Photo: Courtesy of Afro Nation
Obi Asika & SMADE
Afro Nation Co-Founders Smade & Obi Asika Talk Festival Origins, Uniting The African Diaspora & Celebrating Diversity
Afro Nation Puerto Rico, taking place March 18-21, is the first-ever American edition of the swiftly expanding event
With Afro Nation Puerto Rico around the corner on March 18-21 (and a second Afro Nation Portugal in July), the fast-growing new music festival is bringing its vibrant energy to the U.S. for the first time. The first-ever American iteration of the fest—taking place beachside at San Juan's Balneario de Carolina—will be the third event in total since its launch last summer.
Nigerian superstar singers Burna Boy and WizKid, American rap kings Fabolous and Rick Ross, Jamaican reggae act Chronixx, Nigerian Afropop songstress Yemi Alade and Trinidadian soca hero Machel Montano are among the headliners for this month's event. Those are just a few of the names within the epic lineup, which has been rolled out in waves over the past four months.
Each Afro Nation fest highlights the biggest players—and up-and-comers—in Afro-fusion, reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, soca and other black-led musical movements. As cofounders SMADE and Obi Asika share, the idea for the event came from what they saw as a lack of representation in the event space for Afrobeats artists they worked with.
We caught up with the two Nigerian-born, London-based music industry powerhouses over the phone recently to discuss their groundbreaking Afro Nation movement. Read on to learn about the story behind this successful partnership, how they're learning as they go, their hopes and vision for the future and more.
The next Afro Nation fest is coming up soon, the first-ever Puerto Rican event. What are you most looking forward to with this one?
SMADE: We're on our third edition now. The first one was in Portugal in August, and then we've just finished the second one in Ghana in December. We're moving on to Puerto Rico next month, which I'm excited about. I'm looking forward to enjoying the beautiful sandy beaches in San Juan and having fun, as we always do. I'm also looking forward to seeing people from different races and cultures coming together to celebrate African music and seeing the unity that Afro Nation brings to people.
Obi: SMADE and I are both Nigerian, so obviously we do these events to give a platform to artists from the African diaspora. We've done Portugal and it was a lot of the European diaspora. Then, we've done Ghana which is more like the brand coming home. But for me, I'm really looking forward to seeing America because we sold so many tickets to Americans interested in the brand, the music and culture, and the diaspora there.
Also, Puerto Rico is a really interesting place because it's America, but it's also the Caribbean. I can't wait to see how people are going to vibe there and what's going to happen. Every festival we've done so far in different places, they all have their own feel. I think that this is going to be a really interesting one. We've literally got people coming from every part of America. I think it's going to be super interesting and really cool.
Wave 1: Afro Nation Puerto Rico: Patrice Roberts, Beenie Man, 2Baba, Afro B & More
You've been announcing the Puerto Rico lineup in several waves, and it just keeps getting better! How did you choose who to work with?
Obi: When we kick off the lineup, SMADE and I always have a chat and go, "What do we think? Who do we think our crowd's going to be? What are they going to want to see and be interested in?" One of the reasons why we don't announce everything at the beginning is that we want to read the crowd. We read a lot of the messages, we get a lot of the DMs, have all our team telling us what they hear and we do adapt things on the fly. We say, "Okay, let's add that."
These events are something that haven't been done before. We have such a complex and layered culture in terms of from the east, to the south, to the west of Africa, and obviously all the diaspora as well. SMADE and I were saying, we need to go and do a trip to Angola and go and hang there, understand what's going on, so we can understand what the Portuguese side is at.
SMADE: Also, we research and see the best acts to be on the stage. The platform is a huge one. Our stage is one of the biggest stages in the world for the acts, to be honest. What we try to do is research, look out for people that deserve to be on that stage, both from Africa and the diaspora and everywhere really. There's so much talent.
Obi: It is a bit of a voyage of discovery for us. There's so much talent and we want to include everyone, and we want to include everyone for each destination, but it's a process even for us. We are constantly learning about new music and new artists. One thing that we're very fortunate in what we're doing right now is that there's just so much talent. It's a constantly evolving process.
Our crowd is very active on social media. You have some people like, "Why can't we have this person?" and it's always the same names. But we try and give other people opportunities. SMADE and I were laughing the other day because we can't wait to see a performance, I won't say who it is. We wanted to put these two acts together because when we know when they get on the stage, it's just going to be crazy and make new fans. They might be overlooked on social media, but we know that they will be one of the highlights. We try not to make it about booking the same people at every show. We really want to give a focus for everyone. Particularly in Puerto Rico, we are going to add some local acts but expect that year two, there'll be even more local acts.
It's funny, year one of Portugal, everyone was like, "All you guys are about is West Africa." We are West African, so we're understanding things as we go along. SMADE and I spent a lot of time in France this year, because a lot of French people are coming to our show and we didn't even push it for France that much. It was organic. Then we had a couple of shows in France. It was crazy. We realized the market is massive. So, we were like, "We've got to include more French acts next year."
Sometimes we need to push our customers to new things. You don't have to worry about maybe someone doesn't speak the language, because with music you can feel it. When people are on stage, even if they're singing in Spanish or Portuguese or French, we don't actually see an issue in mixing everything up. It can be quite powerful. It's not a worry for us if we think it breaks those barriers.
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It sounds like it really keeps growing naturally as you meet more people and explore different scenes. Do you have any plans or ideas for future locations this year or next?
Obi: Yeah, it does. We've already confirmed another location for this year that will be announced in another month or so. We want to always let people focus on what's next. Right now it's Puerto Rico and Portugal, but yeah, we've got another really great location.
