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How this Oakland DJ is helping push Afrobeats into the pop mainstream – SF Chronicle Datebook

While the Bay Area has seen its share of Afrobeats music, DJ Juan “Juan G” Gomez and host Asaba Kugonza hope to cultivate a new space for the genre, and possibly a long-term concert series in Oakland, with the annual Afrobeats at the Lake event as their starting point.
Afrobeats, also known as Afropop, is West African pop music combined with elements of soul, jazz and American pop. London’s DJ Abrantee was credited in 2012 with using the term as “African beats from West Africa,” which he shortened to Afrobeats. The genre is often confused with the protest music and rhythmic sound from ’70s Nigerian musician Fela Kuti called “Afrobeat” (no “s”). The most recent surge of popularity for the genre came from TikTok and in social media reels featuring songs like “Last Last” by Burna Boy, “I’m A Mess” by Omah Lay and “Mood” by Wizkid.
Juan G, a DJ and music curator at Oakland-based Pandora, says he has studied the genre since 2009. His love for that style of music led him and Kugonza to start Afrobeats at the Lake in 2019. The purpose of the free event, set to kick off its fourth edition at noon Saturday, Aug. 27, at Snow Park on Lake Merritt, is to celebrate the genre’s rise in prominence in a summer festival environment.
The family-friendly event is set to host vendors with food, clothing and self-care products. This year’s live performances include saxophonist Seyi Sax, artists MXKA and Big Klef, who famously worked with Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B. There will be DJ sets from Tiedye Trippin, Juan G and many others.
The Chronicle spoke with Juan G about why Afrobeats at the Lake is not just a party, but a movement in connecting with world music. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: So first tell me a little bit about your background with Afrobeats, because you’re really deep into that scene.
A: I’ve been active and promoting Afrobeats, or Afropop music from West Africa, for the last 13 years, engulfed in different ways — as a journalist, as an archivist, researcher, as a documentarian, as a DJ and as one of the event promoters.
Q: With curation for Pandora, do you get a lot of Afrobeats music coming in? Or do you really have to curate the music itself?
A: We all get the same stuff from the distributors. Pandora has this two-step process where we vet and get stuff analyzed. Without that, the stuff just sits there, usually. So I came in there, based on my own personal knowledge and a lot of research. I just started digging and creating listening experiences — not just with Afropop but different genres within African music, a lot of legacy stuff, as well as a lot of current stuff.
Q: You’ve been saying Afrobeats and Afropop. Is there a difference? Or is it the same thing?
A: The term Afrobeats is kind of this umbrella term that developed, sort of by accident. There’s a lot of origin stories about it and some of it gets a little murky.
I used the term Afropop because it actually gives a Western audience more of an understanding of what this music actually is, which is pop music that incorporates African sensibilities, alongside rhythms that we’ve interpreted from different parts of the world, or global pop scenes, such as reggaeton, dancehall, hip-hop and R&B. Then the “Afro” is really the Africanization of it, the localization of it, which makes it unique and its own.
I use it just so that it can really drive home the point that this is pop music that we’re speaking of — the most popular music within West Africa at the moment.
Q: It was hard for me to differentiate who Afrobeats or Afropop artists are, because they’ve become so ingrained into regular pop music. Who are those artists that we should be looking out for?
A: There’s three names that always make it to the top of the list. At the very top, at the moment would be Wizkid and Burna Boy. And very close to those two names is an artist named Davido. Each one of them has sort of pushed this genre along into the Western pop mainstream.
This music turns out an endless amount of artists — tons of music. But in the U.S., we’ve really only seen a handful of times that this music has broken into our Billboard Top 100, which is a huge measure of popularity. Davido did that in 2018 with a song called “Fall.”
The song was already a year or two old by that point, which tends to be a trend. We see this delay, and (the song) becomes this huge thing within this (international) space. … I think it’s an indicator that the West is finally paying more and more attention in real time.
Q: Did that have anything to do with TikTok or any of the other social media platforms, where music starts to become a lot more ingrained in our reels and videos?
A: One hundred percent! TikTok right now is the driver for making music popular, and the labels are actively pursuing TikTok. To varying degrees of success, because you know, you’re trying to force something that audience members who are usually pretty young can kind of see right through.
Q: How long does it take before a DJ decides to run it in a club?
A: This is kind of the old story of underground versus mainstream. In Oakland, there’s certain clubs that are dedicated to just being Afrobeats; some of those DJs then cross over to other clubs where they’re playing, mostly hip-hop and R&B. But sneaking a few of those songs. There’s this whole ecosystem that starts in that underground level, which is really so exciting.
Q: Especially exciting for you. Not just as a DJ, but because you have been planning and hosting Afrobeats at the Lake for three years now. Tell me about that.
A: It’s a way to bring it (the genre) home. I was actually participating in it (the Afrobeats scene), but I was also DJing in mainstream clubs and the idea of putting on Afrobeats at the Lake was to tie it all together, and also pay homage to Oakland itself.
It’s very much a play on the original Festival at the Lake. We did it for the third year right after lockdown ended. We were hearing things like “You don’t know how much I need this” or “I haven’t been out in a year.” You really start to realize the responsibility that we carry.
Q: I hear that. Not only are you balancing the community, but you’re also balancing the social responsibility of, you know, a worldwide pandemic that’s still impacting us.
A: One hundred percent! We try to create opportunities for people to be more informed. To do the things that we wanted to do in a responsible way. I think we’re finally, in year four, where we’re finally able to really show what we really wanted and that we envisioned after year one.
4th Annual Afrobeats at the Lake: Noon-8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27. Free. Snow Park, 1999 Harrison St., Oakland.

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