For centuries, the music of Africa has beat a melodious path around the globe, influencing existing traditions and creating new musical dialogs wherever it goes. Capetown punk, Bombay jazz, Chinese reggae, Chilean electro-pop, Lebanese hip-hop, and Bronx urban bachata—a mixture of traditional music from the Dominican Republican infused with rhythm and blues, rap, and New York City street sounds—are just a few of the many hundreds of musical genres that are a result of the African Diaspora.
Even though these sounds had firmly taken root in contemporary music scenes around the world, most Americans had little, if any, experience that they knew of with African music until the 1980s. In 1985, American producer Sean Barlow met musician Franco Luambo Makiadi in Zaire (now Congo). Barlow says, “He asked me testily, ‘We Zaireans, we know your music—Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding—but YOU, you don’t know African music. Why?’”
Considering it a very good question, Barlow founded Afropop in 1988, the first of its kind, a weekly public radio series with the mission of creating awareness of African music in America. It’s now known as Afropop Worldwide. Barlow adds, “Plus, of course, I fell in love with the live music and dance scenes wherever I traveled. The magic of Afropop is the here and now, music that makes you want to sing and dance but at the same time tells us stories from before we were born.”
Programming has expanded to include the entire African Diaspora. Hosted by music enthusiast and Cameroon-born Georges Collinet, Afropop Worldwide is syndicated and distributed by Public Radio International to more than 90 radio stations in the United States, Europe, and Africa. Worldwide access came in 1997 with the creation of a companion website, afropop.org.
Twelve years ago, with $150,000 from NEH, Afropop Worldwide launched its popular “Hip Deep” media series—hip music, deep ideas—as a way to use music to decode history through interviews with scholars, features, photo essays, discographies, podcasts, and historical resources. For example, visitors to the website can listen to a podcast of taarab music from East Africa’s Swahili coast while learning a valuable history lesson about where Bantu and coastal Africans, Arabs, Portuguese, Germans, British, and Indians all play a part in the culture. NEH has since awarded 9 more grants to Afropop Worldwide totaling $1,655,000.
On May 31, 2015, Afropop Worldwide was presented with the prestigious 2014 Peabody Institutional Award for “the creative dialog it inspires in musicians and the music business worldwide.” Barlow says, “We like to say that after 27 years on air, Afropop has many children and grandchildren, directly influencing people to create festivals, record labels, courses in high school and college, graduate thesis choices, living abroad experiences, websites, and much more.”
Currently, Afropop Worldwide has taken on sorting and organizing their vast archives. These include vinyl, tapes, CDs, interviews, concert recordings, photographs, videos, and several lifetimes of material from a variety of storage units, staff apartments, and wherever else it had been boxed and housed. The goal is to preserve the resources as well as create a fully searchable archive, or, as Georges Collinet calls it, “a repository of what, we humbly believe, is the best music on earth.”
Image Credit: Photo by Banning Eyre, courtesy of Afropop Worldwide