The five nominees for the inaugural Best African Music Performance at the 66th GRAMMY Awards signal the commercial and cultural prowess of the continent’s music.
No matter who takes home the GRAMMY for Best African Music Performance, they’ll be making history in the process. One of three newly-added categories for the 2024 GRAMMYs, the award is a breakthrough for the African music industry, signaling the commercial and cultural prowess of the continent’s music.
“Giving African music its own category would highlight and celebrate the diversity and richness of Africa,” Shawn Thwaites, project manager at the Recording Academy, said in a roundtable about the new category. “This is a great step forward!”
African musicians have a long history at the GRAMMYs, from Ali Farka Touré to Wizkid. Artists of any African musical style can gain a nomination, whether they make Ethio-jazz, Ghanaian drill, high life, or kwassa. This year, however, one genre’s stars are shining particularly bright: Nigerian Afrobeats stars Burna Boy, ASAKE, Davido, and Ayra Star all netted nominations.
And yet, this can’t be said to have been a conventional year for Afrobeats. The genre’s best and brightest have embraced the sensual, pulsating sound of amapiano, the South Africa-born house offshoot that has taken clubs from London to Lagos by storm. Three of the five tracks nominated take stylistic cues from amapiano, with ASAKE even namechecking the genre in the title of his nominated track. Meanwhile, South African Tyla’s blend of ama and R&B shows the pervasive nature of piano power across the field.
Learn more about the nominees below, and see who takes the pioneering award during the 2024 GRAMMYs, held on Sunday, Feb. 4.
“Amapiano”- ASAKE & Olamide
There are more established artists in this field, but none feel as momentous as Asake, whose rapid rise to fame feels at times like the Afrobeats equivalent of Beatlemania. Thanks to his deeply charismatic persona and spectacular stage presence, he’s become massively popular with just two albums under his belt. And speaking of spectacle, earlier this year he became the fourth Nigerian artist, behind Wizkid, Davido, and Burna Boy, to sell out London’s O2 Arena, entering on a helicopter.
The key to his appeal lies in his embrace of sounds from all over the continent, especially amapiano. His album Work of Art mixes the popular Afro-house offshoot with Mauritian séga music as well as fújì, an Indigenous Yoruba genre from Nigeria.
“Amapiano” works as both a statement on the title genre’s popularity and a subtle flip on its conventions, rearranging elements such as the iconic log drum and combining them with dynamic rapping from Asake and featured artist Olamide. The song’s hook — “Steadily, steadily, heavily, we are getting lit” — is especially irresistible.
“City Boys” – Burna Boy
There’s not a bigger star in Afrobeats, or even the whole of Africa itself, than Burna Boy. He nabbed two consecutive Best Global Album GRAMMY nods for his albums Twice as Tall and African Giant, and he’s also collaborated with global stars such as Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber.
After earning his first UK No. 1 album this year with the classic hip-hop influenced I Told Them…, featuring appearances from 21 Savage, J. Cole, RZA, and GZA, he’s firmly in his imperial era. It’s hard to get away with releasing a track called “Sittin’ On Top of the World” if you’re not doing just that.
Yet it was “City Boys,” that caught the Recording Academy’s attention this year. Produced by MD$ and Ruuben with a sample from Jeremih’s sultry R&B classic “Birthday Sex,” the stomping, glamorous track reminiscent of late-’90s Timbaland beats highlights the path of influence from hip-hop to Afrobeats. In the song’s flashy video, Burna Boy rides around the streets of Los Angeles in a yellow Ferrari and matches an iced-out Richard Mille watch with a Wu-Tang Clan durag, paying tribute to hip-hop’s extravagance and braggadocio. The track also topped the UK Afrobeats Singles Chart in September
“UNAVAILABLE” – Davido Featuring Musa Keys
Asake may have risen to fame based on his embrace of Amapiano, but Davido has been boosting the genre for even longer. Back in 2021 he joined forces with amapiano DJ and MC Focalistic on “Champion Sound,” giving the style a crucial early foothold into the Afrobeats scene.
“Champion Sound” eventually became the lead single for Davido’s 2023 project Timeless, released after the tragic accidental death of his three-year-old son. It’s a record dominated by the forward momentum of Amapiano beats, and “UNAVAILABLE,” the GRAMMY-nominated single from the album, is no exception. A brighter, smoother take on the sound with triumphant choral vocals on the hook, it features confident verses from Davido and collaborator Musa Keys.
Considered one of Afrobeats’ big three along with Burna Boy and Wizkid, Davido first broke onto the scene in 2012. He’s since dueled with the other two artists for records and chart placements, such as Timeless beating Burna Boy’s album Love, Damini as the biggest debut for an album on Spotify Nigeria earlier. The album also gained the most single-day streams for any African album on Apple Music.
“Rush” – Ayra Starr
With an anthemic tone reminiscent of Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Ayra Starr’s track was boosted up the global charts thanks to TikTok virality. Born in French-speaking Benin to Nigerian parents, the 21-year-old moved frequently during childhood, eventually ending up in Lagos to pursue music.
After a brief stint in modeling, she signed to the star-making Mavin Records label in 2020, only their third female act. This nomination is only the latest accolade for her: she’s already earned three Nigerian number one singles, a feature on Wizkid’s track “2 Sugar,” and a spot on the soundtrack to Creed III.
“Rush” is all about staying focused and grinding towards success. Starr sings about the cutthroat nature of the working world with determined fierceness: “Me no get the time for the hate and the bad energy / Got my mind on my money.” The track may have a distinctive Afrobeats clave rhythm and Nigerian pidgin lyrics, but its glimmering synths recall early 2010s electro-pop from the likes of Robyn or Carly Rae Jepsen.
“Water” – Tyla
The youngest nominee on this list and the lone South African artist, 21-year-old Tyla is already a star in her home country, having been nominated for two South African Music Awards.
With “Water,” the lead single from her upcoming debut EP, she also became the first solo musician from South Africa in 55 years to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. Largely driven forward by a popular TikTok challenge, the song debuted at 67 and has peaked at 21 so far.
It’s easy to see the crossover appeal of “Water,” which could be mistaken for an American pop song if not for the sweltering Amapiano instrumental underneath. Singing entirely in English, Tyla’s vocal delivery brims with confidence and desire, especially over the chorus — “Make me sweat, make me hotter, make me lose my breath, make me water” — while the song’s sweltering video turns up the heat further.