Afrobeat’s Revolution is a Striking Case of Spontaneous Order


Africa recently celebrated 20 years since the demise of Afrobeat’s music creator, Fela Kuti. At the height of military dictatorship in Africa around the 1970s, Fela developed the eclectic genre that has since changed the face of African music – a funky combination of highlife, jazz and African vernacular.

Fela was a radical sensation who voiced against corruption and despotism through his music. His unapologetic nature quickly separated him from other entertainers of the time. This eventually subjected Fela to persecution throughout his career and gave Afrobeats little room to grow.

But two decades after Fela, the industry has matured into one of Africa’s biggest exports, and in Nigeria alone, it is worth around $50 million. This remarkable transformation from a repressed music genre to a prolific industry within a short period reiterates the often disapproved fact that individuals can create an iconic system if they are free.

The End of Censorship

Following the end of apartheid in South Africa and the demilitarization across West Africa in the late 1990s, Afrobeat’s music and other monitored industries like the media and movie became free. The free market opened the genre to new interests, which prompted the increase in music production. This includes lucrative corporate sponsorships and outlays by private record labels.

The increasing interest has created an industry attracting more present record labels and hundreds of recording artists in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, this is just scratching the surface considering the thousands of back street recording groups and artists in creeks and ghettos.

The more remarkable thing is that the industry exclusively depends on clear property rights and a legal system that enforces contracts and resolves disputes. Not a central plan or state design. Individuals simply create value and trade it off for what they want. Besides, the rules that guide relations among actors in the industry are part of the normal life.

Still, the absence of a design allowed everyone involved to pursue what is best for them without sacrificing their interests for others. Hence, the continued success of Afrobeat’s music affirms when people have freedom to make business decisions, the market always benefit.

Competition Created Incentive

Without prerequisites of formal qualifications of financial security, anyone interested in the genre could try out his or her mantle. This openness makes the industry so competitive that everyone always improves to maintain relevance, which is responsible for the overall maturity of the industry. The impact of this free industry rubs off on other areas of the economy, like the broadcasting and informal sectors.

Nowadays, local radio and television stations rarely spend heavily on securing rights to air foreign music, when they can easily get the more appealing Afrobeats at a lower cost. Likewise, the need for a more corporate approach to business means more job opportunities for street record merchants, public relations experts, talent managers and even business attorneys. This is not magical, fostering employment is akin to the free market. And insofar there remains a drive in the free market, it would always employ.

Mistakes & Self-Sustenance

More so, the permission for mistakes has made the industry more durable, contrary to the end of central planning, which is to avoid mistakes. Since everyone experiments with their efforts, trial and error elimination creates a learning process that helps adaption to new challenges.

An amazing element of the industry is that no one waits for the other for elevation. For instance, upcoming artists do not request protection from the state to match their established colleagues, and neither do recording groups fancy government subsidies. They simply do their thing according to individual capacity and the result is success.

The sustainability of the industry without a central planner proves the market works best if left alone and anything otherwise would likely fail. This is because the information that influences individual choices cannot be available to planners, not even the government. Markets do not succeed by planning, but only flourish when independent elements work together discretely. No one needs to meddle in the extraordinary spontaneous order of the Afrobeat’s industry. Instead, other sectors in Africa would gain by learning from it.

* Ibrahim Anoba is the Acting Executive Director at African Liberty Organization for Development and an African political economy pundit with Young Voices. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria. You can follow him on twitter @Ibrahim_Anoba.

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