Love and Wizkid

Coming of age with Afrobeats

A sea of people on a dance floor, painted in blue tones.
Denzil Forrester, We Itchin’. 2021, oil on canvas. 108 × 81". Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. © Denzil Forrester.

It’s 2011. Three years have passed since Florida native T-Pain gloriously rhymed “mansion” with “Wisconsin,” when, in the most unremarkable corner of a triangle of cities in North Carolina, I hear a young singer from the other side of the Atlantic rhyme “corner” with “Dolce & Gabbana.” Perhaps he’s emboldened by Rappa Ternt Sanga, or perhaps he isn’t looking that far west. In either case, the way he bends those last syllables sends a current through my high school–age peers, the bicultural teens of the African diaspora. That moment of simple brilliance is not alone. It’s one of many on his 2011 debut album Superstar. On the same record, “Pakuromo” makes Fuji musicthe quintessential Yoruba sound, steeped in history and channeled through handheld percussionsound futuristic and undeniably youthful. The fidelity and lack thereof depend on and toy with our diasporic allegiance to our heritage, as fraught and as comforting as it can be. Is this some kind of reminder to honor the past, or is it just a play for an intergenerational market? More importantly, who is this kid and how is he so good? By this point there’s no shortage of African pop music making its way abroad, but none of it sounds quite like Wizkid.

I don’t find him on my own. As with most things, I’m put on. The musical plug of my high school friend group is A., a lithe, dark-skinned beauty born to a short Nigerian man and a statuesque Trini woman. A. is naturally jolly, but she reserves the extremes of her enthusiasm for junk food, cute boys, and good music. She has the most control over her audio intake. Unlike boys, it doesn’t have to like her back, and unlike foodfor better or worseit often doesn’t cost any money. A. keeps her ear to the digital streets, poring over YouTube and shoddy mixtape sites that the rest of us steer clear of, fearing malware.

But we also love the convenience of her labor. We don’t read music blogs or frequent record stores. Instead, three or four of us pile into A.’s worn Camry every day after school. A. checks for extra cash in the glove compartment. This will determine whether we’re feasting on Chinese takeout or sharing frozen strawberry lemonades and salty fries from McDonald’s. Once that’s sorted, she starts the car but doesn’t move. She has to make a music selection. Her choice is critical as it will determine the mood of our post-meal cruise around the city. Those few seconds after she hits playwhether or not our faces contort with approval, our bodies start to rock, our fingers itch for our phones to note the song and the artist for laterare precious. “Have you heard of Wizkid?” she asks one afternoon.

I love Wizkid immediately. In the way you might love your mother or fried plantain, it’s natural, it’s obvious. In some ways the enormity of my affection doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you are to catalogue the tangible aspects of our livesthe hard facts, so to speakwe don’t have much in common. I’ve never set foot in Lagos, the chaotic city where he was raised and that animates all of his music. I can barely pick up the pidgin he seasons his songs with and certainly don’t understand any of the Yoruba. There’s no feeling of kinship in the strictest sense. I can’t imagine him in my family or my friend group, not even aspirationally. And yet his music still feels like a mirror. Somehow there I am, in the rhythmic scatter of the drums that touch every corner of the Black Atlantic, in the auto-tune-assisted ad-libs, in the loose materialism and euphemized sexuality of his lyrics. Despite the concreteness of his upbringing, he declines to commit to anything too culturally specific in his music (we now comfortably call it pop, but back then “Afrobeats” was contested territory). His refusal not only legitimizes but also celebrates the unmoored feeling of my upbringing.

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