Roots, Routes and Return: J Hus and the Potential of an Afro Swing Revival
Written by Danielle Welbeck
On Thursday, 7th June 2023, J Hus continued his hotly-anticipated return to the soundwaves with the single 'Who Told You (feat. Drake)', following mixed reviews of his first drill-influenced single 'It's Crazy'. In this article, I take a deep dive into the history of Afro Swing as a genre, its decline, and its potential resurgence.
In the mid to late 2010s, a new genre emerged from the council estates of London. It synthesised elements of Dancehall, Grime and Afrobeats. The genre known as Afro Swing (first known as Afro-Bashment) reflected the reality of Black Britain and the community formed between African and Caribbean people through their shared experience of Blackness in the UK. Afro Swing facilitated wider diasporic connections, moving from its hyperlocal placement in London and the UK's other major cities to international heights. Since the arrival of the Windrush Generation, black popular music has been a site for Black Britons to work out their identity and place in the UK. This is evident in genres such as lovers’ rock, drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, garage, grime, and funky house. Whilst some of these genres (like grime and garage) can be seen as an organic product of urban hybridity, many other genres display strong musical connections to the Caribbean and the USA.
‘When I was a youth, to be called “African” was a diss. At school, African kids lied and said they were Jamaican. So when I first came in the game, and I’m saying lyrics like, “I make Nigerians proud of their tribal scars/My bars make you push up your chest like bras”, that was a big deal for me.’ (Skepta, FADER magazine)
Afro Swing marked a turning point in Black British music, with African people and Africanness being explicitly represented in the socio-musical culture. Jeffrey Boakye explains that ‘[b]eing an African teenager in ‘90s London was like being the uncool version of black. West Indians were cool, with the accent, the swagger, the rudeboy genetics and the exhilarating street music. I know personally of a handful of second-generation West Africans who just straight up changed their names at school, ditching traditional names for Westernised aliases like ‘Junior’, so desperate to distance themselves from the Africanness that (seemed to) lack so much street cred’ (2017:252). This distancing managed to make its way to Black British music culture during the 00s and into the 2010s. Despite the visibility of British-born West Africans (as Skepta suggests) in Black British music culture, the influence of this background remained inaudible in the music.
Musical genres like Jungle and UK Funky House display close relations to musical cultures from the Caribbean. Namely, the relationship between Jungle and Jamaican sound system culture. UK Funky House is known for its blend of ‘soulful house, garage, soca, African & Latin percussion and grime’. Sitting anywhere between 126 and 138 bpm, the dance genre is most distinguishable by its heavy use of rhythm and percussion, namely variation of the commonly used tresillo and habanera rhythms found in Soca and Reggaeton. This is perhaps unlike Grime which, as Ruth Adams (2019) argues, suggests a very strong and audible connection to its geographical place in London and other urban areas in the UK due to its heavily creolised nature. In the case of Afro Swing, however, there remains a sonic sense of other regions within the Afro-Atlantic world, despite London and other urban areas in the UK being central to the formation of the genre and also audible. I would actually probably say it is the very fact that Afro Swing evokes sonic senses of other regions within the Afro-Atlantic world that makes it sound so much like the UK.
Hus's ‘Dem Boy Paigon’ was boundary-breaking in many ways. Although the sense of shame attached to being African had dissipated by this time – we might thank Fuse ODG and the azonto-era – Black Britain had yet to have its own distinct sound that explicitly featured “African” musical elements. The release of ‘Dem Boys Paigon’ in 2015 marked a turning point in Black British music. Whilst Boakye regards ‘Dem Boy Paigon’ as a grime song, I would argue that we can consider it as one of the first Afro Swing songs. I do think there is probably an interesting argument to be made about the impact of Sneakbo, Political Peak, and JJ's 'Touch a Button (Remix)', but that is a conversation for another day. The 100 bpm tempo places 'Dem Boy Paigon' in closer proximity to R&B, afrobeats, and dancehall genres than grime, which is often 140 bpm. The infectious beat in ‘Dem Boy Paigon’ is recognisable by the 8-bar ostinato of its modified 3-2 clave.
Grime is known for its elaborate wordplay and vivid storytelling, which we might see as a manifestation of some of the values of hip-hop. Though ‘Dem Boy Paigon’ and indeed Afro Swing as a genre do not engage with storytelling in as vivid a way, it has become known for references to popular culture, catchy and danceable hooks, as well as iconic and quotable soundbites. In 'Dem Boy Paigon', Hus focuses less on storytelling, instead referencing and interpolating lyrics from various songs and genres across the Afro-Atlantic world, including dancehall, American R&B, and reggae. This approach helps to establish a musical and social context, helping us to understand that Afro Swing comes out of a musical culture where dancehall, American R&B, reggae, afrobeats, and grime organically coexist.
In 'Dem Boys Paigon', the references J Hus makes epitomise the syncretic melting pot that is Black British culture. In the first verse, Hus interpolates lyrics from the chorus of the 1999 song ‘No Scrubs’ by American R&B group TLC, immediately going on to reference the opening line of the 1998 song ‘Who Am I’ by dancehall star Beenie Man. These two references that signify disparate regions in the diaspora comfortably sit next to each other in this verse, showing that musical elements from across the diaspora are represented in afro swing. A similar sentiment is reflected in J Hus’s use of both Black British English (also known as Multicultural London English) in the juxtaposing of ‘paigons’ and ‘mandem’, and West-African pidgin English in his asking ‘are you mad, you dey craze’. Both these creolised forms of English speak to a greater diasporic enfranchisement present in Afro Swing.
The second verse has two more interpolations. The first is from the hook of the 2004 reggae track “Can’t Satisfy Her” by I Wayne. Whilst ‘Who am I’ would have been a dancefloor filler of nightclubs and raves during its time and even till now, the slow 87bpm of ‘Can’t Satisfy Her’ means it would have been a less common feature of nightclubs and dances, being played in the house or the car, and perhaps at events like christenings or nine-nights. Its inclusion in this track demonstrates an intimate understanding and familiarity with other regions in the diaspora. This kind of intimacy is facilitated by the very nature of living in Black communities in the diaspora. The final interpolation is from a 2008 meta-critical grime song by JME ‘Serious’. The interpolation of this song can be seen as a nod to Afro Swing's origins in Grime. Gilroy (2002) explains that the syncretic genres of Black Britain show that culture is transient and moveable. He suggests that ‘they have been able to detach cultural practices from their origins and use them to found and extend the new patterns of metacommunication which give their community substance and collective identity’.
So what for Afro Swing in 2023? Since 2020, the genre has seen a marked decline, which is likely due to the pandemic; a genre characterised by its danceability will probably struggle if a global pandemic closes all the nightclubs. However, this cannot be the only reason. Afrobeats, also known for its danceability amongst other things, was equally impacted during the pandemic and yet saw exponential growth in terms of global visibility. As with other genres rooted in hyperlocality (like drill and grime), transcendence to global audiences can have notable impacts on the genre. The socialites and cultural phenomena that were at one time commonplace to contributors and listeners of the genre can become lost as contributors become further removed from the culture, and also as uninitiated contributors and listeners come from outside the culture. The local has become global in multiple ways.
However, there seems to be a desire from young London-based producers to bring Afro Swing back in time for the summer. Maybe a return to its roots is what this genre needs to extend its lifespan.