Behind the Playlists: African Heat

The cover of the African Heat playlist featuring a photo of artist Focalistic
Lawrence Burney / March 12, 2021

Editor Melanie Carmen Triegaardt discusses the importance and diversity of African dance music and how she curates the popular playlist.

In late February, Spotify announced a groundbreaking expansion into over 80 new global markets. Many of those markets are in Sub-Saharan African nations, which will give access to the continent with the world’s largest youth population. This move is an extremely promising one for the African Heat playlist and the artists featured on it. Before, the artists from places that created the majority of the music on the playlist weren’t able to listen to it. But now, with the expanded access, one can only imagine the possibilities that will come from African artists being able to engage with one another’s work in a way that was not possible just a month ago.

To celebrate African dance music and the playlist itself, we’ve launched the “African Heat to the Streets” campaign and the #AfricanHeatChallenge. In our just-released campaign video, directed by South African filmmaker Zandi Tisani, groups of acclaimed and talented young dancers in Johannesburg, London, Lagos, Accra, and New York showcase a barrage of synchronized dance moves on rooftops, alleyways and roads. It’s important to note that they’re all dancing to: “Ke Star” by Focalistic, a track that’s featured on the African Heat playlist and an example of the playlist’s commitment to amplifying the hottest music coming from the continent.

In a recent conversation, the playlist’s editor, Melanie Carmen Triegaardt, spoke about the work that goes into curating African Heat, the potential it has to amplify music from the continent at a previously unheard-of rate, and the cross-pollination that it could inspire for creators throughout the African diaspora.

What goes into your curation of the playlist? Is it based on your personal taste or what’s having the biggest impact in the diaspora?

It’s more of a collaborative effort by my team as we monitor hits coming from the continent right now, be it West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, Central Africa; or tracks from the diaspora focusing on the USA, UK, France, Netherlands, Brazil, and maybe a sprinkling of those that could be potential hits that fans should look out for. Our decisions are informed by a combination of data and editorial instinct. With Spotify’s expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa we will now have access to even more accurate data on the listening trends and habits from the continent.

From your experience so far, have you seen an uptick in listeners outside of the diaspora?

100%. There’s markets across the world that may not necessarily have a big diaspora the way that the US, UK or France do. However, you still find markets like Australia consuming African Heat or let’s say markets like Mexico. For me, African Heat is not just for Africans. It’s for African music lovers.

Could you speak to why a playlist like this is so significant, especially in the way that music is moving right now? In the past five years or so, a lot of the world has become familiar with what is coming out of the continent, specifically in West and South Africa.

I think it’s incredibly important because it speaks to African music lovers first and foremost. Spotify’s expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa is such an important moment not just for African creators, but for African music fans across the world. For me personally, it’s an exciting time to be in this space because music discovery is a lot easier and tangible. And I also expect we’re gonna see an increase in cross-pollination or cross-border collaborations with artists within the continent. And that probably will happen parallel to the acceleration of African music export.

Traditionally, African Heat has been associated with the sounds you mentioned [in west and South Africa]. The playlist's popularity can largely be attributed to afrobeats' undeniable momentum in the past decade. But as its audience draws a larger base, it's evolving too, and becoming much more reflective of all commercial music genres from Africa.

Do you feel like there are any particular genres that stand a greater chance of cross-pollination? For instance, the alté scene out of West Africa. The power of that scene is that it’s not necessarily a sound more than it’s a youth movement and a culture that runs counter to whatever the mainstream is. Or even something like South Africa’s amapiano which a lot of Nigerian artists are starting to engage with.

I love the genres you mention. I think the alté movement is gonna be incredibly important for us Africans. Alté, is more like a movement than it is a genre. It draws on hip-hop, r&b, and indie almost in defiance of the expected standard of afrobeats. We’ve only scratched the surface of the movement as music fans. I think Spotify’s expansion is going to advance that because I feel like alté — as a culture — is the underdog that’s yet to be fully tapped into. You mentioned amapiano out of South Africa but there’s also gengetone coming out of Kenya. Gengetone has a similar origin to amapiano. Gengetone, like amapiano, is youth-driven, very raw, very hyperlocal, very much social media-based, not often playlisted. And for me, it’s a genre to keep your eye on. Then, last but not least, is afropiano — fusion of amapiano with local genres like afrobeats. Then you’ve got gengetone artists playing with amapiano; so rapping in Swahili and other local languages, but over amapiano beats. In Mozambique, we're seeing electronic dance producers experimenting with amapiano sounds and Portuguese lyrics, this new sound has been informally dubbed "Mozpiano." So, for me right now, the wave is afropiano, which is super exciting. It shows how music can cross borders and bring artists together.

I’ve done some reporting on music scenes in South Africa and one frustration that has been expressed to me from artists there is that their music is extremely influential within the continent, but not extremely influential within the world. For instance South African artists can influence music being made in West Africa but, because of how wide the West African diaspora is throughout the world, they are more likely to see their global influence. Do you feel like African Heat will provide the opportunity for the tide to shift for South Africa and other regions to see their influence spread wider?

I feel like for Africa, house music is dictated through South Africa. That’s already known in those global house markets through artists like Black Coffee and DJ Lag in [the house subgenre] gqom. There are plenty of those artists making headway, however there is a lot of work to be done. I feel like Western media has only scratched the surface of great African talent on the continent from all genres: house music, afrobeats, gengetone, to bongo flava.

What do you think about the potential spread of African hip-hop?

Hip-hop has a healthy long standing history with Africa, as it does with the rest of the world. Hip-hop is one of the best streamed genres in South Africa — that goes for both Nasty C and Travis Scott. Across the continent what you will find is regional scenes which look and sound vastly different from each other, as they use their local context to reimagine, and yet somehow also are universally influenced by the way American Hip-hop evolves. Thats why you can find at least four different drill scenes from Ghana to Kenya down to South Africa.

By your estimation, what would be a success story for African Heat a year from now?

It’s two-fold. I consider myself part of the African music industry so for me, part one of that question would be that we break a multitude of artists through African Heat. That global playlists worldwide recognize, see the potential, and see the traction on the continent and continue to support through Western media. But not even just Western Media — markets like Brazil and India, etc. So I almost feel like success for African Heat is export of these genres to audiences outside of Africa. And also for African Heat as a brand, that it’s not just a playlist but it’s about the culture. My hope is that African Heat goes beyond just a playlist.

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