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Could "Essence" Be Afrobeats' "Despacito"?

Following the recent global success of the afropop hit, many wonder if this could be the watershed moment afrobeats has been waiting for.

On July 12, 2021, Wizkid made history. He attained his third appearance on the holy grail of charts, the Billboard Hot 100 – this time as the lead artist with “Essence”, the hit single off his fourth studio album, Made In Lagos. Debuting at number 82, “Essence” became the first Nigerian record to find a place on the coveted chart. While other African artists – Cameroonian Saxophonist Manu Dibango and renowned Mama Africa Miriam Makeba – had appeared on the Hot 100 earlier in the ’70s and ’90s simultaneously, Wizkid has become the first Nigerian to do so, edging himself into the class of legendary acts who have left an indelible mark on African music.

“Essence”, which features 25-year-old Nigerian singer and songwriter Tems, stood out upon its release. Legendarybeatz and P2j’s stellar instrumentation – dovetailing metronomic keys, rhythmic drums, subtle plush strings and intermittent horns – serves as the perfect backdrop for Tems and Wizkid’s seamless back and forth chants, immediately confirming the 31-year-old’s February 2020 tweet: “Tems and I made magic”. Since its release, the record has arguably become the song of the summer, serving as an anthem in various festivals, a viral hit on Tiktok and the perfect background music for multiple influencers and celebrities’ Instagram and Snapchat stories.

While “Essence” is undeniably enjoying worldwide success at the moment, it is important to note that it owes some of its success to a slew of records that have come before it; records that laid the groundwork, chipping away at several barriers, one beat at a time. Without necessarily deep-diving into the chronicle of the “Afrobeats to the world” movement, songs like Davido’s 2017 smash hit, “Fall”, Tekno’s “Pana”, D’banj’s “Oliver Twist”, Ayo Jay's "Your Number" and even Wizkid's "Ojuelegba (Remix)" have laid the foundation for the pillar which “Essence” currently sits on. Nevertheless, this does not diminish Wizkid’s effort or the record’s brilliance; it’s only trite to point out that while “Essence” is being lauded as the song that finally put Afrobeats on the global map, other songs have paved the way for this moment.

Somehow the global explosion of “Essence” is reminiscent of an equally love-inspired but much bigger worldwide hit, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito”. When the Puerto Rican singers released the sultry hit back in January of 2017, it caught on almost immediately, debuting at number 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following month. It climbed the charts as weeks went on, eventually peaking at number 44. There was a lot of chatter surrounding the period of its release, predicting that “Despacito” was going to popularise Spanish-language pop music – reggaeton, in particular, a genre that was once popular in the mid-2000s. Its rise got an astronomical boost when the remix, which features Canadian pop phenomenon Justin Beiber arrived in April of the same year. It quickly ascended to the top of the charts a few weeks after its release, spending a whopping 16 weeks at the top, tying the record for longest-leading number-one single in the chart’s history at the time, which Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men previously held. It also sat atop the charts of 47 different countries, further emphasizing its ubiquity. “Despacito” ultimately became the best-selling and most-streamed single of that year in the United States and several other countries in 2017.

Interestingly, a lot of chatter has risen, comparing “Essence” to the Latin smash hit. Is it possible for “Essence” to achieve that level of success? Can it rise to the zenith of the Hot 100 chart while also dominating several other charts worldwide? Basically, can “Essence” be Afrobeats’ “Despacito” moment? In truth, the chances are slim, and that’s due to several factors. For one, the disparity in the appeal of the songs is crystal clear. While “Essence” is an enjoyable record, it lacks the showings of an instant classic. It’s more of a slow burner, one that doesn’t necessarily stick at first listen. It’s almost like a mildly alcoholic drink – it only begins to kick in after multiple listens. “Despacito” and most other number-one singles, on the other hand, are always super catchy. They possess a certain liveliness and verve that “Essence” might just be lacking. They’re like Spirytus vodka; one sip and you’re gone. Additionally, the large Hispanic demography in the United States was influential in the assimilation and success of reggaeton and ultimately “Despacito” (for context, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States). While there is an apparent heavy promotional push for “Essence”, Afrobeats (at least currently) doesn’t seem to have a large, dedicated and readily available demography/fanbase in the United States that would be pivotal in attaining sustained relevance in those parts.

However, it’s also important to note that while Wizkid is an Afrobeats artist through and through, the record itself is not inherently Afrobeats. Sure, it takes influence from the famous Nigerian pop genre, but it sounds more R&B than anything else. This then begs the question: is “Essence” cracking the Hot 100 a moment for Afrobeats or a moment for Wizkid? Take a look at it this way: if Burna Boy’s brilliant socio-political record “Monsters You Made” from his Grammy-award-winning album Twice as Tall achieved the same feat, would it be a true reflection of the Nigerian genre? One could argue that the “Afrobeats to the world” movement encompasses both the sound and the actual artists (which Wizkid and Burna Boy are). But for Afrobeats as a whole to maintain any form of global relevance, the real sound permeating the different corners of the world would be far more sustainable than a handful of artists doing so. Could it be that “Essence” made the Hot 100 charts simply because it sounds familiar to the American audience? Conversely, could the success of “Essence” spell a new dawn for Afrobeats as a whole? One where there’s more diversity in the music that’s coming out from the country?

Ultimately, “Essence” may serve as the springboard for that watershed moment for Afrobeats which will usher in the acceptance of our music on mainstream airwaves worldwide. And while no one knows how soon that may be, one thing that’s certain is this is a deserved moment for Wizkid and Afrobeats; it’s been a long time coming, and we’re finally here.


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