SMADE & Obi onstage at Afro Nation | Photo Courtesy of Afro Nation
Looking back a bit, can you tell me a little more about what inspired you to start Afro Nation together?
SMADE: I think Obi and I, we noticed a lack of representation of our acts. We know how talented they are and how much work they put into their music, but we weren't seeing them on the big stages. So Obi and I came together and we were like, we're just going to do it ourselves. We didn't even think it was going to be this big.
Obi: It's exactly what SMADE said. I'm a talent agent and he is a promoter. One of the things you do as a talent agent is headline shows in order to get your artists on big stages at the festivals. We struck up a partnership quite quickly, because SMADE is incredible. He was selling tickets for Afrobeats where all the big promoters weren't able to do it. We both obviously had a passion for this music, this genre, the culture because of our background. We struck up a partnership and we started having real successes, selling big tickets in London.
It wasn't really translating to the major festivals booking the acts. They wouldn't give them what we perceived as the respect they deserved, and I know a lot of these guys, they're my friends. It was like, "Obi, man, we just got our heads around hip-hop a few years ago, and now you're telling us to put these Afrobeats acts and give them serious, high up billing? We started off as a rock festival." They were also like, all those Afrobeats fans, they won't come to the festivals. They don't buy tickets. Everyone said it's not possible and I was like, how can we be selling out the O2 Arena with WizKid or SMADE selling them out with Davido, and then you're telling me that they can't play this?
"At our events, all the fans are very passionate. It's more than just going to a festival. I feel like it's the pride in their heritage and their culture and in their identity." - Obi Asika
We were just like, "Look, we're just going to do ourselves." And when we did it, it just felt—we weren't expecting it. We just wanted to prove a point, and within 24 hours, all the tickets were gone. People decided to buy a flight, buy a hotel, buy the ticket and go to another country, all for their love of Afrobeats. That's not small, it's a real commitment. I think that's why at our events, all the fans are very passionate. It's more than just going to a festival. I feel like it's the pride in their heritage and their culture and in their identity. It's driven us to keep going. We're having so much fun with it.
It's a very unique situation. Our people are everywhere in every part of the globe and the fans are everywhere. The biggest thing is if you just went on the norms of our industry of music and you say, "Oh, this person isn't on the charts or that person isn't signed to that label," but Afrobeats doesn't actually move to that. One of the things, obviously the success of Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido, all the younger guys coming through is now shining a light on that in the records world. In the live music world, I think Afro Nation has shocked a lot of people that this crowd will buy tickets in advance and [pauses] I don't know many festivals that most of the crowd are female. In Portugal, we had 85 percent female.
The crowd at Afro Nation Portugal 2019 | Photo Courtesy of Afro Nation
That's so cool.
Obi: I tell you, they are really amazing. Watching, I felt, "This is girl power going on." It was crazy. We'd never seen anything like it. It's a very powerful statement. It was a very unique festival. [Afro Nation] is such a positive event and is very special to us. We're very proud of it.
When you think of Afro Nation, what song comes to mind?
SMADE: For me, it's Fela [Kuti], any sound that comes from the legend Fela. Because a lot of these new acts now and the ones that have done great, from Wizkid to Davido to Yemi Alade to Burna Boy, when you see them on stage, that right there, for me, is Fela. That reminds me of Afro Nation. It's not just in West Africa alone. If you look at the highlife artists or the dancehall artists in Ghana, Shatta Wale, Stonebwoy, the way they present their performances and all the stuff that they do on stage just reminds me of Fela.
From your perspective, what you think real diversity and inclusion looks like in the music event space?
SMADE: Honestly with this, it's hard to define because everyone's got a different perspective of what equality looks like. However, right now in the music industry, I think we are heading in the right direction although we still have a long way to go. There needs to be more recognition of all types of genres.
That's the beauty of Afro Nation. Even though the most [focus is on] Afrobeats and African music and the culture, we also infuse the Jamaican acts. Like in Portugal, we had Busy Signal, Buju Banton. And there's the different genres, there's your Afroswing, soca, bashment, reggae, and then Afrobeats. There's also hip-hop. We bring everybody together as one on our stages. We had acts from the U.S., the U.K. and then also from the Caribbean and Africa. Bringing them all together to celebrate the African culture and music in Portugal was a great experience and feeling. The way everybody just connected, I felt like it was part of it.
Obi: I really agree with what SMADE said. To be honest with you, as we said before, it's ever-evolving. As an event and as a brand, we are constantly learning about new genres and what different parts of the world are listening to. It's just about trying to push the envelope. There's a lot of people involved in Afro Nation, from all different parts of the world, putting the show together. We're a very diverse brand and company, but we're always trying to do more. We all have to strive to include everyone and just give everyone an opportunity to do their thing. I think we're a very diverse event. I don't think there's many events that have French, Portuguese, Spanish and English speaking artists.
At our first couple of events, we were very aware that we didn't have enough female acts. There's a lot more female acts for Puerto Rico, and that is something that we have to check ourselves on a little bit to make sure. You just can't be lazy with it. Sometimes, you have to just take your time and find new acts. Maybe if your first choice wasn't available, take a risk on a younger act or newer act. It's important.
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What is your biggest hope, for the next five or so years, in connecting the African diaspora through music and entertainment?
SMADE: My biggest hope is to connect and to use this platform to unify not only the Africans in the diaspora but also for other races as well to also experience and know the African culture. I'll give you an example. We just finished Afro Nation Ghana, and we had people from different races and different culture come down to Ghana. We had [Jamaican act] Popcaan buy a house in Ghana, and shown interest in Africa. We have people that never ever thought they would be in Africa celebrating, leaving their homes, or coming with their families to celebrate in Africa during the festive period.
