In early September, Nigerian singer-songwriter CKay received a text message with a link to TikTok. Some of the app’s users had started recording a dance routine set to his song, “Love, Nwantiti,” which is about toxic relationships. CKay didn’t think much of it. “The song had already been big a year before, so why would it blow up again?” he said via email.
But within days of getting the text, his two-year-old song was being used in millions of videos. The dance had spawned a challenge, inspiring one TikTok user after another to try to do a better job with the same moves. Almost overnight, its growing popularity on TikTok catapulted “Love, Nwantiti,” into the biggest hit of CKay’s career.
For two weeks in October, “Love, Nwantiti” ranked as the most-watched music video in the world on YouTube. It was also one of the most popular tracks on Instagram, TikTok, Spotify and just about every place people listen to music.
The song’s worldwide popularity amounts to a watershed moment for African pop, a genre that has influenced many famous musicians but never achieved commercial success on a global scale. It is the first song from the entire continent to top YouTube’s list of the most-watched music videos. (Ckay is also the first African artist to appear on any of the top 25 lists for Bloomberg’s Pop Star Power Rankings.)
“The song is in a league of its own,” said Temi Adeniji, the managing director of CKay’s record label, Warner Music Group South Africa. “There’s no one who has ever done this before.”
Adeniji, a Nigerian-born graduate of Princeton University, is a rising star in Warner Music Group’s international division. Earlier this year, she decided to take a job overseeing strategy for sub-Saharan Africa and will be moving to Johannesburg in the coming weeks — another sign of the music industry’s growing interest in Africa.
For most of modern music history, record labels have neglected the continent. Africa’s mix of widespread poverty and limited copyright protections made it one of the least lucrative markets. And the high cost of broadband internet made it difficult for most people to listen to music.
But the rise of on-demand streaming services, particularly YouTube and Spotify, as well as social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, has made it easier for western companies to get their music in the hands of local African populations. It’s also made it far easier for labels to identify rising talent from the region and to export their music to the world.
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