It must have been sometime in September that I heard CKay’s “Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah)” had become the world’s most Shazamed song. I immediately tried to picture partygoers in Accra or Lagos raising their phones to the speakers trying to ID the Afrobeats track, but that couldn’t be it. In this part of the world, we’ve been familiar with CKay and his song for the better part of two years. So, had America pulled an “Essence” again?
For the longest time, Afrobeats has been primed to be the next big thing in world music. Drake knew that when he dropped his Afropop club jam “One Dance” in 2016, as did Beyoncé when she enlisted the continent’s biggest stars for her inspired album The Gift. Both of these had one thing in common: Wizkid.
The Nigerian superstar has spent the better part of a decade charting a global course for Afrobeats — a catchall term for West African pop music — selling out international gigs, getting Grammy attention, and monthly streams that are well into the millions. But even after all of these successes and endorsements from music’s biggest names, “Essence,” featuring newcomer Tems, was a watershed moment in his career.
Despite Afrobeats’ steady rise and the countless doors this phenomenon has opened in the last years, there’s always been a ceiling on what an African artist or song could achieve on the international stage, most notably the elusive US charts. It seems, in 2021, that ceiling was finally shattered. Twice.
In September of this year, Billboard announced it had found its “most global hit yet.” The track in question was “Love Nwantiti” (which means “little love” in Igbo) by the relatively unknown Nigerian singer CKay. So how did a newcomer from West Africa storm his way into the charts and phones of people around the world? For context, the song arrived on CKay’s 2019 EP CKay the First, where it wasn’t even billed as a lead single: “The label I was signed to at the time didn’t even take the song seriously as a single, because it wasn’t a club record. It wasn’t fast,” CKay revealed in an interview with HipHopDX. But even when the song became popular with audiences in the region, the rise of the song was unassuming. “‘Love Nwantiti’ [had already] blown up in Nigeria and many other countries last year,” the 26-year-old told Rolling Stone. “So I didn’t expect it to blow up all over again. Thankfully, I was wrong.”
Like with “Love Nwantiti,” Wizkid’s “Essence” marinated for some time with homegrown audiences before it got a second life in 2021. The song was originally released in 2020 as part of Wizkid’s Made in Lagos album, a sublime body of work packing vibes from start to finish and leaving no room for skips. In fact, like with “Love Nwantiti,” “Essence” also wasn’t expected to become the standout hit of the album. In a recent interview with Complex, Wiz admitted that he prefers the Damian Marley-assisted “Blessed” and the Juls-produced “True Love” to “Essence.” In Ghana, where Wizkid spent most of last year, judging by the blasting speakers of passing cars, hair salons, or Accra’s notorious parties, initially the most popular MIL tracks were the more uptempo “Ginger,” featuring Burna Boy, and “No Stress.” For its native audience, one of the key factors to an Afrobeats hit song has always been its danceability. This was true for Fuse ODG’s viral Azonto movement — before viral was even a thing — or the almost God-level influence of dance performances by Nigerian acts like Naira Marley and Zlatan Ibile. So a slow burner like “Essence” becoming the anthem of Afrobeats was quite unexpected.
But sure enough, as the hype settled around Made In Lagos, the soulful and sultry “Essence” proved it had much more staying power than the album’s bangers. Perhaps it all boils down to timing. As the world optimistically emerged from a standstill, the hook “Time is of the essence,” which Tems passionately emotes, felt more meaningful than ever. By summer ’21, “Essence” was all over TikTok and Instagram, even soundtracking the Stories of celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Kevin Hart, and Alicia Keys. For a moment, it really felt like Wizkid’s track was gearing up to become “the song of the summer,” but before that could happen, it needed some help to become America’s highest-charting Afrobeats export to date.
Stateside, Afrobeats was stuck in the in-between, surviving as more than an underground genre but never quite finding that one moment, that one crossover hit to really break into the mainstream. Like with the reemergence of Reggaetón in 2017, after years of flirting with the American pop landscape, Afrobeats needed a “Despacito.” Enter Justin Bieber. As with his turn the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee world-conquering “Despacito” five years ago, which pelted Reggaetón into unprecedented commercial success, the Biebs became Wizkid’s secret weapon.
When I first heard Justin Bieber on the “Essence” remix when it dropped in August, I wasn’t thrilled. Sonically, it felt like an unnecessary addition to a perfect song; Wizkid and Tems really didn’t “need no other body.” But once I got over the cringe of Bieber singing in pidgin (West Africa’s English-based creole dialect) and the longer runtime, I couldn’t help but be in awe of Wizkid’s team’s well-calculated A&R strategy. Sure enough, upon its release the remix reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 — the first time Wiz has cracked the chart as a lead artist — and it also became the first song with lyrics in Nigeria’s Yoruba language to debut on the Global 200 chart. It was clear that Afrobeats had finally broken down the language barrier and cultural disconnect in America when Wizkid became the first African artist to be certified RIAA Platinum for the song in early October.
And while Wizkid focused on one remix featuring an international superstar to engineer a global Afrobeats hit, CKay made his play for worldwide success by deploying multiple remixes to infiltrate global audiences, one corner of the world at a time. If you look up “Love Nwantiti” now, you’ll discover official East African, North African, and South African remixes, plus versions in French, Spanish, Italian, and German, all featuring verses from acts in the corresponding regions. It’s this barrage of international remixes that provide perhaps the easiest explanation for the song’s vast reach on video-sharing platforms like TikTok.
By now, we all know TikTok can be a game changer for artists, who can use the app to accelerate or even launch careers. For African acts, TikTok — and the Internet in general — has become the great equalizer, allowing them to bypass the traditional music industry’s gatekeeping and raise their culture and communities to new heights. And if anyone can speak on this, it’s CKay. Thanks to several choreographies created to the song, “Love Nwantiti” organically went viral. Currently, more than 3 million videos have been created under the sound on TikTok. And since September, it has remained the most Shazamed song in the world, ahead of the Kid Laroi and Justin Beiber’s “Stay,” and Elton John’s remix of “Cold Heart” featuring Dua Lipa. As of this writing, “Love Nwantiti” is charting in 160 countries, it’s number 1 on YouTube’s Global Charts, and number 3 on the UK singles chart, beating out Drake and Billie Eilish. Within a matter of weeks, another Nigerian song had done the unthinkable.
While their journeys have been unscripted, somewhere between the pandemic, the popularity of TikTok, and well-timed remixes, both “Essence” and “Love Nwantiti” simultaneously perfected the formula for an international chart-topping single. At the base of all this, Wizkid, Tems, and CKay crystallized Afrobeats into the worldwide genre we always knew it could be if it was given the chance. Still flying high, the songs are another reason to believe African artists are setting their own table on the global music scene. And this is just the beginning.