Over the past ten years Africa’s Afrobeats genre has emerged from the continent to be embraced by just about everybody except the USA. North American mainstream pop still mistook the youthful pop of the emerging Afrobeats with the South African 1980s Ladysmith Black Mambazo on one hand and the extended King Sunny Adé Juju Music on the other. However, African American beats oriented rap was influencing the sound and oddly enough the US still weren’t really listening.
While you and I might be well aware of Mr. Eazi, it would take Beyonce’s 2019 African tributing The Lion King: The Gift to introduce the rest of the country to Mr. Eazi, Wizkid, Burnaboy, and on “Don’t Jealous Me” the Queen Bey lead us to the Queen Of Africa Yemi Alade. Already nearing mythic proportions in Africa and in the UK, Alade became a figurehead and a leader of Nigerian pop. Last night, at the epicenter of black Americans, New York City, Yemi performed a thrilling night of music, center based firmly on drums, beats, backing tapes and bass. The melodies were held but not smothered by Yemi, who didn’t stop moving, or sweating, or talking. “Are my girls here tonight?” she asked early. Yes, they were, a just about all black and female (and fairly lesbian) audience at the nearly sold out 700 person occupancy Le Poisson Rouge went collectively berzerk.
The doors were at 7 and then DJ Jon Quick who has an Afrobeats show on resident superhero DJ on WBLS 107.5 FM New York and Afroflava came on at eight. He performed a way too long 75 minute set and while his knowledge is deep, clearly Yemi should have given another opening act a chance or gotten on stage by 845pm.
Yemi followed her two dancers and her minimalist band with the 2016 rhythm hook monsters foodie rock solid “Tumbum” and the song is all leaning hard on the beats, the song itself is a beautiful pop ballad on record but on stage she explodes it like a ticking bomb, within a minute sweat was pouring off her as she synch danced African twerk meets tribal dreams -note the African Collar Choker Necklace Gold Statement on her dancers, while they didn’t elongate their necks it harkened back to those symbols of female wealth and power (and beauty).
The show was as female centric as Harry Styles was last Sunday (here), and like Harry she ignored the male members of the audience entirely and had the vast majority of the audience simultaneously enrapt and in thrall. Yemi is not performing anything close to straight up versions of her hits, last night the lovely love inspired “Oh My Gosh” began as a sing along and became another dance explosion belonging to bass, drums, and beats: Later in the evening she would stop perhaps her greatest song, “Africa” to tell her keyboard, track manager to turn up the beats and he did, till the floor was rattling.
The pacing was relentless, the only breather Yemi got was to wipe away the sweat from her brow and the occasions in which she spoke, very well, she was succinct and sweet, before destroying us with “Bum Bum”. Oh and when she brought two women out of the audience (“don’t ask her for her phone number” she warned us about one of them), they twerked, they squeezed, they rolled about on the floor in an act both supplicant, sexual, and deeply flirtatious
The set was riveting from start to finish, there was no coasting, no taking a song off, even an afrobeats on record like 2017’s “Bumbum” just ignites a nonstop explosion and it STILL WASN’T ENOUGH. Taking herself into the end endzone, “Africa” was the anthem it always has been but louder, and any melody submerged in three rhythms colliding, and her final song (nope, no encore), Yemi’s first hit, “Johnny,” slammed the door shut.
Yemi had nothing to prove, she was preaching to the converted, but she proved something anyway: despite her African Pride, despite her advocacy work and philanthropic concerns, Yemi ignored the lot, ignored her melodies, ignored everything in the world except for the joy of movement, and the joy of dancing and performing for people who love her. At 32 years of age, the world was hers.
I got into Yemi late, two years ago with The Gift, but I caught on fast and in 2020 Empress was my number nine album of the year (here) and by the end of September Queendoncom was right after Donda for the best album (actually EP -but seven songs so…) of the year (here). If I’d been aware of her 2018 she would have been all over singles and albums, half way through the set the closest she came to a slow one “How I Feel” knocked us for a loop and exceeded our every expectation.
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