Obi: Yeah, you were right, SMADE. It was crazy, wasn't it? We'd see the tickets sales and be, "Russia?" Russia, Australia, Ukraine…
SMADE: Right. It was amazing. This is what Afro Nation is doing. This can bring unity amongst everyone, every one of us. I hope the generation coming behind can also be inspired by the growth of the industry, and we can have many more superstar talent like Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade. And even the French-speaking and the Portuguese—there's Afro Portuguese now. From Afro Nation Portugal there are people trying to connect with the [Portuguese] culture, people going back home to check their DNA and all that stuff. This is what we're doing. This is what Afro Nation stands for, unifying.
Obi: I know for me, to be honest with you, I've got two real hopes. I want more, like SMADE's saying, of all these young artists coming through. I just want them to get through and become superstars, so we can have more headliners to keep pushing the industry forward. Now, in Europe anyway, every festival is booking Afrobeats, so half of our job's done. We want to see more commercial festivals booking Afrobeats. Those like Coachella, Reading and Leeds, Lollapalooza, we want to see them booking these acts. That helps the whole machine of it.
We got Ghana done and we're very proud of all we achieved because it's very difficult, as there's no infrastructure of the industry. Ghana is an amazing place. A lot of things work in Ghana like the roads, the airport. It's a safe place, it's super cool, but the entertainment industry, they've got lots of artists but there's no festival. You can't just call up someone and say, "Oh yeah, bring me this fence in and bring me this sound." It was really tough and we really put ourselves on the line because it's very expensive doing these events. But, we came through it, we produced something that we're proud of but we want to build it. We want to help keep building the African entertainment industry, because there's so much potential, there's so many acts.
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7 Incredible Sets From AfroNation Miami: WizKid, Uncle Waffles, Black Sherif & More
At the inaugural AfroNation Miami, stars of the Nigerian Afrobeats movement joined by Caribbean artists, South African amapiano DJs and MCs, all of whom kept the sweltering crowds grooving until late into the night.
If the inaugural AfroNation Miami could be described in one word, it’s hot — in all its meanings.
With thousands of tourists descending on Miami for Memorial Day weekend, many of them celebrating Urban Beach Week, it should be a no-brainer to have a festival focused on Black artists and music from around the world. The thing is, Florida gets pretty balmy in the summer — in the 80s and 90s every day — and the high-humidity heat during the two-day fest felt almost unbearable at times. But artists and fans alike didn’t let the climate ruin their good time.
An incredible selection of talent from across the African diaspora played to an approximately 20,000-strong crowd at LoanDepot Park, usually home of the Miami Marlins. Stars of the Nigerian Afrobeats movement including Burna Boy, Asake, and WizKid gave pulse-pounding performances, joined by Caribbean artists such as Jamaican dancehall talent Mavado and Panamanian reggaetonista Sech. Just outside on the stadium plaza, an entire stage of South African amapiano DJs and MCs kept the sweltering crowds grooving until late into the night.
There were a few snags common to festivals. Some artists, like WizKid, showed up late to their sets. Others, like Beenie Man, dropped out entirely, only to be replaced by the charismatic up-and-comer Shenseea. But more often than not, the international crowd was granted a formidable festival experience, anchored by extraordinary sets from some of the best Black artists in the world. Read on to discover seven of the most jaw-dropping sets from AfroNation Miami.
Asake Bares All-In Enrapturing Performance
Not even clothes could contain Asake’s exuberance — the Nigerian Afrobeats rookie basically undressed himself slowly during his half-hour performance. First he threw away his neon green wraparound shades. Then he ditched his Louis Vuitton jean jacket on the stage floor. His chunky silver sneakers came off at one point, and he finished the rest of the set walking around in his socks. His ear monitor fell out during one of his many twirling dance moves and had to be replaced later by a stagehand.
Eventually, that left his white tank top, which he’d been using to wipe away sweat for the whole performance. That came off at the climax of the show, when the singer stepped over the barrier to commune with the crowd. As a security guard supported him he leaned back in a crucifix pose, letting fans tug at his shirt until he finally tossed it into the throng.
Asake has come a long way in a very short time. The 28-year-old dropped his first album just last year and has been making the media rounds in the states, appearing on "Jimmy Fallon" and "Good Morning America." He’s a star on the rise, representing the new wave of Afrobeats, its embrace of continent-spanning sounds like amapiano (which he namechecks in the title of one of his biggest songs), and its potential to go even more global than it already is.
His stage presence signifies his world-conquering potential. He doesn’t interact with the crowd like Ckay or Burna Boy. He dances and sings, in a deep, sonorous voice, as if possessed by some spirit, staring into the middle distance, concentrating on nothing but leaving it all on the stage. It’s almost as if he was in a trance, and the moment he walked off after performing "Mr. Money," it felt as though everyone present had all snapped out of one as well, hypnotized by this one-of-a-kind talent.
Black Sherif Spits From The Streets
Although he played to a sparse crowd early Saturday, Ghanaian rapper Black Sherif didn’t let that stop him from giving a blistering performance. Fans holding signs thanking him for songs such as "Second Sermon" had camped out in front of the stage, and he didn’t disappoint them, delivering a passionate sermon from the streets.
As a proponent of the gritty Ghanaian offshoot of UK drill known as asakaa, Black Sherif was one of the few hip-hop-oriented acts on a bill dominated by pop and Afrobeats stars. He told stories of darkness and heartbreak with incredible focus and intensity, almost shouting his lyrics at the crowd in a raspy voice. Songs such as "45" feature lyrics in English and Sherif’s native language of Twi, and to his credit, his delivery was flawless through the entire set. He didn’t skip a single word, which is more than can be said for many American rappers.
