Sauti Sol. “I like to call them the East African Boyz II Men,” Mr Betist says.
“The music industry is broken, and we have to fix it,” Mr Betist said. He is confident that can be done. Africa Unsigned relies heavily on a fan-funding platform similar to the one employed by Mr Betist’s previous effort Sellaband.com, which eventually went bankrupt but has since re-launched.
Mr Betist is not the only taste-maker focusing his efforts on Africa. After promoting successful, Grammy award-winning American hip hop and soul artists like The Roots and Erykah Badu for more than a decade, the Brooklyn-based online hip-hop community OkayPlayer now has a sister site called OkayAfrica that promotes African musicians in similar genres. Unlike Africa Unsigned, OkayAfrica is not a standard record label, but it has committed $500,000 to developing an online platform for such artists as Seun and Femi Kuti, K’naan, Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew, and Afrikan Boy.
“We’re looking to break the mold of ‘world music’ and highlight those on the continent really pushing the boundaries and innovating with cutting edge music,” said Ginny Suss, OkayAfrica’s site manager. “Forward-thinking stuff that fuses hip hop, electronic music, and reggae with more traditional sounds.”
Sales fluctuate. K’Naan, for example, sold 70,000 albums in 2009 but dropped to 44,000 in 2010. But his digital album sales rocketed from 233,000 in 2009 to 485,000 in 2010.
A 2010 UN report claims that demand for music and other “creative industry” products has remained stable during the global recession, and global exports of creative goods and services, e.g. music, more than doubled between 2002 and 2008. The report concluded that for developing countries, creative industries could prove to be “one of the most dynamic sectors of world commerce.” Africa is mentioned throughout the report, as is the Creative Africa initiative, a long-term strategy to help the continent benefit economically from its creative talents and cultural heritage.
Earlier this year Wired Magazine described an “entrepreneurial boom” in Africa full of “vast new tech opportunity.” Aware of this, Africa Unsigned makes their music available through mobile phones, whose availabilty and use have soared throughout Africa since the late 1990s.
Last March, at a “Marketing 21st Century Music in Africa” discussion panel at the annual South By Southwest festival (SXSW) in Texas, Ngozi Odita, who lives in New York and describes herself as a curator of comtemporary African culture, argued that music and culture is Africa’s strongest export. As evidence, she cites Kanye West, the award winning hip-hop artist and producer who earlier this year signed Nigerian musicians D’Banj and Don Jazzy to G.O.O.D music, the record label and artist management firm he founded in 2004. Artists on African record labels such as Storm 360 regularly tour Africa and overseas.
Ms Odita, originally from Nigeria, runs the media site Society HAE, a hub for contemporary African culture and music. This summer she organised “Live From the Continent,” an event at the Lincoln Center at which African artists such as South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo performed. She is producing a music showcase of 12 African music acts this spring at SXSW.
“In the 90s, they always said there was a brain drain in Africa. People got their education, and then left the country. Now, people believe they can be successful in their own countries,” she argues. “It’s indicative of the opportunities now available on the continent, and the direction the country is moving in. People have their own vision. There’s been a changing of the guard. Artists are making music, but are conscious of what their role is, wanting Africa to be different than the Africa they have known.”
The full story is at the ECONOMIST
Photo: Nick Klaus