Tems, Elaine & More: Why African R&B/Soul Artists Are Poised ‘To Claim Our Spot’

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It’s early evening in South Africa and Elaine isn’t fully packed yet. The rising 22-year-old R&B/soul singer is preparing for her big move to Los Angeles — a literal step in solidifying her global crossover.

Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, Elaine (born Ndivhuwo Elaine Mukheli) cites artists like Miriam Makeba, Caiphus Semenya, Brenda Fassie and Lebo Mathosa as examples of her predecessors who “did a lot for artists like myself to be able to even be considered international artists … A lot of them were staying in New York and in California, so looking back at the history of how far African artists have come and how long we’ve actually tried to bridge the gap, it really does prove to me that it’s a legacy that’s been started by so many other iconic artists.”

After launching her own music career in 2019 with her independently released EP Elements — which she finished while studying law at the University of Witwatersrand — Elaine signed a recording contract with Columbia in early 2020, with the label re-releasing Elements shortly after. Her deal signified something greater than her own success: a wave of African R&B artists and soul singers like Tems, Simi, Amaarae and sister duo VanJess were beginning to see stateside momentum as well. “It really made me understand the magnitude of the responsibility I have for young girls, young African Black girls, and the example and standard that I’ve set for R&B music coming out of my country,” says Elaine of her U.S. major label deal.

Following the U.S. explosion of rappers, afrobeat and afrobeats artists from Africa over the last decade — including chart-topping Wizkid, Grammy-winning Burna Boy and record-breaking Davido, to name a few — the Western-based music industry has snapped its attention to the continent. Over the past several years, labels have been launching new local offices throughout Africa and streaming services have staffed up and increased access in dozens of African countries, boosting marketing spend and highlighting local acts on international playlists. And as the biz eyes what will be next to break through, the continent’s R&B and soul singers have become front-runners for that next wave of success.

“The big story for Africa in the last 10 years has been the rise of afrobeats, and I think that’s very much also been the launch pad for other sub-genres that are starting to pop through,” says Phiona Okumu, Spotify’s head of music, Sub-Saharan Africa. “One thing that’s interesting about the way that the West receives African music is that it often tends to be one thing at a time, right? So of course we will know about Wizkid and Burna Boy and Davido — household names — but it doesn’t mean that’s the only style of music developing on the urban front [in Africa].”

That dynamic is currently manifesting itself on the Billboard Hot 100, where Wizkid’s single “Essence,” featuring Tems, has steadily climbed to reach No. 44 on the Hot 100 this week, making consistent jumps over the past six weeks. Tems, the Nigerian singer, songwriter and producer who broke through on the continent with her debut EP For Broken Ears last fall, knocking Burna Boy from the top of the iTunes Nigeria charts, is now carving out her own career, too. She’s been fielding major label offers and landing on festival lineups from Lost In Riddim in Sacramento to Afropunk in Atlanta in recent months; “Essence” has been streamed 68.5 million times to date in the U.S., according to MRC Data.

“There’s definitely an advancement of African music; I think the world is getting more attuned to it every day,” Tems tells Billboard. “With how much easier it is to get access to so many different kinds of music, I think it’s only a matter of time before people discover more and more African music.”

The type of music that these artists are bringing to the forefront is not easily definable by typical genre standards; Tems describes it as “soulful, it’s rhythm, it’s Afro, it’s reggae, it’s everything. It’s soul, it’s spirit.” Even so, Elaine says that the music is finally beginning to get a similar kind of recognition as other styles from the continent. “It’s definitely not at the pace of afrobeats or any other genre, but I do believe it’s getting there,” she says. “I think there’s a collective effort for us to really claim our spot.”

Spotify, for one, has lent a helping hand for artists like Elaine to break out globally with its Radar Program. “When she came to our program, she was completely independent,” says Okumu. “Not to claim her success at all — she did it herself — but we very early identified that she was somebody who was going to go somewhere because she sounded in South Africa like what an Ella Mai would sound like or what a Summer Walker would do, and that’s made her the top streaming South African female artist of 2020, for example.”

Spotify isn’t the only service leaning into the continent: Apple Music included Tems as part of its Africa Rising program last fall, while YouTube included her in its burgeoning artist Foundry program last May; Elaine was included in Apple Music’s New Artist Spotlight shortly after the initial independent release of Elements. Apple Music is now in 37 countries on the continent, YouTube is widely available, while in February, Spotify expanded to 80 additional territories around the world — with a particular focus on growing its footprint in Africa. And Audiomack, which has long been available in all of the continent’s 54 countries, opened a new office in Nigeria in July 2020, expanding its local footprint beyond sponsorships with festival brands like Afrochella and Afronation. In May, the service hosted its Hometown Heroes Nigeria virtual festival, with Tems among the big names to grace the bill.

“The more resources that are going over to Africa, the more infrastructure that is there, these artists are only gonna get bigger — and they are the next generation of superstars,” says Audiomack vp marketing and brand strategy Jason Johnson about the new wave of singers emerging from the continent. “The world doesn’t even know Elaine or Tems yet — they’re just getting started. Can you imagine seeing some of these people on tour? Us, as a company, we want to make sure that the world knows about this music.”

Okumu says the global success of African afrobeat and afrobeats artists now followed by the growing success of African R&B/soul artists is even more impressive when considering that “Africa in general is mostly an indie game. Major labels are present, of course, and they’re doing what they do to influence the ecosystem, but for the most part the majority share of music from Africa comes from independent labels who are not necessarily going to have the same machinery that [a major label] would have — they’re not going to have the same engine.”

Still, both Okumu and Elaine point to Tems as a prime example of how far an African artist making music loosely classified as R&B/soul can go right now. For Broken Ears has racked up 14.6 million on-demand streams in the U.S. to date, according to MRC Data, and her profile has grown exponentially as “Essence” has blossomed stateside — leading to a remix with Justin Bieber, released Aug. 13, which already has more than 4 million views on YouTube alone in its first seven days.

“You can’t talk about the song without talking about what Tems did on the record,” says Tunji Balogun, executive vp of A&R at RCA, Wizkid’s label home, who was just named the incoming CEO of Def Jam. “It’s a combination of all the groundwork that Wiz put in to get into the position that he’s in, and just the mix of those two styles, the way that on the second verse they go back and forth so seamlessly.”

The mixing of styles has certainly brought more eyes and attention to some of these artists emerging from the continent, just as Drake’s 2016 single “One Dance” feat. Wizkid made the latter the first Nigerian artist to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 and became the No. 1 digital song globally of 2016, according to the IFPI. But it is also one thing over which Elaine has been particularly cautious.

“The minute there’s a sensation or sensational style that becomes the ‘it’ sound, it becomes a defining sound,” she says. “That’s why it was so difficult for me to put [my project] together because every producer I’d go to would want to push me towards an afrobeats or house or amapiano direction. It happens all the time; the industry focuses on what’s booming and what’s happening, which does make it a bit difficult because you get tugged in so many different directions. I’m just trying to establish myself as an R&B artist internationally before I can explore other genres — which I will, but [it’s about] timing.”

It’s a strategy that proves to be working so far. At this year’s BET Awards, Elaine was nominated for best new international act — alongside Tems.

“I’d be lying if I said that African R&B and soul singers are not starting to get the limelight and the recognition that they deserve,” Elaine says. “I just hope that everybody grasps this moment and takes it head on — because it’s happening.”

— Additional reporting by Heran Mamo

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