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inside the viral world of afrobeats dance routines

In one week a video of a dancer called Prinny doing a routine to Drogba had been ripped and re-posted thousands of times, and racked up over 15 million views on one Facebook video alone.

by Ian McQuaid
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22 March 2018, 5:34pm

Image via Youtube

Every great youth music movement of the last hundred years rode in on a wave of irresistible dance routines. From the Charleston to the mashed potato, from disco fever to the running man to the high speed intricacies of footwork, movement and music are as tied together as notes on a stave.

Now a combination of factors -- some new as camera phones, some old as music itself -- have conspired to turbocharge a growing worldwide dance movement that’s playing out as much across social media as it is in living rooms, street corners, family gatherings, barber shops and night spots. And this movement is centred round the nebulous, ever-evolving sound that is (rightly or wrongly) most often called Afrobeats.

There’s long been an Afrobeats dance scene. The modern sound can be considered to have drawn a fair chunk of its energy from the Ghanaian Azonto movement of the late 00s, and accordingly, you can easily find videos for tracks such as Mista Silva’s classic 2012 debut Bo Won Sem Ma Me featuring a routine recorded in legendary south London barbers Slick Rick’s. However, the major difference between now and then is the huge upsurge in smartphone ownership that has taken place between 2010-18. Conservative predictions guess that something like 70% of the world’s population will own a smartphone by 2020.

So now, a dance video shot in Slick Rick’s (or indeed any barber shop around the world) is more likely to end up posted on Instagram, then shared across social media, fired across Whatsapp chats and closed Facebook groups, snowballing as it goes. Imitations and parodies spring up as the dance criss-crosses the globe, sometimes (but not always) coalescing into an actual routine as the steps are digitally passed from performer to performer. A point comes where DJs are playing songs in clubs to people who are filming themselves dancing variations of moves they have watched on screen, which then feeds back into the life of a tune. It’s an on-going expanding cycle that can last for over a year -- a kind of collective dance routine that ends up embedding the song in question into culture on a deep level. Afrobeats, with its fusion of house, bashment, RnB and African melodies, is particularly centred around dancing, and its fanbase are massively engaged on social media -- in essence you have the perfect conditions for the sudden rush of viral routines that are flying across the world.

You can watch the process in action. A case in point is Drogba, the current track from London artist Afro B. Produced by Team Salut (who have enjoyed their share of viral dance tracks in the past, being the musicians behind the 2017 Eugy x Mr Eazi breakout tune Dance For Me) , Drogba first surfaced as a lyric video on Afro B’s own YouTube in the middle of February 2018. A mid-tempo masterpiece, within a week, its instantly recognisable hooks and sweetly melancholic synth melodies had soundtracked a flood of London-based dance performances. A couple of these videos were shot by Afro B, but just as many came from dance classes jumping on a song from an artist with cache in the UK. With the dance videos, Afro B was seeking to emulate the local success he’d had when shooting dance challenges for an earlier record he’d made, Decale, released back in 2014. But in the four years between Decale and Drogba, the social media landscape has changed dramatically, as he points out.

“With Decale I was just posting links to dance videos on Twitter. Twitter wasn’t as hot back in the day as it is now, but the song still spread. But now there’s Instagram and Snapchat, and African’s are all over the world…”

With a global African diaspora instantly plugging in and responding across continents, videos marked #DrogbaChallenge started being shared on Instagram dance platforms such as Chop Daily and the French run NWE -- channels that have traction anywhere there is an African diaspora -- or people interested in the dance of the African diaspora. In practice this means videos can spread anywhere from Dubai to Dublin. And the dance videos weren’t being left on Instagram. Instead they were ripped and re-uploaded on Twitter posts and Facebook feeds, spreading further and igniting more dances as they went. By the end of a week, one video of a dancer called Prinny doing a particularly languid, effortless routine to Drogba had been ripped and re-posted thousands of times, and racked up over 15 million views on one Facebook video alone. A combination of a particularly ear-worm track and a compelling dance routine was all it took to ensure #DrogbaChallange became a known dance move in the space of a fortnight. Afro B picks up the story.

“After Prinny’s video went viral, I had videos coming from all over, it’s been mad. Portugal, France, Germany, Toronto, cities in the USA -- NYC, Houston, Washington DC, and also Dubai, Mexico, Colombia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, even Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. The way the scene is now, everyone can understand and appreciate this sound -- it’s not only Africans that appreciate African music!”

#DrogbaChallenge is probably the most dramatic example of this Afrobeats dance scene that is blowing up without any centralised locus -- but it’s by no means alone. There have been a flood of dance crazes over the last half year, from the sublime to the bizarre.

At the close of 2017 Ghanaians around the world were obsessed with Patapaa’s One Corner, a song that combined a wild, high speed tempo, bizarre squeaked vocals and scattergun bursts of autotune melody. The dance was pretty simple -- when the tune drops, you head to a corner and grind. The dance routines ended up being a far bigger deal than the song itself, with performers vying to find the weirdest places they could pull a one-corner. The track spread across west Africa, with Nigerians quickly getting in on the action -- unfortunately for Patapaa himself, by the time he recorded an official video for the track at the start of 2018, with a baffling lack of much actual one-cornering -- the bubble had burst, and the tune only performed moderately well.

On the more traditional side of things, there has been the ceaseless rise of the Shaku Shaku dance. Currently the biggest thing in Nigeria, the Shaku Shaku is a kind of skippy rendition of a funky house shuffle that’s perhaps (whisper it) not a million miles away from the Gangnam Style dance. Popularised by Nigerian rapper Olamide (but most likely first named on the Kyla Cole track Shaku Shaku from a year back) the Shaku Shaku sound is something of an Azonto throwback, all fast tempos and rigidly placed hand claps. Olamide himself has dropped a series of Shaku tracks, with both the epic Science Student and the exuberant Issa Goal, his collaboration with Shoki singer Lil Kesh and Peckham’s own original bad man Naira Marley causing Shaku Shaku dance videos to pop off globally -- “people have even been doing it in the snow in Russia” Naira tells me over Whatsapp.

With more dances coming in week on week -- a cursory look through the internet will reveal Gwara Gwara, TickTock and Akwaaba are the current steps jumping up, with new mainstays such as Drogba and Shaku Shaku growing by the day -- and crucially racking up millions of views and streams, it’s only a matter of time before the mainstream pays more attention. Brace yourself; Ed Sheeran dropping a Shaku track is surely only a couple of months away…