A Return to Altè | The Soundtrack Your Summer Needs
Evan Dale // May 22, 2021
In 2019, the world was thrust into the increasingly broad cultural spectrum that West Africa was pulling onto the global limelight’s main stage. It was an eruptive moment of peak cultural renaissance, where everything around the world from music and videography to fashion and visual art, felt rooted in Nigeria and ghana and beyond. In every cultural space where art and music so naturally intersect, myriad artistry and musicality invented wildly with a daring whirlpool of cultural traditionalism and global modernism for a confluence of brash experimentation, bringing new sound after new statement piece into worldwide focus. And two years later, one of the most intricately indefinable and still budding points of exposure that the West African Cultural Renaissance introduced us to in the Summer of 2019, should likewise soundtrack the Summer of 2021: Altè.
There was a broad swath of reasons why 2019 was such a perfect storm for the booming cultural spectrums of Western Africa. Though always a dynamic influence on the world at large, Lagos and Accra have emerged over the last half-decade as particularly vibrant, effervescent faucets of creative genius. Thank the internet for that exposure. A melting pot of so much of the larger African continent with emphases on the exclusive diversity that Nigeria and Ghana themselves boast, while also expanding the reach of their diaspora and pulling influence from those new diasporic anchors, Western Africa – through the internet’s lens – has become an ever more present pool of inspiration for creatives and everyday people looking for new artboard swatches; new forms of self-expression. And along the way, through the staples of AfroBeats and AfroFusion in music where everyone from Burna Boy to Adekunle Gold have reinvented a musical wheel so rooted in tradition; through the blinding beauty of AfroFuturistic design where films like the Black Panther and budding diasporic fashion houses like Amsterdam’s Daily Paper have opened eyes to the boundlessness in the aesthetics of West Africa’s quickly self-realizing future; alternative culture organically grew, in unison.
Altè itself is a simple play on the word alternative, after all. Coined by Teezee and Boj in 2014 single, Paper, the title gave an emerging sound – and the many emerging artists experimenting with alternative routes to West Africa’s – Nigeria’s, in particular – keystone musical sects – structure, without giving it too much. And to this day, that remains key, because Altè is more of a mood and a vibe than it is a legitimately definable aesthetic, audio, visual, or otherwise. Instead, it thrives on its difference from – and its deference as – any pre-established creative norm, not only in Nigeria, but throughout the world. Altè connects, in the same way alternative subcultures always have connected, to those wishing not to really connect at all. It is culture for those who feel defined by something undefined; music for those who want to connect to others who feel a sense of disconnect; art for the artful in ways art hasn’t, until now, really explored. Culture born from the underground, moody, creative youth of a Nigerian society that has for long adhered to traditional rotes, Altè a global subculture from a place where such a thing has never taken global root before, And much of it is owed to the humble genius that is Santi.
Now dubbed Cruel Santino – an especially moody name fitting of his place atop the totem pool of Altè emergence – Santi delivered 2019 on a platter made of something we had never heard or seen before. Mandy & The Jungle is a masterpiece, crowning 2019’s existence not only as a year of legitimate Altè materialization, but as a year in global culture defined by the ubiquity and uniqueness of the West African Cultural Renaissance, and the art and music that still bleed from it every day. Surrounding the album, which is perhaps to this day the most complete, concrete full-length peeling back of Altè’s liquid layers, Mandy & The Jungle also came in tow with a collection of immersive, trippy music videos, granting further depth to the low-key, understated sounds and visual aesthetics of Santi’s Altè. And in subsequence, those mellow sounds and those jaw-dropping visuals, taking new shape by way of new artist after new artist, continue giving Altè a more recognizable, tangible subsistence, while also encompassing an ever-stronger needlessness for definition at all.
Take for instance, 2019’s most intriguing, mesmerizing, and perhaps haunting music video: Talking Drum from Alxndr London. A UK artist who has roots in Nigeria’s Yoruba culture, Alxndr London creates music that can’t really be defined by the constraints and definitions that any other artist’s work has established. A lingering, emotional trancey merging of lanes both experimentally electronic and Nigerian rhythmic, his music, and his Talking Drum, are perhaps an extension of what Altè is starting to become: an encompassing term for those internationally influenced West African sounds – often bridging Nigeria and Ghana to the UK, the Caribbean, and to North America – that haven’t had a home before, and so find one in the indefinable web that is the West African Cultural Renaissance’s immersive alternative subculture. And within that broad range, and within a continued rollout of explorative culture from subculture heroes like Boj, Lady Donli, Odunsi, Tay Iway, Juls, Tems, and more, exists the reason why Altè should provide all of us a trusty soundtrack this Summer.
There’s an understated bit of emotion that runs through the veins of Altè music – whatever Altè music really means, that is. And that is, that Altè music not only bleeds with the oft-choral explosiveness of more AfroBeat traditional New Age like Benin soulstress Ayra Starr with breakout single, Away, but also folds in the timeless angst of alternative, youthful subculture and the understated tropic of Altè’s Lagos origins. It bends AfroBeats and AfroFusion with hip-hop, R&B, acoustic, electronic, and anything else its artistry takes a swing it. And almost always, it thrives.
In result, Altè becomes defined by its mellow albeit emotional existence as something new for anyone looking for exactly that. And on the verge of Summertime where all of us aren’t only looking for something new after a year wrought with pandemic and quarantine pain and monotony, but where all of us have, too, been forced into a new perspective – one more inward-facing, introverted, and emotionally disconnected from what existed before this break in modern history – we owe it to ourselves to allow Altè into our daily lives. It’s a vibe, after all, fit for any moment. And in unpredictable times, that’s exactly what we need.