How Afrobeats Is Influencing American Pop Music, According to Producer P2J
Afrobeats has been steadily infiltrating the U.S. airwaves for the past few years. In fact, you may have heard Afro B’s “Drogba (Joanna)” thumping out of someone’s car speakers this summer, bringing the uplifting vibe you need when the sun is out.
The term afrobeats has been used to describe a collective campaign of different musical styles stemming from Africa, not to get mixed up with Afrobeat, which is a West African music genre blending fuji and highlife music with American jazz and funk, pioneered by Fela Kuti. Afrobeats is a word that’s used to bring awareness to African-influenced music from collectives like the Flight Club, artists like Davido, Burna Boy, and Wizkid, and producers like P2J.
The sound of afrobeats has heavily influenced new albums like GoldLink’s Diaspora and Beyoncé’s The Gift, both released this summer. America is a bit late on the afrobeats wave, but now that the sound has started to crack the seal, it’s in high demand, giving producers like P2J time to shine.
Pro2Jay, also known as P2J, is a Nigerian, London-based producer who has been making afro-pop, afro-house, afro-rap, and afro-jazz since the beginning of his career. After shooting his shot and traveling to the United States with his manager seven years ago, he experienced an influx of artists reaching out in attempts to collaborate. Once P2J earned a placement on Chris Brown’s Heartbreak on a Full Moon, he become one of the go-to producers for artists looking to add the afrobeats flavor to their music.
P2J spoke with Complex about what we need to know about afrobeats, what it was like working with GoldLink and Beyoncé, and how the Flight Club have been breaking barriers and infiltrating American pop music.
How do you feel about the term afrobeats being widely used in America?
The term afrobeats is very fresh over in America. Over here, there’s a very, very wide range of sounds in Africa. There’s afro-house music, there’s afro-jazz, there’s Fuji, there’s afro-pop, and it’s all under the same umbrella. But there’s different genres of afrobeats music. When people say something might be afrobeats, over here we might not clock it as afrobeats because of all of the umbrellas we know, and all of the sounds under the umbrella. In America, they might use the term for a lot of different vibes, just because of the way it feels. It might not necessarily be afrobeats music but they consider it afrobeats music.
It’s incorrect to generalize it, but it is something people use to describe the sound. Is that something you would like to eventually see change?
I feel like it’s not a bad thing that they call it afrobeats music. I just think it depends on the song and the style of music that they call afrobeats music. I don’t think its a bad thing, because it just puts the genre on the map more. When certain sounds cross over to America, for example with “Joanna,” “If,” and “Fall,” those kinds of songs are like what everyone over here calls afrobeats. So when they call it afrobeats in America, it’s like they’re flying the flag. We’re proud and we’re happy to say, “Yeah, that’s afrobeats music.” It’s crossing over and people are taking to it.
Some people say that the afrobeats introduction came on Drake’s “One Dance.” Where do you think the introduction truly came?
I’ll say a piece of it was, because that’s a big afrobeat artist on there. Wizkid is a household name in Africa, so him alone being on there, I can understand why people think this is afrobeats or afro inspired. I can understand where that comes from. I’ll say that it definitely played a big part because of the vibe and the actual way it came about. I think it was produced by an afrobeats producer as well. “If,” “Fall,” and “Joanna,” those songs have crossed over. People are actually taking joy of it in a sense now. That’s a very strong representation of afrobeats music, of people over here, and of Africa. “One Dance” is definitely a part of it. The song itself might not be afrobeats, but I understand where the connection would be formed in people’s minds and the vibe.
You worked on Beyoncé’s The Gift and Goldlink’s Diaspora. Is it a goal of yours to bring afrobeats to a mainstream U.S. pop audience?
One hundred percent. That’s been my goal for years. I’ve always tried to infuse African music in anything I do. Whether it’s African music like afro and R&B, afro and house, afro and pop, or afro and rap. I’ve always tried to infuse it in any way. I saw that when I worked with GoldLink especially: He had the exact same vision that I did in terms of being the bridge and trying to cross that bridge of African music into the rap world, or the American market. That’s why the album is very eclectic. It was very specific and it’s always been my goal to bring African music into the mainstream in the states.
