It’s rare when a music trend hits at all levels of the listener spectrum, but right now African music is resonating with everyone from pop junkies and passive, whatever’s-playing-at-the-club consumers to crate-diggers with eclectic collections and torrent combers with multiple hard drives devoted to the most obscure sounds they can find.
Drake’s hit song infused with Afropop beats, “One Dance,” was a collaboration with the Nigerian artist Wizkid. The blog Awesome Tapes From Africa has become a cultural phenomenon. And countless reissues, anthologies, even documentaries have appeared, offering a window into the rich histories of High Life, Afrobeat, Zamrock, Nigerian psych-rock of the ’70s, and the thriving punk and metal scenes of South Africa– you name it, really.
Admittedly the current trend– a reductive way of describing what’s really more like a movement, anyway– has been building for a while (Pitchfork called it back in 2008). And, yes, “African music” is a massive thing. It encompasses a whole universe of diverse sounds from across an entire continent, after all. But it works in this case because what we’re seeing is a cross-cultural, multi-genre trend that transcends pigeonholing based on tradition, instrumentation, and international borders.
STA7CK (pronounced “Stark”), or Mathieu K., a Cote d’Ivoir-born DJ/producer, is one artist at the forefront of it all, and he can attest to the upswing. “People are really picking up on it. If you pull up the hashtag #Afrobeat or #AfricanHouseMusic on Instagram now, you see people even in Europe dancing to it, people in Russia dancing to these songs,” he said. “It’s crazy. A few years ago you wouldn’t think this would be possible. Now they have Drake doing remixes with Davido, Wizkid.”
Mostly recently, he’s played host to Rhythm of Afrika, a monthly dance party that features a rotating cast of other DJs and producers working in a similar vein. The various iterations have gone down at Trans-Pecos and Williamsburg’s the Hangry Garden, and the next one’s happening tomorrow (Friday October 14) at Knockdown Center. This time around, STA7CK is sharing the bill with BLM (Brian Lee McCloud).
The party has been a success both on the ground and amongst critics, having earned a great deal of praise, including a recent shout-out from The New Yorker. The party’s also launched STA7CK’s career both as a musician blending House music with African sounds and, in some ways, a cultural ambassador.
“Things are changing now, people are starting to see these African creators now and African artists, African-American artists, Afro-Euro artists,” he explained.
Even during our conversation this week, STA7CK still seemed to be recovering from the shock of this mega-boost popular reception. But his own life reads like a recipe for the perfect DJ– Mathieu comes from a diverse cross-cultural background which can be traced from Abidjan to Paris, then the Bronx before the Rockaways, and now Bushwick, and has a deep and long-held passion for both West African traditional styles of music and new forms coming from the continent and the diaspora alike.
What STA7CK said he’s most excited about are the endless possibilities for cross-cultural exchange and innovation. Just look at grime music, a varied electronic/jungle genre that started out in East London in the early-aughts and counted influences from Afro-Caribbean and African music such as dancehall and reggae. Grime has grown from a UK phenomenon to an international one, with an active scene in South Africa, which has in turn started a whole new back-and-forth with African cultures.
“So the whole idea behind the event is that we cater to…” he paused. “We cater to everybody, you know?” he laughed.
But the cool thing about the influx of artists like STA7CK is that it’s not a free-for-all expression of globalization, or worse, cultural appropriation. Rhythm of Afrika, in addition to being a dance party, is a network of social media outlets that share content by and about “young Africans in New York City representing Africa and disrupting the stereotype.” Their Facebook calls itself, “A Page About Africa, Africans & The Diaspora* Told by Africans, not the media.”
“I was using Instagram a lot to promote the culture in Africa, because what I was seeing on TV and in the media, I really didn’t like what I was seeing,” STA7CK explained.
This gap between STA7CK’s own experience growing up in West Africa and what he saw and heard about the continent traces all the way back to his childhood after his family moved to Paris and then New York.
“I saw that a lot of Afro-Americans who were born here, they don’t really understand Africa like that,” he said. So when I was a 13-year-old kid, I was just trying to educate people. When I was hanging out with my friends, they’d say, ‘Oh, you live in teepees over there right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, we got cities over there! We have dance parties! We have music culture! We have comedy culture! We have everything just like here.’”
Mathieu missed hanging out at his uncle’s record store back in Cote d’Ivoir, where, he recalled, “Every weekend, he would get new music– music from France, the Caribbean, a lot of traditional African music, so I would pick up that vibe.” But he found new music that he loved right here in New York. “I just grew into the whole hip-hop culture, I really loved R&B, the whole Afro-Caribbean culture, then I also had my cultural background— one of my visions was to put all these things together.”
After a few fits and starts, including founding a talent agency that failed, he decided to focus on his own music, as opposed to promoting that of others. Eventually DJ’ing small private events, including birthday parties, payed off.
He recalled one event where guests kept approaching him with requests that were along the lines of the more predictable dance music heard in clubs all over the city. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know that song.'” Eventually, he fulfilled some of the requests but compromised by blending it with his own style. “Once I finally gave in, the whole crowd went crazy,” STA7CK said. “I noticed that nobody was doing this kind of party, and I was like, Hey, I’m going to pull this African House together, I’m going to put Afrobeat together and traditional African music, and music of the diaspora.”
Now, STA7CK said: “DJs usually beg me for my setlist, I tell them, ‘That’s not how it works, you have to go dig some crates, bruh,'” said.
His protectiveness is understandable since Mathieu’s been preaching this stuff for years, praising West African performers and a vast array of music with firm roots in the continent only to fall on deaf ears. Even then, he kept at it. “Yes, I work 24/7,” he admitted.
Instead of wasting his energy calling out other performers for appropriation or bandwagoning, STA7CK is focusing on his own projects. Eventually, he said, he even wants to organize a “Burning Man in the jungle.” If they’re willing to go all the way out to the middle-of-nowhere hot-ass desert once a year and face tech bros and dust storms for debauchery, psychedelics, and maybe cool music (I’m not even sure, really), then a few would probably be willing to schlep it out to another kind of steamy locale to drown in AfroHouse music and drool on parrots.
Clearly, the scene created by STA7CK and other artists through Rhythm of Afrika is much more than a trend. While big pop names have recruited artists from the diaspora and picked up on the “nowness” of Afropop, Afrobeat, and now AfroHouse (and in some cases co-opted it) the hit songs they’re churning out haven’t overshadowed the more legit artists who have a real cultural interest and lasting devotion to these musical traditions.
That’s partly owed to a Brooklyn/NYC music scene with outlets, venues, and individuals that are working for real inclusivity and true experimentation. People like STA7CK are ensuring that this “trend” is actually super resilient, and more so that it remains a two-way street. On the one hand, the unfamiliar get some excellent opportunities to learn about musical cultures different from their own in ways that go far deeper than simply owning a Witch record (guilty) and being “super into” Nigerian psychedelic rock right now (double guilt). On the other hand, Rhythm of Afrika acts as a platform for others to share their own culture and encourages the blending and collaboration of various musical styles, as opposed to building protective wall around them or outright stealing them.
This cross-cultural, cross-generational, boundary-less sort of exchange can only continue in STA7CK’s view, since he believes that the well of talent here is almost bottomless: “The more I play, the more like-minded dope, young New Yorkers I meet.”