That not-so-old black magic: how African mysticism returned to pop | Music

In west Africa, juju, also known as black magic, is the indigenous belief system in the ability of the spiritual world to impact on the physical one. Now, it is in the charts. More than ever, artists from the styles of Afrobeats, Afroswing and Afropop are weaving traditional mysticism into their work in a way that smirks at the scary stories and stern warnings from their parents that they will have absorbed as children of the African diaspora.

The essential point of juju is that the outside world is not as it initially appears to the naked eye. When Gambian-British rap star J Hus refers to himself as Juju Jay, alongside his personification as bonsam (the direct Ghanaian Twi translation for which is “devil”), he is doing a lot more than saying he is the bad guy you don’t want turning up at your door at night. Afroswing group NSG’s track Options, a recent No 7 hit in the UK charts, features rapper Dopebwoy jokingly speculating on the fate of his enemies, saying “fuck around and I’ll take your pic to the shrine”, implying that disrespect warrants a cosmic retaliation. Wizkid’s video for viral hit Jaiye Jaiye similarly sees him mesh the language of material wealth, “Maserati fun iyawo mi, Ferragamo, Bugatti” with the aesthetic of tribal worship: white facepaint, masks and rural landscapes.

Historically, music with African roots has always been charged with spirituality. In 1971, Fela Kuti opened his first live venue in Lagos, Nigeria – named the Shrine. The height of his spiritual journey saw him revoke Christianity entirely, adopting the Yoruba name Anikulapo, meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”. Nearly three decades later, Erykah Badu’s album Baduizm continued the tradition. Her persona was that of a healing matriarch, while the lyrics were permeated with the language of the Five Percent Nation, operating on the principle that all black people are divine. More recently, in her visuals for her 2016 album Lemonade, Beyoncé saluted the 401 Orisha – of the Yoruba people – her yellow dress in Hold Up a nod to the goddess Oshun’s golden adornments. By taking African mysticism to the world stage, Beyoncé stripped it of its ancient pagan labels.

Among those of African heritage, the connection between black music and black magic has never gone away. As a child, I remember the hysterical rumours circulating London’s secondary schools that the Brixton rapper Sneakbo could turn into a cat to get out of tricky situations. Some rappers on local council estates wore protection rings to call on mystical forces to shield them against the prying eyes of their enemies and the police. Engaging with practices often condemned as demonic by churches gives Afropop the frisson of a shared secret. Artists acknowledge the seriousness of their references, but spice it with the humour and glamour of modern pop.

The nods to juju in modern Afropop prove that the culture of west Africa has lingered through generations of émigrés. The Nigerian commentator Bizzle Osikoya says: “It’s in our homes, our schools, it’s the way we grew up. These are things that don’t fade away.” Alex de Lacey, a lecturer in popular music at Goldsmiths, University of London refers to this spirituality as “offering sanctity and a sense of community in spite of late-capitalist society’s violent individualism”, providing a “shared heritage that is powerful and political”. When we consider the government’s hostile environment policy, the institutional racism in British society and the 14% increase in hate crime from 2016 to 2018, African spirituality can enhance community and togetherness in a foreign land where we can feel as if it doesn’t want us.

Monique Charles, a cultural sociologist, takes this further, pointing to the brutality of enslavement and colonialism that stripped native musical and religious practices from African cultures. This, along with the pressures of a capitalist music business, however, “do not mean that the approaches to music-making and spiritual practice have ceased”, Charles says, but rather have “shifted in order to survive”. As a result, traces of spirituality will always “leak through” – hence the subtle nods from J Hus, NSG and others. In this light, any predominantly black music form represents a connection to our ancestors.

Now, a generation is choosing to lean into mysticism, even if their parents, who embraced western religion, are dubious about it. Musicians’ embrace of African spirituality helps to produce the experimental, hybrid sound of African pop that the media and music industry often struggles to pin down– but that those in the know innately recognise. Indigenous culture will always inform and dictate the language of the African diaspora’s music – and spirituality is giving it that extra bit of magic. When Skepta and Wizkid say “bad energy stay away”, we really do get it.

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