Afrobeats on the Prairies

A new documentary highlights a growing community centred on Afrobeats music

When Mpoe Mogale moved to Edmonton in 2008 at age 13, family friends put them in dance, swimming, skiing and more. They took to the activities, but over time realized they had always loved watching ballerinas. So they turned their focus to that art form, joining the Edmonton School of Ballet.

They liked it, but wanted something deeper and more relevant to their experience. “When I was forming into myself and what dance meant to me, I did not feel a connection to ballet,” Mogale says. “I did not see myself in it.”

They tried hip hop during their years at the University of Alberta, where they received a degree in political science and wrote their honours thesis on the representation of Blackness in the Edmonton arts community. But they found hip hop to be artificial, having become estranged from its origin in the Black American experience. Mogale moved to Calgary to pursue jazz dance, exploring it through its roots in Black culture. Then they found Afrobeats, and fell in love. “I started connecting with a dance created by Black folks and drawing on that history,” Mogale says. “I found it a comfortable and welcoming art form.”

Mogale’s story is one of two being told in a documentary-in-production called Rise of Afrobeats in the Prairies. Director Fahad Suleiman bills it as a story of African creatives who made Alberta their home and found the community they always sought through Afrobeats. He says the merger of two distinct cultures into something complex and interesting is at the heart of the narrative. “In Mpoe’s case it’s a journey of them finding that they wanted to go back and reconnect with their roots,” Suleiman says. “It’s embracing it from their perspective.”

Suleiman grew up in Nigeria and moved to Edmonton in 2013 to take accounting at MacEwan University. While learning about capital gains and depreciation, he also took an interest in videography. He bought a decent camera and started uploading content to YouTube. His break came — and his career attention began to shift — when he met Tracy Barry, who worked for the not-for-profit GROW Women Leaders. She asked him to make a series of short videos on successful women immigrants.

Suleiman did so, and was hooked. He founded Media 21 in 2021 and brought his brother Mubarak onto the team as director of photography and friend Leruo Leagajang as digital marketing specialist and production manager.

They began seeking corporate clients and making commercials. “We tried to do everything at the beginning,” says Suleiman. “As time went on we wanted to niche down. We fell in love with storytelling and we put that into advertising.” Media 21 is now a one-stop digital agency, offering website and graphic design, video production, copywriting and social media management. At the heart of it all, Fahad says, is storytelling, and documentaries such as Rise of Afrobeats in the Prairies are quickly becoming a favourite niche.

The idea for Rise of Afrobeats in the Prairies came from Suleiman’s friend Ivan Touko, who is the founder of La Connexional. His organization promotes the development, growth and multicultural understanding between African, Caribbean, Latinx and Canadian communities by being a source of historical and cultural education, multicultural networking and entrepreneurial events.

Touko is the executive producer of the documentary and, being a long-time friend and acquaintance, “he came to us with an idea about making a documentary centred around Afrobeats in this part of the world,” Suleiman says.

“It’s the essence of Canada,” says Leagajang, who is helping with production on the documentary. “People emigrate from other countries and they are able to have pockets of communities that make them feel comfortable in this country. It shows how immigration has helped people come here and start something new.”

Afrobeats as a genre is hard to define, but includes a blend of West African musical styles with funk, jazz and soul. There is a focus on chanted vocals, complex rhythms and prominent percussion. It tends to be political, and is seen by many as a new form of protest music.

Afrobeats has taken off in popularity in recent years. Justin Bieber got in on the act by collaborating with Afrobeats star Burna Boy. Beyonce’s recent album The Lion King: The Gift is heavy on the Afrobeats, and Ed Sheeran has done a duet with Fireboy DML. Suleiman says Afrobeats is quickly becoming broadly accepted on the Prairies. “Now, I’m listening to the radio, and I hear Afrobeats,” he says. “Not long ago there was no way we would have heard that.” As evidence, he cites the recent return of Burna Boy. The first time he came through Edmonton, he played a small venue. Most recently, he was at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

Suleiman expects Rise of Afrobeats in the Prairies to run 45 minutes, and says he is about 60 per cent through production. The team received a grant from Telus Storyhive to get them this far. A $10,000 contribution from Edmonton Community Foundation is helping them make it the rest of the way, allowing them to tell the story of the creative fusion at this cultural intersection. And as for Suleiman’s accounting degree, it hasn’t been wasted: He takes care of the company’s books. “It’s very important to watch the expenses!”

This article comes from the Fall 2022 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full issue.