It’s Saturday morning, and Fuse ODG, fresh off a flight from Ghana, is wrapping up an appearance on Soccer AM. No slick, schmoozing Brit School graduate, he seems unused to the frantic banter of TV chat, and makes for a shy but likable guest. Interview done, he steps over to the show’s football challenge, pauses, then effortlessly slots in a wonder goal. The studio erupts and Fuse beams his easy grin. “I wanted to be a footballer,” he confides as we watch the replay, “but the music kind of took over.”
With three chart hits in as many singles, Fuse – real name Nana Richard Abiona – is fast becoming a mainstream star. His sound is Afrobeats; note the crucial plural: whereas Afrobeat was the analogue African funk style made famous by Fela Kuti, Afrobeats is its contemporary incarnation, a fusion of lock-limbed digital rhythms, big hooks and synthetic sheen that’s long been the ruling sound of young Ghana and Nigeria.
Now a new generation of black British kids are mixing it with the hyped flow of UK grime to create an addictive hybrid that’s more urban street party than Womad on a wet Sunday.
Born in Tooting in south London, Fuse spent his primary school years in Ghana, before returning to England to attend secondary school and university. But it was in Ghana that his pop career took off. “I had to go to Ghana to get the sound right,” he explains over a steak lunch, looking out across London from a 15th-floor restaurant. “I’d been recording hip-hop tracks with an African vibe from 2009, but I knew I had to do something different if I wanted to go further. So in 2011 I went back over.”
Fuse has the dual outlook of many first-generation immigrants, referring to both England and Ghana as home. But though he readily cites UK acts So Solid Crew and Sway as inspirations, he’s in no doubt where the heart of his sound lies. “You hear music everywhere in Ghana,” he says. “When I was there, I hooked up with the producer Killbeatz and he took me out every night for two weeks.
We went into this club and everyone was doing these crazy moves. That was when I first saw the locals do the Azonto dance, and I loved it, man! It had so much energy. I came back to England and was like, ‘Do you know Azonto?’ But no one had heard of it. So I decided to record the Azonto single.
It was like Afrobeats, but with my UK thing added to it. We uploaded the video and it went mad! 50,000 hits in the first day. People were sending videos in from the States, from Kenya, all doing the dance. A month later I was over in Ghana headlining a show to a 5,000 people, and I’ve done a show pretty much every week since. It’s been surreal.”
Surreal is the word: at one point even dancin’ David Cameron had a bash at Azonto’s knee-knocking moves. Unfortunately for fans of the knuckle-grindingly awkward, this happened off camera. How bad was he? “You’ll have to ask my manager…” Fuse laughs diplomatically. “I didn’t actually meet him myself, but we’ve actually met loads of government ministers because in our area, Mitcham, me and my manager run these community groups. We even met the Queen at this meal for community leaders. It sounds funny to say but she was really cute, just tucking into her dinner. We started all this before Azonto blew up, so I keep it up now, running these projects for the local kids, so they don’t go on to the streets and do a madness. They’re inspiring; one of the kids from the group actually helped with the production of Antenna.”
Antenna was the follow-up to Azonto, and the moment Fuse made the tricky leap from viral novelty act to credible star. An addictive shot of sunshine pop, Antenna burst into the top 10 with an exuberant vocal that made as much sense on the streets of Somerset as it did in the tower blocks of east London. It set Fuse up for his current UK top 5 hit, Million Pound Girl (Badder Than Bad), and secured him the 2013 Mobo award for best African act, where, in his acceptance speech, he laid out what he earnestly refers to today as “his mission”.
“For me, everything is about getting the message across,” he elaborates. “My mission is to change the perception of Africa. The media constantly shows Africa in such a negative way. When I was growing up it wasn’t cool to be African; the image was always this sick kid with flies round their mouth. I want to change that perception. It’s actually an amazing place: it’s peaceful, it’s happy. We could learn so much from them about community. In Ghana, strangers talk to each other in the street. If I talk to a stranger at the bus stop here they’ll think I’m gonna rob them! It’s crazy. I want my music to make people see that Africa is an amazing place.”
Fuse is blazing a trail for a host of new UK-African artists, from MCs such as Tribal and Kwamz to 1Xtra favourite Mista Silva and grimey collective Weray Ent. With the scene becoming adept at exploiting the borderless, viral power of online promotion – racking up video plays from Lagos to Luton – it’s looking very much like 2014 will be Africa’s year.
Fuse breaks into his open smile once more and pushes back his personalised TINA cap (the acronym stands for This Is New Africa, the title of his forthcoming album). “We’re a new generation, and I’m so excited to be representing that. Trust me, I’m only just getting started.”
Fuse ODG’s TINA (This Is New Africa) is due out in the UK in May
Credit: Guardian UK