Is that something that was difficult to do?
I’ve worked with a lot of different artists. I started working with new artists from the beginning, and that’s where I really started to cross my style, with new artists. When my style started to get out there a bit more, some of the bigger artists heard the sound and wanted to get in on it. It was a steady process. It wasn’t necessarily that it was easy or that it was hard. It was a very organic process and each step was a meaningful step. Every step was correct. I took every step with every artist. I’ve worked with every artist I wanted to work with in the afrobeats scene. It’s all been a steady process. My sound has gradually grown each year, and I was put into a room with the right people at the right time.
Your manager Sam spoke with me about how difficult it is for black artists to get airplay in the U.K. Do you think that taints the sense of unity among black artists and producers?
I don’t think it’s ruining anything. I feel like the scene right now is growing and it’s definitely in a better place than it was five to ten years ago—or even two to three years ago. It’s steadily growing. There are a lot of artists on the charts now that you wouldn’t even think of three years ago that make you think, “Wow, how did they even get here?” Now they’re here and cemented into the scene. Now they’re selling out shows, they’re doing their own shows, and they’re doing festivals.
The scene is in a very good place, an even better place than it was about three to four years ago. Over here, I feel like everyone supports each other, because we know how hard it has been to get to this point now. No we’re here, so it’s like, “Let’s stick together and let’s support each other and get each other the money we’re supposed to be getting.” A lot of these people are really talented and they deserve the credit they’re getting. Over here, it’s definitely a supportive thing. Everyone supports each other, and that’s why I think the scene is growing. Before, I feel like we weren’t getting in the doors, and we weren’t getting a lot of airplay, but now they can’t stop it. Over here, everyone wants to hear it so they can’t really do anything about it. And rightfully so, that’s really good.
We see that as well, especially on The Gift. How did you get involved with The Gift?
It started off with one song, an idea that we had that we sent off. They heard it and loved it. It all started with that one idea, and that was the “Brown Skin Girl” idea. From there, we segued into other sounds and other ideas. I basically started creating vibes, and then literally started getting involved heavily. I worked with some of the artists as well, and that’s basically what started that. It started from one song, and from there it went into full-on work.
“Brown Skin Girl” is one of the tracks from The Gift that’s picking up the most steam. What was your creative process like for that beat?
Literally, I just started the groove from an idea in my head. In another five minutes, I laid down the chords. When the chords were done, I just heard the melody in the background with one of the writers in the room. We were just vibing and vibing, and I was like, “Yo, this could be special.” Then they put the lyrics to it. That whole session was very spiritual. It was a vibe that I haven’t felt in a long time. I knew when the song was done that it was going to be special. That’s one of the first songs in my career that I thought was going to be very special. I’m just happy that the world gets to hear it. It’s a big moment for Africa. It’s a very big moment.
Were there any other sessions that stood out to you during the making of The Gift?
Yeah, a lot of them did. The Burna session was very special. Every time we get in, it’s a very spiritual vibe. I’m a producer that works off of feelings in the room. When I make music, it’s very spiritual for me. As soon as I connect with something, I’ve connected the vibe. I knew that something special was going to happen. That’s how I feel every time I work with Burna. When we got that song, I knew that it was definitely something special. I laid down the beat, and he just found a quick melody and wrote it literally off the top, just going as the spirit took us basically, going with the vibe. Nothing was forced. Everything was off of good energy.
How hands-on was Beyoncé with the creation The Gift?
She was very, very hands-on. She was the driving force in every aspect, literally. She would come with notes of all the songs, and she’d come with vibes that she needed. She would send over different “Brown Skin Girl” videos and energy videos of things that we needed production wise, so that’s what we were drawing from. She sent over visuals as well, that made sense with the project, and we tried to keep the scenes and elements of The Lion King, while also trying to keep the elements of Africa as well.
What impact do you think working with legends like Beyoncé and Pharrell might have on your career, and afrobeats in general?