The drama of Black Sherif’s passionate performance climaxed with his final song, the hit "Kwaku the Traveler," weaving a tragic tale of falling from and grinding his way back to success. About 30 seconds in, the DJ let the beat drop out, leaving the rapper to finish the song with a captivating a capella.
Burna Boy Withstands The Heat For Fuego Saturday Closing Set
Drenched in sweat, even Burna Boy eventually needed a break from the heat. After eight songs straight of passionate performance, he finally turned to a stagehand and declared "I’m gonna need some water."
The fiery performance was the climax of AfroNation’s Saturday lineup, and Damini Ogulu did not disappoint. Backed by a full band even larger than Asake’s, with backup singers, dancers, a brass section, and a drumline playing African percussion instruments, the global superstar dripped with charisma as well as perspiration. His million-watt smile shone brighter than any of the lights in the LoanDepot Park stands as he strutted around the stage and blazed through solo renditions of his biggest hits, including "Secret," as well as tracks from his recent album Love Damini such as the Ed Sheeran collab "For My Hand."
With pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and a stadium full of adoring fans at his disposal, the king of Afrobeats put on an incredible spectacle in Miami, with the most iconic moment coming at the end as the entire ballpark sang the chorus of "It’s Plenty" a capella. But an even more iconic moment may have been after performing his Dave collab "Location" when he recovered a Haitian flag, waved it around, and wrapped it around his neck like a bandanna. Out of all the flags being waved in the audience, this is the one that matters most in Miami with its huge Haitian diaspora population. And when Africa’s biggest star bore it proudly, the crowd erupted.
Ckay Celebrates Love And Money On The Main Stage
Before he went onstage at AfroNation Miami, Ckay’s DJ declared him "Africa’s number one boyfriend." It was easy to see why: Not only did he perform some of his most romantic songs, but the Nigerian singer spent much of the show making eyes at the crowd. And making heart symbols with his hands. And peace signs.
It seems the fans loved him back. The phones all came out upon hearing the opening strains of closer "Love Nwatiti" (a massive international hit and the first No. 1 on Billboard’s Afrobeats chart) and the crowd roared with approval upon hearing the sweet guitar melody on "Emiliana." "This is my first time doing this song in Miami, I want you to make some noise!" he declared.
The show wasn’t all about romance, however. Penultimate song "Hallelujah" is an ode to cash money, and Ckay displayed his clout by bringing out featured rapper Blaqbonez to perform his verse. "If you wanna make some money this year say ‘Ohhhhh,’" the singer said to the crowd before jumping into the amapiano-influenced track. Money and talent — maybe he would make a good boyfriend.
Major League DJz Offer A Scorching Set Of South African Sounds
More than anyone else at AfroNation, Major League DJz showed the world-conquering potential of amapiano.
Closing the stage on Sunday night, the duo ran through a scorching set of amapiano favorites, even slipping in an immaculate remix of Beyoncé’s "CUFF IT" while a succession of MCs pumped up the crowd. Shifting the vibe at will — from intense, futuristic rave and trance-indebted synth tracks to lighter tunes with soulful piano and organ chords, and always with eruptions of log drum bass and skillfully-deployed delays, filters, and other effects — they kept the crowd enraptured and in thrall to the power of ‘piano. So deeply in command of the audience were they that a guest appearance midway through the set threatened to derail it entirely. Atlanta rapper Kali took the stage to perform her song "Area Codes," and the trap-influenced track felt like a wrench thrown into the Majors’ finely-tuned amapiano machine.
Kali wasn’t the only guest appearance, as by the end of the set, it felt as though the entire Piano People collective had come on stage. Over a dozen people stood behind, in front of, and even on top of the decks, celebrating their success and lending their collective energy to give the performance a feeling of unstoppability. The MCs hyped up the crowd, the dancers (including the previous night’s headliner Uncle Waffles) danced, and the rest basked in the vibes of the by-then-bursting crowd. This is how Africa raves, and the rest of the world would be smart to follow along.
DJ Uncle Waffles Brings Impeccable Femme Energy To Piano People Stage
While the stars of Afrobeats took the stage inside on the LoanDepot Park field, outside the stadium the Piano People stage had the feel of a block party. Focusing on the ascendant South African dance genre of amapiano, the stage brought some of the scene’s biggest talents to Miami.
It was Saturday night headliner Uncle Waffles, also the only female artist to headline either stage, that offered the purest take on what makes the genre exciting. Looking like a Matrix character in a black jumpsuit and neon-green hair, the South Africa-via-eSwatini DJ put up a powerful mix of amapiano tracks, including her own massive hit "Tanzania." The pulse of the log drum bass and the steamy rhythms felt right at home in the swampy humidity.
While many of the loudest, most energetic voices at the stage were MCs such as Focalistic and Musa Keys, Waffles, despite primarily DJing, quietly behind the decks. She would often start a track and jump to the front of the stage to join her dance troupe, themselves dressed in cheerleader-style outfits, in thrilling, coordinated dance routines. The energy and enthusiasm onstage and in the crowd manifested itself the most in these moments.
WizKid Shows He's The Star Of The Show
WizKid knows he’s a star (he was calling himself "Starboy" long before The Weeknd) and at his festival-closing set on Sunday night, he delivered a star experience, taking the stage from atop a massive stair-shaped backdrop designed to let him descend from high above the rest of us.
