Apps / Arts / Business development / Immigration / International

This programmer and former refugee combined his love of beats and tech into an African music streaming startup

Leonard Novati has bootstrapped AfroCharts while working full time as a programmer analyst in Milwaukee. Despite a lifetime of barriers, he says: "I still think I can make it here."

Leonard Novati. (Courtesy photo)

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For much of Leonard Novati’s early upbringing, life was confined inside the walls of a refugee camp.

Like many Burundi families between the 1970s and ’90s torn by civil war, Novati’s parents were forced to flee their home country. They crossed over into Tanzania, and while the family found safety from the ethnic violence, rarely did they encounter the same freedoms or opportunities afforded to fully fledged citizens. They weren’t even to interact with the locals.

Novati grew up with his parents and eight sisters in a two-room tent, surrounded by walls stacked with mud bricks. There was no computer or telephone. In the stillness of the moonlight, he could hear lions roaring in the distance.

His favorite escape came through radio. That’s when he fell in love with music.

“Music was a way to kill time, it was a way to transport,” Novati told “Young people didn’t have a radio, but our parents loved music. We would take it, turn on the music channels and listen to American music, African music. We loved hip-hop and R&B. 50 Cent, Biggie, the known guys. We didn’t understand what they were saying, but they were our favorite artists.”

In 2007, Novati’s family moved to Milwaukee, where he was introduced to his second passion: computers. After his family was gifted an old Mac, he taught himself to code and pursued a future in tech.

“I [saw the computers] and was like, ‘What is this little thing that can do so much?” he said. “I fell in love with computers. So, I just started teaching myself as much as I could. Just like an artist, I needed to create. It lights up my day and I forget how much time I’ve spent building software.”

After completing a computer science degree at Florida’s Stetson University, he returned to Milwaukee to work as a web developer. But his love of music was always beating in the background. On weekends, Novati worked as a DJ playing American pop hits at parties, weddings, and corporate events, and eventually created the music blog AfroCharts, playing tribute to his African musical roots.

Leonard Novati. (Courtesy photo)

In 2016, Novati combined his love of music and tech when he began transitioning AfroCharts into one of the first music sharing and streaming platforms for African artists. Last summer, AfroCharts reached a new milestone — a repertoire of more than 7,000 artists’ music, more than 5 million users, and millions of streams across the continents.

Novati said artists, labels, and artist managers must go through a verification process before uploading music directly onto the platform. While the platform isn’t restricted to a particular genre, all of the artists represent at least one of the 54 African countries. Artists earn roughly $20 for every 5,000 streams, similar to the other major streaming services, according to numbers Novati shared with TechPoint last year.

“The goal is not just to reach African listeners; it’s for anybody listening to African sounds,” Novati said of his early-stage venture. “African music is being exported and listened to all over the world. On the artists’ side, it’s really to help the independent artists.”

He hopes to change musical perspectives by uplifting African artists and exposing music aficionados to the sounds of Africa — an entire continent he said is too often overlooked in the mainstream music industry.

AfroCharts homepage. (Courtesy image)

“We have Spotify, Apple — the big guys,” Novati said. “What about the independent artists, the big musicians of tomorrow? Why are [they] not blowing up? Their music rarely gets any play because nobody is going there to look for these particular artists.”

He’s also hoping to capture a slice of the global music streaming industry, an $18.9 billion business.

So far, Novati has bootstrapped his entire venture while working full time as a programmer analyst for a major fintech company in Milwaukee. He did all the coding for AfroCharts himself.

“When I turned to streaming, I already had experience with tech coding and working feature by feature,” Novati said. “I just figured out what I need to do now and then I built it up.”

Now, he’s hoping to share his vision with potential investors with the hopes of securing funding to take AfroCharts to the next level. Outside of funding, Novati said he is seeking mentorship. As a self-taught tech entrepreneur, he said he’s lacking the support and feedback to make his business better. And in Milwaukee’s emerging tech scene, finding that guidance has proved to be a challenge. But he’s not new to barriers.

“Anybody I tell is like, it’s ‘cool,’ but it’s just African music,” Novati said. “But there’s this wave going on in African music, even [within] American music. So there’s a future there where we can combine our continents together. But they don’t see that.”

Still, Novati is determined. He’s a regular at tech networking events across the city and is slowly making connections with fellow entrepreneurs, partners, and artists in New York, California and abroad. Through his conversations, he’s received requests from independent artists and listeners to expand the platform to include Caribbean, Latin and Arabic musical expressions.

Is a world music streaming platform on the horizon?

“I still think I can make it here,” he said. “Just because something sounds out of this world, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a future. Something about founders — we can see the future. Keep your mind open.”

Because for Novati, walls don’t exist. Anything is possible.

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