When one of Nigeria’s biggest artists, Burna Boy, released his new album, Twice as Tall, in August, it became an instant global success. Burna Boy’s international popularity had skyrocketed the year before with the release of his fourth studio album, African Giant, which garnered the artist his first Grammy nomination and sold out arenas in Europe and North America. Twice as Tall, which, like African Giant, is in the Afrobeats genre, a style of pop music with West African roots, took that success further: It hit No. 1 in dozens of countries on Apple Music’s worldwide charts and reached the top 60 on the Billboard 200 in the United States. But its importance does not rest solely on its record-breaking stats. The album also serves as the latest example of the growing global reach of African artists.
After years of trying to sell Western music in Africa, global music labels are now looking to Africa for talent—a shift that was apparent in Billboard magazine’s May 2020 cover story, which featured three of Nigeria’s biggest stars: Davido, Tiwa Savage, and Mr Eazi. In the past few years, global audiences have become increasingly familiarized with African musicians. That’s partly due to collaborations with popular Western artists, such as Drake’s 2016 hit “One Dance,” featuring Nigeria’s Wizkid, or the visual album Beyonce released on Disney+ this summer, Black Is King, which features an array of African musicians, including Burna Boy. But overall, it’s the rise of social media and digital streaming that has altered the musical landscape. While physical distribution in limited markets caused long delays in the past, African artists can now quickly build global fan bases—and connect instantly with followers around the world.
In some ways, the pandemic has pushed these trends forward. One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that national lockdowns and international travel bans have accelerated digitization efforts across African markets. Africa’s creative industries have reaped the benefits, since digitization democratizes content creation and breaks down geographic barriers to collaboration and distribution. For instance, Burna Boy turned to multiple U.S. producers for Twice as Tall, and Sean Combs, also known as Diddy, served as an executive producer, working on the album over Zoom, despite the eight-hour time difference, during the pandemic.
As artists such as Burna Boy expand their reach worldwide, the continent’s increasingly urban, tech-savvy population—the youngest in the world—is also becoming a larger market for creative content. Nigeria alone has about 97.5 million unique mobile subscribers—nearly half of the country’s population. Even Ghana, a smaller market, has about 16.7 million unique mobile subscribers—about 55 percent of the population—and about 10.7 million mobile Internet users. Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, accounted for $7.2 billion (or 1.42 percent) of Nigeria’s gross domestic product as of 2016. It employs 300,000 people directly and more than 1 million others indirectly. In South Africa, creative and cultural industries contribute about 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP and account for 3.6 percent of employment. The local music industry is expected to generate 2.9 billion rand (about $178 million) in 2020. In Kenya, annual growth rates in digital music and gaming are estimated to be well over 10 percent.
The success of African creators and musicians—and the global demand for the content they produce—has not gone unnoticed by U.S. companies. The 2018 Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther, which showcased African actors, music, and design influence, brought in more than $1.3 billion at the global box office and is the highest-grossing superhero film of all time. In the past four years, the world’s three largest record labels—Universal Music Group, Sony Music, and Warner Music Group—have all expanded their presence in African markets by signing African artists, acquiring African record labels, or opening new offices on the continent. In April, Apple Music expanded from 12 to 37 African countries, and in May, Universal launched its highly successful Def Jam label in Africa. Meanwhile, Netflix has been working to acquire and support African content creation.
It isn’t only the private sector taking notice. The U.S. government has long sought to build stronger ties between the U.S. and African markets. For example, the African Growth and Opportunity Act exempts import tax for certain cultural goods coming from African countries with trade agreements, and the United States Agency for International Development ran a project called the African Diaspora Marketplace from 2009 to 2016 to support the businesses of U.S.-based African diaspora entrepreneurs. Prosper Africa, an initiative by President Donald Trump’s administration to foster trade and commercial ties with Africa, has now taken over the effort to connect Americans to opportunities on the continent.
But in the era of U.S.-Chinese competition, U.S. investment in Africa’s burgeoning creative industries has never been more important. As China continues its government-to-government loans for infrastructure and expands its commercial presence in African markets by increasing foreign direct investment as well as private equity and venture capital investments, the United States should actively seek to maintain influence in African markets.
With strong people-to-people and culture-to-culture ties, the creative industries can serve as a strategic sector for American soft power. Through programs such as Prosper Africa, U.S. policymakers should prioritize investments and partnerships in sectors such as music, film, and gaming to enable leading U.S. companies to increasingly tap into fast-moving markets that speak directly to the millions of young, urban, and connected Africans. At the same time, investment in African creative industries will also bring back content to the United States that both reflects U.S. diversity—since there are at least 1.6 million African immigrants living in the United States today—and feeds the increasing demand for Afrocentric content in the $700 billion U.S. market for media and entertainment.
Connections to African markets will play a critical role in the United States’ ability to shape perceptions of the West on the continent. Take, for instance, a recent tweet from a group of Nigerian child comedians, the Ikorodu Bois, who are known for recreating movie trailers and music videos. The group, which has nearly 1 million Instagram followers, caught the eye of Netflix in June after they recreated scenes from the Netflix film Extraction. When the company sent them production equipment, the Ikorodu Bois tweeted excitedly about the gift with a thank-you video that’s been watched at least 3 million times globally and caught the eye of U.S. celebrities such as Will Smith. Now, the Ikorodu Bois have been invited to Hollywood—something they’ve called a life dream. By encouraging even more engagement by U.S. entertainment companies, the United States will be able to tap into this kind of youthful energy and build shared cultural values.
These kinds of partnerships are becoming more important as China moves beyond its historical sectors of investment, such as transport infrastructure, into areas where the United States has long had a strong competitive edge, such as media, entertainment, technology, and higher education. And while more Africans consider the United States to be the better development model for their countries, according to a 2016 survey, China is a close second—and it is already seen as the greater external influence on African countries.
China may gain further ground as it cements its standing in the continent’s mobile-phone and consumer-app sectors. Transsion, a Chinese mobile phone manufacturer, controls more than 50 percent of the market share for feature phones, or nonsmartphones, in African markets, and its joint venture Transsnet has launched Boomplay as a rival to Spotify and Apple Music. Boomplay works directly with African musicians to reach listeners through its platform, and Transsnet raised $20 million in external funding last year to support its expansion. Tencent, a Chinese tech giant, has also announced plans to expand its music streaming service, Joox, to Africa after it proved to be a hit in Southeast Asia and as demand for streaming spiked because of COVID-19.
While the United States is not in a position to match China’s investments in Africa in other sectors such as infrastructure, it does have the resources to accelerate U.S. private and public involvement in Africa’s creative industries. Any new efforts from the United States to facilitate trade and investment in African markets should prioritize this sector. That may take many forms: Advisors for private companies and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation could be specifically trained to look for opportunities in creative industries; Prosper Africa could work with African development finance institutions and governments, specifically Nigeria and Kenya, to advance regulatory reform that supports anti-piracy enforcement; a representative from the music or film industry could be added to the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa; and a task force of retired industry executives and financiers could assist in forging financial partnerships between U.S. funds, African banks, and digital media companies.
These moves will not only unlock opportunities for U.S. companies in a rapidly growing market, but also position the United States to retain influence in sectors that drive consumption patterns on the continent for decades to come. And for both the United States, eager to encourage pro-U.S. sentiment and economic ties, and African nations, where the United States can invest in the dreams of millions of young people, that will be a good thing.
Aubrey Hruby is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and an adjunct instructor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University.