Wearing sequined black pants, a leather fedora, and shades that never left his eyes, Wizzy strutted back and forth on the stage like a proud lion, performing the biggest hits from his massive catalog. Some guests came out, such as Buju for "Mood," while the artist let the crowd sing-along to Drake’s verse on "Come Closer." The instrumentals seemed to switch between a DJ and a live band, both of them obscured by the stage setup.
At other sets such as Burna Boy and Asake, the band was a major feature; here there was nothing to distract the crowd from Big Wiz. He absorbed their love like a sponge, and may have caught some thrown underwear from the crowd too.
Much was made by the artist of the global nature of the crowd. Wizzy started out his set by shouting out all the Caribbeans, from Jamaica to Trinidad and certainly Haiti, present in the audience, before moving on to Africa. "I see your flags, I see you repping for your country right now," he said. "This is a sexy ass crowd tonight, baby!"
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Photos: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence; Matthew Lewis-ICC/ICC via Getty Images; Sean Drakes/Getty Images; Sean Drakes/LatinContent via Getty Images; Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence
5 Artists Essential to Contemporary Soca: Machel Montano, Patrice Roberts, Voice, Skinny Fabulous, Kes The Band
Soca has absorbed various influences, resulting in dramatic changes in its aural identity. Meet five artists whose music remains dedicated to the guiding principle of soca: keeping Carnival revelers energized for extended periods of waving and wining.
Raucous, adrenaline-pumping and oftentimes euphoric, soca has provided the energetic soundtrack to Carnival in Trinidad — the larger island in the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago — for the past 50 years. Trinidad’s world-renowned pre-Lenten carnival, which attracts thousands of visitors and was held this year on Feb. 20 and 21, is the most important event on the soca calendar.
An up-tempo derivative of calypso, soca was initially characterized by a meld of Indian instrumentation with calypso’s African-derived rhythms — a sonic representation of the dominant ethnicities in cosmopolitan Trinidad. Developed by the late calypsonian Lord Shorty, later Ras Shorty I, soca was first heard on his 1973 single "Indrani," as sokah, that is "the soul of calypso."
Soca absorbed various influences throughout the ensuing decades, resulting in dramatic changes in its aural identity. From the soulful, funk and disco-inspired early hits to the swaying, orchestrated brass arrangements heard in the 1980s; soca began to feature "jump and wave," crowd rousing, participatory lyrics supported by hyper-energetic, synth driven rhythms in the mid to late '90s. In the mid-2010s, EDM sonics that impacted the sound of soca, while Afrobeats inflections that have shaped the music in recent years.
Whatever elements are introduced to soca, the music is bolstered by a mandate to keep Carnival revelers energized for extended periods of waving and "wining" — a fluid movement of waist and hips. Press play on the Amazon Music playlist below for more essential soca songs, or listen on Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora.
While some Caribbean islands, including Antigua, Barbados, Grenada and St. Lucia, hold their carnivals in the summer months to increase tourism, Trinidad’s Carnival season officially commences immediately after Christmas, similar to New Orleans’ pre-Lenten Mardi Gras. The Carnival season is rife with parties, concerts and musical competitions, all leading up to two days of boisterous, rum-splashed, masquerading street parades, on the climactic Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday.
In Trinidad, preparations for the following year’s Carnival begin shortly after the conclusion of previous year’s event. In the last quarter of the year, soca artists begin releasing music for the following year’s carnival. Meet five soca artists whose new releases soundtrack 2023 Carnival events, and are making great strides towards taking soca beyond the margins of the seasonal celebration.
The OG of the current generation of soca hitmakers, Machel Montano recently celebrated his 40th anniversary in music. In 2022, which included the publication of his biography, King of Soca, written by his mother/former manager, Elizabeth Montano, Machel’s sold-out Soca Kingdom concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, made him the first soca artist to fill the prestigious venue.
Many soca fans were first introduced to a precocious, 10-year-old Machel with his 1985/1986 endearing hit "Too Young to Soca" or on television talent competition "Star Search" in 1987. He signed to the U.S. independent Delicious Vinyl in 1995 and released the soca/house hit "Come Dig It," which reached international dance audiences.
Throughout the remainder of the '90s, Montano modernized and accelerated soca’s tempo, fusing it with hip-hop beats, dancehall riddims, and techno effects in an effort to make Trinidadian music palatable to a younger generation. The blueprint yielded numerous carnival hits including "Big Truck," the 1997 Road March winner (the song played the most on carnival Monday and Tuesday) and 1998’s "Toro Toro," which catapulted Montano to soca superstardom. Over the decades, Machel has continued to innovate, winning numerous Carnival competitions including ten Road March titles, by working with various songwriters and producers. His many high-profile collaborators include Ariana Grande, Ashanti, Wyclef Jean, Major Lazer, Pitbull, Sean Paul and Shaggy. Montano has performed at the White House and played the lead role in a film based on his music, Bazodee.
For Carnival 2023, Machel has released "Never Again," which expresses heartfelt joy towards Carnival’s return and "Welcome Home," a powerhouse collaboration with Trinidad’s Voice The Artist, Jamaican dancehall luminary Agent Sasco and Trinidadian producer/DJ Travis World. He also dropped the thunderous "Shake The Place," a reunion with Destra Garcia (with whom he teamed up with in 2002 for the anthemic "It’s Carnival"). Machel’s 40th anniversary celebrations concluded on Feb. 17 in Trinidad’s capital, and featured an all-star cast of local and international artists including Afrobeats sensation Wizkid; earlier that day, a "Shake The Place" remix dropped, featuring Trinidad-born rapper Nicki Minaj.
