However, in 2021, when Spotify expanded its brand to nearly 40 more African countries, Okumu was promoted to the Head of Music for the entire Sub-Saharan region. Her passion and mission are to elevate emerging African artists, using strategy, innovation, and culture as the building blocks to take African music to the next level.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Phiona Okumu in Lagos, where we were celebrating the explosive growth of Afrobeats. Our conversation revolved around the genre’s exciting possibilities and the driving forces behind its worldwide recognition.
QUESTION (YMZ): We are here in Lagos, celebrating all things Afrobeats. Let us know more about the celebration?
ANSWER (Phiona): A combination of things, first, I need to mention that Rema, one of the premier artists for Afrobeats, as a genre, is a billion-stream strong, and that means a lot of things. That means the African audience is coming onto the streaming platforms and listening to the artists they love. Number two, that means the rest of the world is recognizing that African music is extremely influential in pop culture. For me, that is a great thing. It is part of why we are here, but also the fact that Spotify has been doing the work to unearth and make visible Afrobeats, Amapiano, Afrosoul, even Kwaito. All the things we have been doing to make this music available and visible to everyone, from the native countries that the music is from, that is a great thing. Fifteen years ago? This was not happening, but thanks to the fact that streaming has become a lot more mainstream, I think we are starting to really reflect the taste of society.
YMZ: Afrobeats has seen tremendous growth on the global music stage. What, in your opinion, has been the key driving force behind this growth?
Phiona: The driving force is the fact that because we are in a digital era, we are fully globalized, no one is standing in the way of what we should be listening to, we are literally following our hearts. What we like is what we see on the stages, and that makes it reflective of where music is going in the world. I refer to 20 years ago, where for you to release music, you must go to a record label and put your stuff in a CD and pray someone listens, but that’s not the case anymore. We now have the ability to, at the click of a button. If your music is hot and you are in Soweto or somebody in Japan can hear you and be like, “I love that.”
YMZ: Spotify launched the “Afrobeats: Journey of a Billion Streams” site to set a bigger picture for the genre’s growth. What is the inspiration behind this project, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Phiona: The bigger picture is this, Afrobeats is not a new genre; we have been for at least 20 years building up to this very moment. So, all the artists that we are celebrating now are standing on the shoulders of other artists way before them. So, what that website does is it tracks the journey of Afrobeats from its inception, shines a light on everyone that contributed to that success, talks about the women contributing to the genre, and celebrates the numbers. It shows what we are winning, and hopefully, there are more wins to come.
YMZ: How does Spotify support emerging artists and sub-genres within the Afrobeats space, and what spotlight do they get from the platform?
Phiona: We have a platform called RADAR, strictly for brand new artists. For example, in Africa, we have had artists like Tems, Focalistic, Tyla. What we do is a one-year-long program; we hold the hands of artists as they release their first song, first EP, and first album, helping them get a global stage and understand what that means. We amplify their success so that it can be more amplified as they walk into their glorious future.
YMZ: How is Spotify adapting to stay at the forefront of the music streaming industry?
Phiona: We have tools that keep us informed. Playlists are what we use to reflect the taste of the audience we have. But in order to create those playlists, we have data that supports what songs people like, what is popular. Unlike in the days when with radio, one person is saying, “This is happening,” this is factual information that says, “Here is a stream, this song is popular.” It helps not only the audience know what’s happening but also helps creators understand where their music is being streamed from, who likes it, and why it matters. It helps direct different things. For example, if an artist sees that the song they released is blowing up in the UK, it helps them make decisions on whether to tour the UK, sell merchandise there, or collaborate with artists there.
YMZ: Can you give us a glimpse of any upcoming Spotify initiatives or projects related to Afrobeats?
Phiona: As of 2023, I think the most exciting thing that Spotify does every year is “Wrapped.” It is a campaign that summarizes everything that everyone has been listening to throughout the year. It is so exciting, for me anyway. I look at my data and see that this is the artist I play 21 times every day for the last six months. Again, it is celebratory and also an indication of how far we have come and how much we love this artist. It keeps getting better every year, so Wrapped is the most important activation in 2023.
And that’s our chat with Phiona. From here on, you can keep an eye on our page for the much-anticipated Spotify’s Wrapped for 2023 in the coming months.