Genre Fluidity

When it comes to music, Pierre Flasse asks – are we moving to a post-genre world?

The picture is all too familiar. At a party with new faces and the regular conversation markers pass by until you realise there is a connection in the room. You discover a similar music taste and the sparks fly: “I love afrobeat! Do you know Fela Kuti or Dele Sosimi?”

Afrobeat is technically any combination of West African music and jazz influences with a focus on the interplay of rhythm, percussion and live energy. For me, it’s a platform for political speech, crazy drumming and getting down to slick horn lines. But that’s one person’s interpretation. It took momentum under Fela Kuti in the late 60s in Nigeria with the modernisation of native harmonies, and political confrontation, which swept across the African continent.

The precise story above happened to me last month, and I met someone who played me their favourite afrobeat tracks, who, incidentally had never heard of Fela Kuti and the product was an eclectic combo of rap, dancehall and R&B, to the name of some artists such as Iyanya and EL (Elom Adablah). This is afrobeat of the 21st century, a relation of the 70s Kuti strain, but actually an entirely different sound under the same label. This confused me, and yet piqued my interest – how could we call these two different musics by the same name?

After some research of my own, I discovered that this is afrobeats: a slyly placed ‘s’ changing a multitude of rhythm, percussion, instrumentation and style. However, the ‘s’ is so often lost by the artists, and from this simple misspelling arises confusion between the two musical second-cousins. To be clear, these artists are doing nothing wrong. They create modern and approachable music within a label that defines their identity. The artists of the new genre see themselves as pioneers of a new movement, however the issue arises from semantics as they are sharing “afrobeat(s)” with political, historical and musical legends whom speak a different musical dialect. As a result, one genre and label ends up sharing a cluttering of sound.

Why is this important? Genre comes from two places. In one sense it is a creation by the record label conceived to help sell music. Another creation can be by social sub-culture where groups create a musical style and ideology against a standing norm. The concept of genre comes from a human desire to understand, and we understand by compartmentalisation. However this idea of creating music firmly within one genre actually negates the natural process in which music is made.

When you make music, you are acutely aware of the direction of your sound, and of your own influences but you rarely think “this record is 20% neo-soul, 30% R&B, and 50% jazz”, which actually would sometimes be a more accurate depiction. Naturally, we are the product of our influences and these are rarely one particular style of music – it’s a postmodern society with a postmodern mixing of music. To try and create music that is quintessentially “reggae” or “blues” is on the surface quite easy, as there are musical features which would identify the genre, in the case of reggae: offbeat guitar stabs, a laidback bass groove and smooth horn riffs all underneath a soulful voice. However due to individual tastes, the music might increase the tempo and fall into ska. You might have a tendency towards low frequency synthesisers that transports you into the realm of dub. By pigeon-holing into sub-genres, we potentially lose the fluidity to move across genres as freely as we might have with “rap” or “jazz”.

Why has this reliance on sub-genres appeared? In one sense, people don’t necessarily identify with the overarching musical terms. We have a society with an inconceivable amount of music being made and circulated. With that, individual identity can be difficult to appreciate with so much music; perhaps the sub-genres reflect each artist’s need to wave their hand in the crowd and be noticed. It comes as the population of the world increases, smaller communities of niche interests will keep appearing as a protection of the new and individual.

But are these genres still relevant? Take Hiatus Kaiyote for example. I personally would place them within jazz. A friend of mine refers to them as soul, and another would call it electro-pop. Go to a concert by Nils Frahm and you will spy within the audience: music students, sesh-heads and grandparents. Each group ascribes the music as a different genre – one of structural minimalism, one of grungy techno and another of “classical”.

Genres are important to define our own choices, influences and ideas. However we live in an age where music isn’t just recommended to us by friends who understand our tastes, but algorithms, whether random (YouTube) or precise (Spotify) – that often defy traditional genre tastes and encourage fluidity between styles. We keep on creating more and more sub-genres to try and explain the music we hear, resulting in names like “future soul”, “catstep” and “ectofolk”. In EDM there is a multitude of sub-genres such as complextro and fidget house separated by a mere few BPM. What does it all mean? In a semantic multiverse, it all really feels a bit pointless when our individual conceptions vary from person to person.

So, maybe my jazz is different to your jazz, which is the same as Sarah’s second wave funk, but somehow is also the same as Dan’s neo-soul. Sub-genres are becoming useless pigeon-holes in a bracket as wide and ambiguous as “rap” or “rock”, that are down to the semantic taste of each individual. The way forward is not through individual definitions, so maybe it’s time to ditch genre entirely.