This is something that’s stayed on my mind for years, trying to get to the top and work with the top artists, and trying to bridge the gap. This sound and this moment is bigger than all of us. This is The Lion King and these are amazing artists. This is something that’s going to change the face of music, and also the way people see this film. So, it’s definitely a big moment and it’s definitely going to top my career. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and these are artists I’ve definitely wanted to work with. Now that I’m here, I feel like it’s time to take the sound to the world.
Did you feel any pressure working with other notable producers like Diplo and DJ Khaled in the studio?
No. No way. It was actually an amazing process to work with different producers. People were from all around the world, and the way they see is different in their music. It was good to hear how they view afrobeats music as well, and how they create music. It was good to collaborate, to get a different vibe. It was a good all around process.
Do you have any other stories from working on The Gift?
It was just a really good and fun process collaborating with different producers and creatives. I learned a lot from them. It was cool to get their view and hear the way they were able to insert themselves into this genre of music. There were different producers from all around the world, so it was good to experiment and vibe with them. Even with the songs that didn’t make the album, it was good to collaborate and work with different people. That was definitely the highlight of working on the project.
How did you first get into production?
I started producing in the eleventh grade. I wasn’t really doing too well in history, it wasn’t really my favorite subject. I wasn’t paying attention, and my teacher basically just said, “You know what? I’m gonna use you as a lesson.” The only class that they had left was music technology. So I was like, “Cool, I’ll just do it.” They put me in there and they said, “Yo, this is the software. I’m going to run through it.” I made a beat in like 20 minutes, and I was surprised. They put me on other software, and from that they were like, “Wow, this is really good. How are you doing this?” I started making music from there, but it was always in my family. We used to go to church a lot and we used to sing in the choir. It was always in me, but I was never in production until I was taught a lesson in school. That’s how I actually started, in school, basically.
In Nigeria, Afrobeat is one of the most popular genres, whereas in London, it’s pop. How did both of those genres influence your sound?
I was definitely trying to infuse the pop element with the Afrobeat element, or afro-pop, I would say. I was making tribal music, like funky house music at a point. I have a song called “Tribal Skank.” It was house music infused with African music at the time. It was doing really well. I basically took a segue out of that, and now it’s something completely different. I started working with Lola Rae, and we did a song called “Watch My Ting Go,” and that’s when I first started experimenting with the afro-pop sound—taking elements from the pop music I was making at the time, and fusing it with the percussion and the groove of afro music. That’s how I first started getting into it.
At which moments did you start picking up steam as a producer?
We started coming to America like six or seven years ago. I think I started picking up steam when I started to collaborate with a lot of different producers and writers out in the states. That’s when I started to get placed with different artists like Chris Brown, Mario, and a few others. Those are like the main two where people got to see: “This guy is doing something.” But the songs I did with Chris Brown were R&B at the time. The song I did with Mario was an afrobeats song. It was two completely different genres, but people started to hear the sound and get the vibe I was trying to come with. And I started to experiment with R&B and afrobeats at the same time. I tried to get a bridge between the two. I started basically collaborating with different producers out in the states. At this time, the afrobeats was very early for them. So my groove and stuff was fresh to them, and they wanted to collaborate with me.
How did the collaborations start? Were you going out to meet people or were people reaching out to you?
It was online, and bumping into people being in the studio. Somebody would just walk in and be like, “Yoo that’s dope, let’s collaborate.” They would sometimes have some dude who could get the music to an artist or somebody. For example, when I did the Chris Brown song (“Covered In You”), I basically just made the track with my friend in Atlanta. He passed it on to a writer who was close with Chris Brown. Then they did the song and it ended up on his album (Heartbreak on a Full Moon). So that’s when a lot of the collaborations started to come in. People were hitting me up like, “Yoo, let’s collab,” online. Or, “Let’s link up when you’re in L.A. or Atlanta and let’s create.” That’s how a lot of it started.
Burna Boy is another artist who was picking up momentum in the U.S. a couple of years back. How did your relationship with him develop?
