/ 28 January 2023

An African extravaganza

Afrochella Gettyimages 1453758627copy
Fans cheer and dance as Kwesi Arthur performs at the festival. Photos: Ernest Ankomah/Getty Images

‘It was like all the TikTok dance challenges were coming to life right before my eyes’

Afrochella, the Ghanaian annual Afrobeats extravaganza, might  have lost its name due to a copyright infringement battle with the giant US Coachella Valley Festival but the 2022 edition last month made it clear that this had not tainted the music and the joy it brings to the thousands who have been flocking to Ghana’s capital, Accra, since 2017.

This was my first time at Afrochella. Prior to this, my only experience had been with jazz festivals which tend to be slower in pace and considerably less visual. 

Afrochella was a bit of a shock to the system, but as soon as the shock wore off, the Black Joy was palpable. It felt great being in this space of self-expression and freedom. 

I found myself in a beautiful maze of black people from all over Africa and the diaspora. The joy manifested  itself in so many striking ways. It was the big hats; the ankara kimonos that defied gender expectations; the faux and natural dreadlocks, in a continuum of colours and styles, and the branded T-shirts and dashikis. It was the bright lipsticks and painted faces; the eccentric accessories and the cheerful display of national flags, with the South African flag more conspicuous than I had expected. The whole affair was luxurious and overstated in just the perfect mix.

Ghana has become brilliant at setting up a world-class stage for the arts and finding the middle ground between traditional and urban entertainment. Moreover, the Gold Coast seems to have found the perfect formula for placing Ghanaians at centre stage without alienating visitors. 

This festival, like the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, Afro Nation and the Black Star Line Festival, was a great demonstration of Ghana’s versatility and openness to the international community. 

While the sun was up, there was traditional drumming, installations promoting arts and culture and exciting photo booths for social media influencers. There were cameras everywhere, with people capturing every moment before it passed. 

As the sun retired, the stunning lighting took over. In true African style, food and drink were in abundance. Even better, the stalls were run by young Ghanaian entrepreneurs selling street food and local drinks. There was always something sizzling on a grill and a cold beer nearby.

The festival lineup was a battle of the giants with “African Giant” Burna Boy headlining the final day — after he failed to appear on stage as advertised on the first night. This was not Burna Boy’s finest moment, though many of his problems could be attributed to sound issues. There were times he was visibly irritated. 

Day two was headlined by Congolese superstar, the singer, dancer and guitarist Fally Ipupa. He gave an amazing performance as always. His world-renowned waist-rolling dance moves had the audience trying out their own kwasa kwasa.

West Africa’s biggest Afrobeats stars brought their A-game, giving rousing performances. Artists such as the Ghanaian dancehall musician, Stonebwoy, King Promise (Ghana), Ayra Starr (Nigeria), Kidi (Ghana), and Pheelz (Nigeria) made sure to sing their hits, much to the delight of their fans. Ghanaian dancehall artist Shatta Wale was a huge hit with his latest single On God

Hearing all the Afrobeats favourites at one venue, on the same stage sung by the original artists was like all the TikTok dance challenges were coming to life right before my eyes.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival was Nigerian Afrobeats singer Asake. While many fans had their hearts set on the headliner Burna Boy — currently having his moment and selling out some of the biggest venues worldwide — the die-hards were waiting for Asake. 

He was hailed as one of last year’s biggest Afrobeats breakout stars after being on the underground scene for some time. His performance brought El Wak Stadium to a standstill. The moment appeared was extraordinary. People dropped everything and stepped closer to the stage as if they were drawn to him by a transcendent force. Seconds later, all phones and recording devices were up in the air as admirers competed to capture the moment. 

He performed music from his debut album Mr Money with the Vibe and added some of his notable collaborations, with fans singing along to every single lyric. There was great energy in his set. His deep, tender voice filled up the entire stadium. I could hear hints of Afrobeat King Fela Kuti, and a distinctive Amapiano sound that made this South African girl particularly proud. 

My Afrochella experience was from the general access section. That vantage point was surprisingly sufficient. Although I would have loved to be closer to the stage, I still managed to have great fun. 

During the festival we read on social media the VIP section was in trouble because people were breaching security and accessing it without tickets. The occupants were not happy about not getting the VIP treatment they paid for. A lesson for the organisers to create the VIP experience they are charging for.

Fellow South African traveller Nomtha Makhosana was in the VIP section and although she sang the praises of the organisers for showcasing Ghana’s talent, she felt they could have done more to provide a memorable VIP experience.

Another gripe was the general lack of communication from the organisers who did not let festival goers know Burna Boy would not be performing on the first night. They did not address safety concerns and fears of a stampede caused by people jumping into the VIP section.

 Because of this, Makhosana said she probably would not return to the festival. “I like what the organisers are going for, but there is room for improvement,” she said. 

At the end of the final act, the organisers announced this would be the last Afrochella. What they didn’t announce, perhaps strategically, is that the festival would return under a new name — Afrofuture. 

By the time the last day of Afrochella came, all the social media handles had been changed to Afrofuture. The stage was decorated with a massive banner with the words “Afrochella is Afrofuture”. The writing was on the wall, as it were. 

Subsequently, the organisers haven’t been forthcoming with information about the court case. The lawsuit, brought before a California district court, came three years after a warning was issued to Afrochella organisers about the infringement.

“Regardless of the celebration or event, your use of Afrochella as the name of a music and arts festival is highly likely to create a likelihood of confusion and mistake as to the affiliation, connection, or association of you and AEG and with Coachella. 

“In particular, the public is likely to believe that you were authorised by or affiliated with AEG or Coachella. In fact, you have admitted that your event name and your event were inspired by Coachella. 

“Similarly, comments to own your own Facebook page comment that your festival name is merely trading on the goodwill of the Coachella mark,” it read in part.

Afrochella co-founder Ken Agyapong revealed in an interview with Ghanaian radio station Hitz FM that they had “won the case” but changed the name because they were rebranding anyway. “This is a rebirth, starting something new. The future is Africa and we want people to come to Africa, so that is why we wanted to do Afrofuture,” he said.

Afrochella will happen later this year as Afrofuture. If you are planning to attend, make sure you go for the music because that won’t disappoint. I implore you to still make a trip to Ghana in December because Accra has found a way to outshine our Dezemba with their Detty December.