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One in six albums sold worldwide last year was produced by the UK music industry, headquartered in London. The city’s streets teem with pop history, from tourists mimicking The Beatles on Abbey Road’s zebra crossing to The Kinks’ urban-pastoral masterpiece “Waterloo Sunset”. The capital is one of the world’s great musical hubs. But platinum records and household names are only part of the story. There are numerous other musical Londons too.
I find one on a summer evening at the O2 Forum Kentish Town, a 2,300-capacity venue in north London filled with a young, dressed-up audience. Almost all black Londoners, they have come to see the Nigerian-born, Ghana-based singer Mr Eazi, a star in his adopted homeland who is trying to crack the UK.
The 25-year-old performs with a large band and various guest rappers and vocalists. He wears a wide-brimmed woven hat in tribute to a semi-nomadic tribe scattered throughout west Africa, the Fulani. His music is semi-nomadic in a more modern way, a fusion of west African, Caribbean and US urban music that goes under the umbrella term Afrobeats. London is a prime point on its compass.
“When I look at the metrics — the online views, sales and streams — London has always come up as number one,” Mr Eazi (real name Oluwatosin Ajibade) explains before the concert. “London is a major HQ in terms of people actually paying for the music.”
Among the musicians joining him on stage is his producer, DJ Juls (real name Julian Nicco-Annan). A Londoner whose Ghanaian parents came to the city in the 1970s, he produces music alongside his job as an analyst at Ghana International Bank’s City of London offices. He began working with Mr Eazi in 2014 after hearing his songs on the online platform SoundCloud.
“I think London is the starting point,” Nicco-Annan says. “If you are a popular figure in London it’s definitely going to cross over to the rest of the world. Americans are kind of stuck in their own thing: if it doesn’t relate to their culture, they’re not really going to mess around with it too much.”
Nicco-Annan, 30, and Mr Eazi join a long line of travellers on the musical trade routes between Accra, Lagos and London. The passage of ideas, money and people dates back to the rise of the recorded music industry in the 1920s, when the UK capital was the centre of the largest empire in history.
“There was a lot of movement between London and anglophone west Africa back then, in terms of records recorded in the UK and physically manufactured there,” says Lloyd Bradley, a music journalist and author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital. “The technology was much more advanced than it would have been in Lagos or Accra, which is why Africans would come over to record. The studios were better.”
The live circuit was another draw. “A musician or band could come over here and make money as a session player in the nightclubs, with all sorts of different styles of music requiring black musicians,” Bradley says. “There was a craze for Cuban music in the 1930s, for instance. If you were a sax player from Lagos you could earn more in London.”
Such exchanges were common throughout the empire. In the Caribbean, descendants of indentured workers from India created so-called “chutney music” in the 1940s and contributed to the rise of soca in the 1970s. Ghana’s uptempo highlife music, an influence on Mr Eazi, developed from local folk and western styles in the 19th century.
From the 1950s, transformed by immigration from former UK colonies, London added its own hybrid creations. In the late 1970s, the Punjabi folk genre bhangra was revolutionised by a band called Alaap from Southall, a west London suburb, which supplemented traditional instruments with the synthesised sounds of disco. Exported back to India, the rebooted bhangra proved immensely popular.
“I came up with new ideas — meaningful and respectable lyrics, melodious compositions, mixing Indian instruments with western sounds, which had never been done before in Punjabi music,” says Channi Singh, the founder of Alaap, who is nicknamed the “godfather of bhangra”.
London, to which Singh moved in 1975 from India, was crucial. “Living in Southall, I was able to find out that Asian youngsters who were born in the UK wanted something more relevant to them than their parents. So I was able to fill this big musical and cultural gap.”
A similar development occurred in reggae during the 1970s with the invention of lovers rock, a London elaboration that emphasised romance and melody in reaction to the macho Rastafarianism that dominated Jamaican music at the time. It found a grudging audience in the birthplace of reggae. “Jamaicans, being Jamaicans, were rather scornful of anything made in England, so the singers would never admit they recorded these songs in England,” Bradley says.
Modern London incorporates an immense diversity of music. Eastern European, Russian and Turkish pop stars play to large diaspora audiences. J-pop acts from Japan and K-pop acts from South Korea visit in search of followers. It takes place under the nose of a largely indifferent UK music industry, too busy selling records to the world to notice the world at its doorstep.
The Afrobeats scene, which Mr Eazi is part of, is trying to break through that wall of industry indifference. In 2013, it produced a crossover star in the form of London rapper Fuse ODG. Mr Eazi is hoping to do the same. “In the last six months I’ve come here three times,” he says. “In terms of sales figures it has increased from then until now. It looks as though London is becoming the centre of everything.”
Mr Eazi played a showcase for UK labels in March. But precedents are discouraging. In the past, big labels have tended to view hits from outside their main pop and rock constituencies as one-offs. Calypso had a brief period of popularity in the UK in the 1950s but was forgotten when rock and roll took off. Lovers rock supplied a number of hits in the 1980s but received only a weak endorsement from the establishment. The same has been true of bhangra. “In my view, UK bhangra has developed very little with the support of the UK music industry,” Singh says.
Franco-Cameroonian singer Coco Mbassi moved to London from Paris 12 years ago. A winner of music awards in France and Germany, she has found the city to be less receptive to her particular blend of African music, classical, jazz and gospel. “I’m too much in the middle for a lot of UK-based African music critics,” she suggests. “In France there is a more open mind to fusion styles such as Afro-jazz.”
Lack of mainstream support does not outweigh London’s advantages as a musical entrepôt. “Being able to be yourself without being questioned constantly because of the colour of your skin or whatever, it’s a big release, it just changes your life. I know good music comes from suffering, but I am not so fond of suffering,” Mbassi says.
While Mbassi’s experiences have been nuanced, the jumbling of genres that takes place ceaselessly on the capital’s streets is an essential part of its allure for Mr Eazi. “I feel that London is a city of mixed cultures — and not just mixed cultures but cultures that are open to different things,” he says.
Meanwhile, the technology that enables him to pore over his sales metrics has also reduced the power of record labels, allowing him to make and distribute songs himself. Recordings made in Accra can be sent to DJ Juls in London at the touch of a button. This is how pop music will increasingly be created in an urbanised, globalised 21st-century world, with London as one of its centres.
“So much of the music in London is already made like that,” says Bradley. “It’s the genuinely multicultural nature of proper Londoners — I mean multiculturalism as you’ll find it in playgrounds or pubs or mucking about in dancehalls. That’s what London is.”