We started working during a session that I was just engineering for him. After the session, he was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard some of your songs before,” and we connected from there. He was like, “Yo, play me some beats or whatever you have.” I was like, “I made this beat two years ago with you in mind.” I literally just had this beat waiting for him, and I played it for him. He said it was crazy and the session was wild. He basically just recorded the whole song, and that song was “Koni Baje” on his last project, Outside. That was the first time I ever worked with him. I had that beat ready to go.
You also worked on GoldLink’s new album, Diaspora. Can you talk more about how the project was created?
We wanted to make an album for black people. We wanted to make it so you feel different vibes and different genres from all around the world, in one body of work. I was trying to use different sounds, and sounds that accompanied the way he raps, the groove that we used, the music that we made—just trying to cross the bridge with him. We wanted to cross the bridge between Africa and the Caribbean. Just trying to cross the bridge and trying to connect the world and let everyone see that all black people are basically the same everywhere we go, even in different places.
A lot of people were talking about how the production really brought the project to life.
Yeah, he definitely wanted to dive into different sounds and different vibes. He’s an artist that’s very eclectic anyway. He can do a lot of different vibes; he can do a lot of different genres; he can flow on anything; that’s how he good he is. So we wanted to make sure that we had the feel of a house party or the club. We wanted people to have a good time the whole way through the album, so that everyone felt something.
“Joke Ting” was a stand out on the album, with the Flight Club’s Ari PenSmith. How was that song made?
The vibe of that actually stemmed from an idea I had in my head of grime. GoldLink wanted to do something that had a grime skit, which is a U.K. genre. So the beat is a grime sample, and we wanted to get a vibe that made you feel like it had a kick or a bounce, a different kind of bounce that people may not be used to, but would still understand. Literally, Ari had an idea for a hook. He wrote the hook idea down, and I was like, “Yoo, I got the beat in my head.” I was in a hotel in New York, and I made the track in a couple of hours. I showed it to GoldLink, and he was like, “What the hell? This is crazy. Let me lay a verse on this.” That’s how it was, and it was a fun process. That song was a very fun song to make.
Is that how most of the sessions went while making the album?
We were working on the album for quite some time. So he would bring ideas, I would bring ideas, Ari would bring ideas, and we would literally sit down and see what we wanted to vibe with, or make some content from scratch. We’d be in the room just chilling, listening to a lot of different vibes. We were like, “Let’s create something. Let’s make something that people want to dance to, something different.” For “Zulu Screams,” he had an idea, and I already had a beat that was along the same lines. I came to the studio, pressed play, and that session was like a party. Everyone was dancing the whole day, the whole night. That song was a vibe. A lot of songs were good vibes, and good times, which is why I feel like the album feels like this.
You’re managed by the Flight Club. What’s something you all are looking to accomplish as a collective?
We just want to break barriers. We just want to go around the world and make music. Wherever people are listening, we just want to go there and break barriers. We want to do things that a lot of people haven’t done before. We want to move mountains and do something special. I feel like everyone on this team has the same mindset. That’s why I think we’re working on really good things at the same time. That’s how I feel every time I work with them. Everyone does their own thing. We collaborate a lot as well. Everyone is on their own path, but we’re all on the same journey. We always meet at a point, which is a special thing for me because we’re like family. We’re all a big family. That’s something that I love about the Flight Club. It’s going to get bigger, and it’s definitely going to get better. We always meet in the middle, so that’s a big thing for us.
Is there anything else that you’re working on?
I’m working on a few projects. One that I’m excited about at the moment is Wizkid’s. I can’t really say too much, but there are a lot of exciting things and music coming out. This is probably going to be a year that a lot of music is going to come out for me, personally. I’m excited about that.
What’s the most important thing you want our readers to know about you or your work?
One thing is that my music is very versatile. I’m very versatile. I do different genres of music that people are going to see soon. I’m definitely trying to be one of the people to spearhead the afro music scene to cross over to the states. I’m also a producer from South London that has been in this game for a while, and it’s only now that the light is starting to shine on myself. For me, this has been a long journey, but it’s the start of a great journey. I want my vision and my story to be an inspiration to a lot of young producers that are coming up.