Patrice Roberts’ distinctive, raspy, vocal tone and her assertive lyrics have made her one of the genre’s most popular artists. Like Machel, her former mentor, the dynamic Roberts started her career as a child singing calypso and won several national junior competitions in T&T.
While still in her teens, she became the first female frontline singer with Machel’s band, Xtatik. In 2006, Machel and Patrice’s collaboration "Band of the Year" earned them Road March honors, with Patrice making history as the youngest female to attain that victory. She followed that triumph with a succession of hits, from the charming "Sugar Boy," to the scorching "Wukking Up," to a pledge of love on the Afrobeats-infused "Tender."
Alongside a cast of formidable female dancehall and soca artists, Roberts was featured on Nicki Minaj’s October 2022 "Fine Nine Remix" of Jamaican dancehall star Skeng’s "Likkle Miss." Her biggest hit to date is "Mind My Business," which became a social media phenomenon throughout 2022, establishing Patrice as soca’s most streamed female artist.
Her Carnival 2023 releases include a remake of the late calypsonian Penguin’s double-entendre laden "Soft Man," the reflective "Bless This Party" and another vibrant duet with Montano, "Like Yuh Self," a celebration of Carnival wining.
From his runner-up placement at T&T TV station’s "Synergy Soca Star" competition to winning three consecutive Soca Monarch contests (2016-2018) singer/songwriter Voice (a.k.a. Voice the Artist) has emerged as one of the genre’s most exciting talents. Born Aaron St. Louis, the honeyed-tenor vocalist is renowned for his electrifying live performances and writing songs with substantial lyrics that update classic soca’s danceable grooves with a contemporary polish.
Voice’s Soca Monarch victories were in the competition’s Groovy category, which is the music’s slower paced, more melodic strain. Voice’s initial win in 2016, with the motivational "Cheers to Life," made the then 23-year-old the youngest artist to capture the crown. He triumphed in 2017 with the spiritually resonant, autobiographical "Far From Finished" and prevailed again in 2018 with "Year For Love," a timely commentary on spiraling violence. In 2019, Voice bowed out of Carnival competitions, writing on Instagram that he would "pursue different challenges; my biggest goal now is to do my part to have soca become a globally recognized genre."
During the pandemic, Voice's musical releases continued to impress. 2022’s "Out and Bad" prominently sampled the late icon Lord Kitchener’s 1977 jewel "Brooklyn Woman," creating a pulsating tribute to calypso’s grandmaster. With Carnival 2023 now in full swing, Voice’s current singles include a paean to the multifaceted event, "The Return" featuring Barbados’ soca queen Alison Hinds and a stunning tribute to carnival’s persisting soundtrack, "Long Live Soca."
On the intro to his recently released debut album B. A.D. (Beyond A Doubt) singer/songwriter Skinny Fabulous declares, "I am very happy that I am one of the ambassadors of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I was born to do music, I was born to be of something bigger than myself."
While studying in Kingston, Jamaica, Skinny pursued a career in dancehall reggae; when that didn’t work out, he returned to St. Vincent and fused his love of dancehall with soca. He won the 2008 St. Vincent Carnival Road March with the frenetic "Head Bad" — a song characterized by robust vocals, reminiscent of his musical hero, veteran Jamaican toaster Bounty Killer, who is featured on B. A.D.
"Head Bad" created a demand for Skinny throughout the Caribbean, in the U.S. and in parts of Europe. Skinny has written/co-written several hits for other soca stars including Machel Montano’s joyous EDM-infused "Happiest Man Alive" and his diss record (a rarity in soca) "Dr Mashup," aimed at soca veteran Iwer George. Skinny’s collaboration with Machel and Bunji Garlin — the 2019 Road March winner "Famalay" — made him the first non-national of T&T to share that honor.
Skinny is the executive producer of this year’s Spirit of Carnival Project, with four artists recording hit songs on the same transcendent soca beat: Montano ("The Spirit,") Garlin ("Umbrella,") Kes The Band ("Mental Day,") and Skinny’s "Behavior Nothin." Another big Carnival 2023 release for Skinny is "Come Home" a duet with Nailah Blackman, the granddaughter of soca’s creator, Lord Shorty.
Kes The Band
The beguiling, pop-leaning, rock and reggae-infused soca by Kes The Band has a resonance beyond the Carnival space, yet consistently impacts the heart of the celebration. The resounding dancehall/soca fusion heard on "HoneyComb" (featuring Jamaica’s Busy Signal, produced by Haiti’s Michael Brun), the exuberant "Fuh Spite" and the sugar sweet "Jub Jub," are but a few of the Carnival 2023 gems by contemporary soca’s most versatile outfit.
Kes The Band was formed in Trinidad in 2005 by the three Dieffenthaller brothers, Kees, also called Kes (vocals), Jon (guitar), Hans (drums), and close friend Riad Boochoon (bass); Hans has since departed the band, replaced by Dean James; supporting members are keyboardist Mario Callender and DJ Robbie Persaud.
Kes won the 2020 Road March for his vigorous collaboration with Iwer George, "Stage Gone Bad." Some of the band’s greatest songs haven’t won Carnival contests, nonetheless they continue to enjoy widespread popularity. Their breakthrough soca hit "Wotless," the always-appealing "Endless Summer" and the tuneful, Afrobeats-tinged "Hello" are all delights — the latter song surpassing 70 million streams to become the most streamed soca song released in the last decade. Kes The Band will drop their latest album, Man With No Door, in the summer on Ineffable Records.
