‘The Headies’ is a Nigerian Award Show for African Music. Here’s Why It’s Happening in Atlanta – Rolling Stone

Drawn to Atlanta as one of the world’s Black music and entertainment capitals, executive producer Ayo Animashaun’s Headies Awards will take place at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre this Sunday, September 4, in front of an anticipated full house of 2,750. Since 2006, the Headies have taken place in Nigeria, honoring excellence in music from the West African nation and the continent more widely. 

The Headies got their start as the Hip Hop World Awards, named for the magazine Animashaun founded as rap gained ground in Nigeria, and before the moniker ‘Afrobeats’ did. “I think 80% of the categories we had then, we have now,” he says. “But it grew bigger by leaps and bounds, so it had to stand on its own as a different brand. That’s why it became the Headies.”

African music, particularly West African Afrobeats and Southern African amapiano have exploded around the globe in recent years, taking its place on radios, in concert halls, on dancefloors, on charts and in festivals far from its axis. Nigerian artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, CKay, Fireboy DML, and more have become especially successful in the US. Wizkid has earned the most Headies nominations this year with 10, followed by Ayra Starr and Tems who have both clinched eight. 

The news of the Headies move to the United States was announced in March and met with intrigue, confusion, and doubt online, raising concerns that an award show for African music no longer revolved around the attention of Africans. How many times have Grammy been held in the UK or BRITS held in the USA?, wrote one perturbed Instagram user on a Headies post. Each country’s award brings glory to its country….. Biggest award in Nigeria held on a foreign soil? Y’all are a bunch of joke! 

All the commotion led Tami Makinde, Managing Editor at the Native, an African music and culture platform catering to young adults, to lead a Twitter Space on the topic in tandem with the 49th Street, another African cultural publication. 

“A lot of people look to the Headies because that is our premier award show,” Makinde says. “I think there’s just nothing else for us to compare that to here in Nigeria. We don’t really have any other award systems that have the longevity that the Headies have, and also just have the reputation.” Though there is reverence for the awards, those that tune in locally have begrudged audiovisual quality that hasn’t kept up with the times. 

“Nothing has really changed in terms of how they’re delivering the show,” says Makinde. “A lot of people have just generally wanted to see better production and see just things looking better on home soil.”

Better production is one of the reasons executive producer Ayo Animashaun has said he’s bringing the Headies to the US, saying that it’s been more expensive and logistically challenging to bolster production in Africa than it would be here.  

Animashaun says over the years, he’s dug into his own pockets for the Headies’ budget, but the move to the U.S. has come with unexpected financial pressure, too. For example, annually, the winner of the Headies’ Next Rated category, akin to the Grammy’s Best New Artist competition, took home a brand new car with their title. This year, the promised prize is a Bentley that Animashaun purchased himself. “The category wasn’t sponsored,” he says. “When we started the competition, the sponsor was looking good, then all of a sudden it wasn’t looking good anymore because it was gonna be in America.”

Still, Animashaun is hopeful the Headies first year in the U.S. will be an experiment that will better equip him to have the awards here next year. “I mean, we have to do this again,” he says. “Moving forward, three, four, five years, I’m not sure [but] yes, next year.”

Makinde seems cautiously optimistic about the Headies in Atlanta. Since the Native has also led live productions successfully in Nigeria, she says she knows it can be done there, but she understands the structural issues the Headies were up against. “Like everyone else, I’m just looking to see what, now that this drastic move has been made, [is] going to come out of it.”

For this year’s show in Atlanta, he’s brought on U.S. based TV veteran Ava L. Hall as an additional executive producer. The Headies will stream on YouTube as well as broadcast on their usual network, Nigeria’s HipTV, which Animashaun owns as CEO of the entertainment company Smooth Promotions. 

“This year there won’t be any U.S. broadcast partners,” says Hall. “Some of the process and planning and the lead time that some of the U.S. broadcast partners need—some of the timelines were a little off. But there are some very strong interests and very strong commitments for 2023.”

To Animashaun and Hall, giving African artists the eyes and ears of the world by hosting in the Headies in one of its entertainment behemoths is largely the point. Here, they break down their work, choices, and goals for the 2022 Headies Awards.

Ava, I would love to know how you got involved in this year’s awards.

Hall: Well, my background has been with being a global TV executive for the last 20 years. With my work that I’ve done with BET International, launching BET International, helping to scale it in the UK, Africa, and France, and also being head of programing and working on all of the BET International categories for the BET awards, I think the relationship I’ve built with the continent and built with Afrobeats artists and the industry, I think that’s what started the conversation with Ayo and I.

Animashaun: Prior to now, she had a relationship with so many of the African talents. She understands the culture. There is really little you can tell her about Afrobeats.

What has been like working together to make this happen?

Animashaun: Tough. Tough and interesting. Interesting because we see things on different angles, which is why it’s a good selection for me. Different directions. I’m coming from somewhere where we do things in a totally different way. And she’s coming from somewhere else, where they do things in a totally different way. But there’s respect. It’s not us rubbishing what the person is bringing, but bringing it together to make something stronger. So yes, it is strong, it’s powerful, but you need patience to understand, so it’s not been easy, but it’s all toward making this a very, very successful project.

