The rise of Afrobeats in Boston
Boston dance lovers are moving to a new beat.
“Afrobeats is fresh. It’s new,” said Chidinma “Chi-Chi” Osuagwu, the founder and co-director of Afrobeats Dance Boston. “Afrobeats and its mark on the world is happening right now.”
Afrobeats is the fusion of traditional West African music and Western funk and jazz. A signature element of the genre is its drum beats, born of traditional African rhythms.
The Afrobeats scene is poised to break out, local dancers say. It took off in the UK around 2012, and has been gaining steam in the US. As with hip-hop, dance is an essential part of the artform.
The term Afrobeat was coined in the late 1960s by musician-activist Fela Kuti. And while many fans of Afrobeats credit Kuti as the father of the genre, the music’s modern incarnation casts a broader net, with hip-hop influences and propulsive electronic beats.
With the rising popularity of Afrobeats music and dance — Rihanna performed the iconic South African Gwara Gwara onstage at the 2018 Grammys; elements of Gwara Gwara appear in the video for “This Is America” by Childish Gambino — has come a growing demand.
Osuagwu, 24, of Roxbury, founded Afrobeats Dance Boston during summer 2017. A first-generation Nigerian immigrant to the US, she grew up listening to Nigerian music and later danced with a club as a student at Tufts University. But she felt something was missing for her, and for the city, when she graduated college.
“One thing you see here [in Boston] is a desert of opportunities for black people,” Osuagwu said. “There are barely any affordable dance studios for the community.”
The dance company operates out of community spaces, such as the Alexander Magnolia Co-op in Dorchester, and it welcomes dancers of all ages and abilities. Most importantly, Osuagwu said, is that classes remain affordable.
Each month, the company hosts two community classes, a class with a national or international Afrobeats dancer, and other special events. Community classes cost $5 for adults and are free for children. A special team of dancers rehearse multiple nights a week for performances at concerts, schools, weddings, festivals, and more.
Osuagwu said that most Afrobeats dance moves are rooted in traditional African dance, but the genre is more modern and street-influenced.
“Afrobeats is more of a vibe, a groove,” said Lakeisha St Joy, a 25-year-old dancer with Afrobeats Dance Boston. “In traditional [dance], your whole body is incorporated. There’s a story behind each movement.”
She added that Afrobeats allows individuality to flow through the movements: Dancers can embody joy, sexuality, or spunk. Modern artists — like Ghanaian hip-hop performer Sarkodie with the Azonto dance move in 2011, and Nigerian hip-hop artist Olamide with his Shaku Shaku moves in 2018 — put an emphasis on footwork and style.
“As long as you stay true to the choreography, your style can come out,” St Joy said.
St Joy added that Afrobeats was once a niche genre. But in the past few years, she said, it has seen a similar growth in popularity as Jamaican, reggae-influenced dancehall music, which boomed in the US during the early 2000s thanks in part to artists like Sean Paul.
Co-director Charnice Charmant said Afrobeats dance classes are bringing a “cultural experience” to communities of color in Boston and beyond. The classes offer plenty of background about Afrobeats’ roots and influences.
“We take the time out to explain if a move has historical roots, or if it was recently made,” said Charmant, 24. “There are people that are making up some of these moves, and they are going down in the books.”
The company is not alone in meeting the growing demand for Afrobeats classes and events. Afrobeat Fit hosts “sweat sessions” in Boston, Providence, and nationally.
Kemi Omisore, living in Providence, founded the business in 2016. Like Osuagwu, she launched the classes in response to a cultural gap she saw in dance and fitness.
She grew up with her Nigerian father and Liberian mother playing traditional African and Afrobeats music, and worked for years as a professional dancer. She moved from Atlanta back home to Providence in 2014, and was looking for a way to connect with the music and stay fit.
“It wasn’t so easy for me to go the gym and feel at home in a dance class,” Omisore said. “I wanted to curate a space for West Africa and the music of West Africa.”
The dance fitness classes in Roxbury play music from the entire continent of Africa most Saturdays, with prices usually around $10. To encourage gender parity, men can dance for free.
Millennials are her biggest market, she said. She stressed the importance of imparting a bit of cultural knowledge to younger dancers throughout the hourlong classes.
“The hope is that I’m building this ecosystem centered around culture and inclusive practices and simply the continent of Africa,” Omisore said.
She invites participants to join a closed Facebook group to stay connected, hear about upcoming events, and share music. She says she often shares news about the African diaspora and communities of color.
“I feel like my role is to help others unlearn what they’ve learned about the continent in the American education system,” she said.
Omisore and Osuagwu both said that it’s important for teachers of Afrobeats dance and music to fully and accurately understand its roots. In separate phone interviews, they agreed that Afrobeats is quickly breaking into popular culture, and that they’re going to need to work to keep up.
“I believe it’s going to become mainstream,” Omisore, 30, said. “I believe this is the essence of the African culture. People are interested, they want to learn about it, and they want to be engaged.”