On Feb. 14, Kes The Band headlined their own music festival, IzWe. Although it was staged at the height of Carnival 2023, the festival went beyond featuring soca acts to showcase the diversity of T&T’s music and culture. "As a band, we have always been a bridge between genres, and we wanted to create a festival to represent that," explains Kes, adding that they plan to tour the festival internationally.
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Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
DJ Khaled Brings "God Did" To Life Alongside Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, John Legend, & Fridayy | 2023 GRAMMYs
Music's Biggest Night wrapped up in star-studded fashion thanks to DJ Khaled, who joined his "GOD DID" collaborators Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, John Legend, Jay-Z and Fridayy for an epic show-closing performance.
DJ Khaled closed out the 2023 GRAMMYs with a star-studded squad including Jay-Z, John Legend, Lil Wayne, Fridayy, and Rick Ross on their collab "GOD DID."
Spilling into the street outside L.A.'s Crypto.com Arena, the assembled MCs and singers spit their verses and sang their hooks awash in purple light, with Legend seated behind a piano covered in flowers while the rest sat at an opulent, overflowing table in the style of the Last Supper.
"They didn't want us to win! So I made sure I was on the GRAMMYs stage with the biggest! This is for hip-hop!" Khaled shouted in between verses by Ross and Lil Wayne. And later, Jay-Z stole the spotlight as he testified, "These ain't songs, these is hymns 'cause I'm him/ It's the Psalm 151, this New Testament/ The book of Hov/ Jesus turned water to wine/ For Hove, it just took a stove."
The praiseworthy banger raked in three nominations at this year's awards show, including Song Of The Year, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. The album GOD DID was up for Best Rap Album.
The superproducer scored a sixth nomination in the Best Melodic Rap Performance category for "BEAUTIFUL," the Future and SZA-assisted album cut off GOD DID. He nabbed an additional nomination as a guest artist on Mary J. Blige's Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe), which is nominated for Album Of The Year.
Over the course of 2022, GOD DID earned Khaled his seventh career Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to lead single "Staying Alive" featuring Drake and Lil Baby. It also became his fourth chart-topping album on the Billboard 200.
Check out the complete list of winners and nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Photo: (L-R) Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET, Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Scott Dudelson/Getty Images, Timothy Norris/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/WireImage, Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Grey Goose Essences
2022 Year In Review: 7 Trends That Defined R&B
From the return of beloved mainstays to unexpected collaborations, revisit some of the year's biggest moments in R&B.
2022 was a glowing year for R&B, with newcomers and legends alike shattering claims that the genre is on the brink of losing its popularity. It was quite the opposite, actually — newer R&B stars like Flo helped revive '00s nostalgia, and veterans like Babyface showed that there's strength in collaboration.
As the world re-emerges from the pandemic, artists channeled a brighter energy in their music, using more upbeat melodies and lyrics that emphasized fun and romance. Chlöe provided the twerk-friendly anthems, while FKA Twigs' Caprisongs mixtape featured a song for every kind of party imaginable.
There were plenty more R&B stars new and old who contributed to the genre's shine this year. Below, revisit some of 2022's biggest moments in R&B.
The Ladies Seduced Us
R&B has always maintained a sensual core, and the women of the genre confidently reminded listeners of that fact throughout 2022. On her second album Age/Sex/Location, Ari Lennox explored the ebbs and flows of lust with songs like the NSFW "Leak It" (featuring Chlöe) and the flirtatious "Hoodie." Chlöe also continued to unleash her seductive goddess on her solo single, "Surprise."
Two years before SZA dropped her long-anticipated second album, SOS, in December, she showed off her pole-dancing skills in a 2020 Instagram post teasing single "Shirt." (And when lead single "Good Days" arrived in March, she continued her seduction in the outro of the music video.) The LP details the journey of post-lust heartbreak and how to regain one's confidence, from the sneaky affair of "Low" to feeling empty on the punk rock-inspired "F2F."
Peacock's Bel-Air star Coco Jones proved her singing ability was equally as strong as her acting skills, as she captured hearts with her debut EP, What I Didn't Tell You, including the yearning single "ICU." Amber Mark, also a fellow newcomer, released her debut album Three Dimensions Deep. The LP features an array of genres, but songs like "Softly" are what really entranced listeners.
Singers From Across the Pond Ruled
The appreciation for R&B spans shores, and British artists delivered fresh spins on the genre. Cheltenham's FKA Twigs set the energetic tone with the January release of her first mixtape, Caprisongs, which is filled with a kaleidoscope of sounds from drum and bass to trap. Leicester's Mahalia navigated heartbreak with her Letter To Ur Ex EP. Southampton native Craig David tapped back into his '00s style with his nostalgic eighth album, 22, which opens with an interpolation of fellow R&B star Jon B.'s 1998 classic, "They Don't Know."
After winning over stateside fans in 2018 with her GRAMMY-winning single "Boo'd Up," London-born Ella Mai returned with her sophomore album Heart on My Sleeve — a self-described "therapy session" that highlighted the artist's diaristic songwriting. London also spawned a new girl group this year with Flo, a trio who channeled the heydays of '00s pop&B with their debut EP, The Lead.
Afrobeats Trickled Into The Genre
Afrobeats' international popularity has surged over the past few years, so much so that other genres are now borrowing its infectious groove. This year, R&B singers infused the genre into their own sounds, further showcasing Afrobeats' versatility.
FKA Twigs' Caprisongs features "Jealousy," a mellow collab with burgeoning Nigerian artist Rema. Two months later, Rema dropped R&B-infused music of his own on his debut album, Rave & Roses, which featured guests like 6lack and Chris Brown.