Hall: Yeah, I would agree. Doing a large show like this — because it’s a very large show, three hours, 14 performances over 35 categories is a big show — it’s different from producing the show in Nigeria. I had that anticipation that it would be challenging, because it’s just different. There was probably some learning curve there, but we have like minds, I think for the passion of the continent, and for the genre, and for the culture. When it gets a little heated, we just step away and come back, and keep the goal in mind that we are here to make history, and do something amazing that I think will just continue to grow.

When and why did the idea of having the Headies in the U.S. come to be?

Animashaun: Over the years we’ve really looked for ways to expose our talents internationally. Way back in the day, it wasn’t this big. After the last Headies, which was in February 2021, during COVID, we just thought it was time to move. You know, during COVID a lot of Afrobeats songs, a lot of artists, were big on [social] media, TikTok and all. 

And five, 10 years ago, you would have the awards in Nigeria and almost all the artists would be in Nigeria at that time, but now they hardly even come around, except for December. Davido is coming from Stockholm, CKay is somewhere else, Adekunle Gold is somewhere else, Lojay is somewhere else, Tiwa Savage is somewhere else, Wizkid is some…You know, they’re all over the world. And to think that these artists are so big now is just amazing; the kind of venues they sell out, Madison Square Garden, O2 Arena, State Farm Arena, is just unbelievable.

I know for a fact that the world has not even seen anything yet. There are so many talented artists that are back home that are waiting for the opportunity. And Headies provides that platform, to further showcase more artists to the world.

You can’t always show the world from your backyard. You have to show the world where everybody’s going to see. We’re having this interview because Headies is happening here. You know? 

In a Twitter Space in March, you mentioned a benefit of moving the Headies to the U.S. would be more access to less expensive and better quality production. Have you found that to be true in the production of the Headies this year?

Animashaun: Yes and no. At that point, it was a yes, but now it’s a no, and I’ll tell you why. Most of my sponsors now are sponsors from Africa, from Nigeria, where you exchange currency to dollar. So, between then and now there’s huge currency devaluation. In Nigeria, the kind of production you’d have here, before now, you’d be spending like four times more to get in Nigeria. But with the kind of production and the cost of venue and everything, having lost that value in our currency, it’s not the same anymore. 

Then, the cost of travel tickets have tripled, and also, we’re not able to do a lot with the cost of tickets. It’s summer, why would [an airline] want to partner and do sponsorship when [they] can get revenue? 

What about the people who are typically based in Africa and who would want to participate in the Headies? What was the thinking around accessibility for them?

Animashaun: Ayo or Smooth Promotions or Headies cannot afford to buy tickets for everybody that wants to come to watch the Headies in America. I’m sure that if people know two months before, three months before, they will be able to plan around the Headies. The whole idea is that they can plan their summer around the Headies. “Okay, I’ll go for somewhere now, then I’ll attend the Headies.”

And another thing is, to come to the U.S., a lot of people require Visas. So we can give you tickets to the Headies, but we can’t give you Visas to come to the U.S. That would be the U.S. consulate, who by the way, are our partners. They’re giving to deserving people, people that they think should be able to attend the Headies in America.

Then of course, the people are diaspora, they hear about the Headies, they follow it. They’ve not been able to experience the Headies. It’s their turn! 

As the Headies were announced, there was some pushback and concerns about the Awards moving to the US expressed on social media. What do you think about the critiques of hosting an African awards show on U.S. soil?

Animashaun: A lot of people, they’re so passionate about the Headies — “You’re taking our awards away!” The truth is, Africa or Nigeria and the US, they are not the same thing. All the artists are performing in the US now, and Europe now, all the African talents. How many of the US talents are performing in Africa now or in Nigeria now?

We are the ones that have something to showcase. We are the ones who want to sell our culture. We want them to see our fashion, want them to see our music stars, our award show and it will not happen in our backyard. 

For many years I’ve asked myself, “Why are you still doing this?” Because it’s difficult. It’s simply difficult. It’s not a case of bread and butter for me. I run a successful entertainment network, amongst other things, but the passion for the Awards and the willingness to do this right and the determination and commitment to do this right is what drives us.

I must tell you, people who talk will always talk, but people who make things happen will always make it happen. And the truth is, after we come to U.S., they’re going to see the reasons why it is important for us to have a global awards for Afrobeats music in that space.

Hall: It deserves the platform that the machine has here in the U.S. I know what talent is [in Africa] and it’s just not the big names that you hear. And I think although U.S. audiences are attracted to the sound and they know maybe the three or four big names, there’s just so many other just as talented people. And not just from West Africa. There’s amazing talent in North Africa and South Africa. I think it’s just, for me also, helping to further educate the U.S. audience about what Africa has to offer. And it really is pan-African talent that’s represented within the Headies. 

Animashaun: For Grammy, we have a category for the entire continent of Africa (Editor’s note: The Grammys offers two Global Music categories, for best album and best musical performance). For BET, we don’t have five (Editor’s note: The BET Awards offers one category for Best International Act, and this year, Tems and Wizkid received nominations in more general categories). This is the only awards in the world right now, urban, cultural awards that’s for Afrobeats music, that’s for African music. It can be held in Africa, but we want the world to see. 

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