The month of June gave way to sweltering summer collaborations. Diddy paired up with Bryson Tiller on the brooding "Gotta Move On," which scored the music mogul his 11th No. 1 on Billboard's Adult R&B Airplay chart. And in true Diddy fashion, he dropped a "Queens" version featuring Yung Miami and Ashanti.
Not long after, Chris Brown and Wizkid joined forces for "Call Me Every Day." Marking their third collaboration, the sultry smash illustrated just why they're crowned the princes of R&B and Afrobeats, respectively.
Artists Took It Back To The Club
R&B is not always about love songs and heartbreak. Rather than dwell in their feelings, a handful of singers opted for a more lighthearted approach in their music. After jumpstarting her solo era with last year's booty anthem "Have Mercy," Chlöe kept the ode to curves going with "Treat Me." Built atop a sample of Bubba Sparxxx and the Ying Yang Twins' 2005 hit "Ms. New Booty," "Treat Me" is a self-confidence anthem.
Baby Tate also borrowed an Atlanta crunk staple from the same year for "Ain't No Love." Featuring fellow Georgia native 2 Chainz, the bouncy tune samples Ciara's "Oh" collaboration with Ludacris, spinning the '00s classic into a modern-day jam.
On the opposite coast, Los Angeles' own Blxst solidified his signature laid-back style with his debut album, Before You Go. Lead single "About You" is best served with a cold one and a two-step.
Kehlani then took listeners to their native Bay Area with April's Blue Water Road album (where Blxst also makes an appearance). The Slick Rick-sampling "Wish I Never" is the ultimate '90s house party jam while the upbeat "Up At Night" with Justin Bieber will do just what its title implies.
Other club genres also came into play, with Ravyn Lenae experiencing house euphoria on Hypnos' "Xtasy" and FKA Twigs going full dancehall alongside shygirl with Caprisongs' "Papi Bones."
There Were Many '90s Celebrations
The '90s still has a tight grip on R&B's current sound, and the artists who ruled that decade proudly reminded us of that fact in 2022. For the 25th anniversary of Mariah Carey's transitional Butterfly album, the icon released a special re-edition that features an updated version of "The Roof" (with added vocals from Brandy) and "Whenever You Call" (with Brian McKnight), a live version of "My All" from VH1 Divas Live, the "Amorphous Anniversary Club Remix" of the title track and more.
Usher also got in the commemorative spirit, releasing My Way (25th Anniversary Edition) — which happens to share the same Sept. 16 anniversary as Carey's Butterfly. The new edition included reimagined versions of three tracks: "My Way (Ryan James Carr Remake)," "Nice & Slow (Ryan James Carr Remake)" and "You Make Me Wanna… (Ryan James Carr Remake)."
To commemorate another 25th anniversary, Erykah Badu celebrated her GRAMMY-winning Baduizm debut with a pair of shows at London's Royal Festival Hall.
Other '90s celebrations came from R&B quartet Xscape, who received the Lady of Soul honor at the 2022 Soul Train Awards, and new artist LAYA, who honored Missy Elliott with a cover of the rapper's 1997 single "Sock It 2 Me" for Women's History Month.
Alt-R&B Girls Made A Return
The beauty of R&B is in its sonic diversity. Alternative R&B has blossomed in popularity over the years, and 2022 saw the return of some of the subgenre's leaders.
Santigold made a thrilling return with Spirituals, the singer's first album in six years. An emotional journey through lockdown, the LP fuses gospel, electronica, punk and pop, all tied together with Santigold's signature yelps.
Another long-awaited comeback came from Kelela, who re-emerged in September after a five-year hiatus. Her single "Washed Away" is the launchpad to her second album Raven, which will be released next February. "Raven is my first breath taken in the dark, an affirmation of Black femme perspective in the midst of systemic erasure and the sound of our vulnerability turned to power," Kelela shared in a press release.
Although Solange didn't give fans new music in 2022, the singer was honored with the 2022 NYU Global Trailblazer Award for Creative and Artistic Excellence in March. And ever the ever-unpredictable star, she composed a score for the New York City Ballet that came to life with a performance at the Lincoln Center in September.
Old School Met New School
This year, there was no separation of generations. Rather, the "legend vs. newcomer" hierarchy was completely dismissed, as artists from the '60s to today joined forces in the recording studio.
Ronald Isley and Beyoncé wooed soul fans with their rework of "Make Me Say It Again, Girl," which originally appeared on the Isley Brothers' 1975 album, The Heat Is On. Isley's wife/manager Kandy told Billboard that Beyoncé's mother Tina Knowles-Lawson was integral in the collaboration, marking a full-circle moment for the star, who grew up listening to the group. "The fact that they are giving us permission to put it out at this time is just overly special," Kandy said.
Ciara and Summer Walker's lilting vocals complemented each other on "Better Thangs," while SZA (whose stage name pays homage to Wu-Tang Clan member RZA) featured the late Ol' Dirty Bastard on SOS. Elsewhere, PJ Morton's latest album is a celebration of collaboration, with guests Stevie Wonder and Nas on "Water," and Jill Scott and Alex Isley on "Still Believe."
In October, Babyface passed down his GRAMMY-winning torch to the women of R&B with his collaboration album, Girls Night Out. Solely featuring the new generation of female singers, from Muni Long to Ari Lennox, the album showed that romance has no age.
Mary J. Blige donned her Queen of Hip-Hop Soul crown on her latest album, which features rappers like Dave East and Fivio Foreign. On the opposite end, Toronto R&B duo dvsn teamed with male R&B group Jagged Edge on "What's Up" from the former's Working on My Karma album.
Whether it was R&B's legends or promising newcomers making waves, this year had plenty of proof that the genre is still thriving — and never going anywhere.
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