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Leonard Novati was born and raised in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Now, he’s a full-time software engineer in Milwaukee. Those two existences may seem worlds apart, but Novati bridges them with AfroCharts, an African music streaming platform he built and is growing.
The goal is to make different types of African music accessible to listeners worldwide, help users discover a wide variety of sounds from different countries, and give independent artists a way to share their music with a global audience.
“I always joke that African music (sounds) nothing like ‘The Lion King’ songs,” Novati said. “That’s just one country and maybe one genre.”
Since launching in 2020, AfroCharts has amassed around 12,000 artists on the platform and nearly 200,000 songs, Novati said. Around 200,000 users a month interact with the AfroCharts app or via a web browser, he said.
Many of the listeners currently are in Africa but Novati intends to grow globally, with an initial focus on the U.S., Europe and Brazil.
“This is not just, ‘Oh, we’re creating for Africans,’” Novati said. “It’s a place for anybody who’s wants to learn about African music and entertainment.”
Novati’s love of music began in the refugee camp, he said. He recalls gathering with groups of people there and listening to the radio.
“(With) so many people in one place, so little to do … music always brings people together,” he said.
In 2007, at around age 16, Novati and his family moved to Wisconsin. He attended Washington High School of Information Technology in Milwaukee and then went to Florida’s Stetson University, where he studied computer science and also taught himself how to DJ.
Back in Milwaukee after college, Novati picked up local disc jockey gigs. He found there wasn’t an audience for the African music he loved or a digital streaming platform that featured African artists, and the idea for AfroCharts was born.
Novati built the platform while balancing full-time employment. He’s a software engineer at Northwestern Mutual and previously worked as a programmer analyst for FIS.
AfroCharts recently was selected as a semifinalist for the Black Ambition Prize, a nonprofit initiative founded by Grammy Award-winning musician Pharrell Williams that invests in startups founded by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. As a semifinalist, Novati is participating in a three-month mentorship program offered through Black Ambition.
Novati also recently joined a program called MKE Venture Mentoring Service, a new program through the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce that connects entrepreneurs with mentors, with the goal of helping startups successfully scale.
He previously participated in the MKE Tech Hub Coalition’s startup incubator program FOR-M and was recently one of eight local startup founders selected to receive a $10,000 grant through the program.
Longer term, Novati envisions evolving AfroCharts into an entertainment technology company that offers various services for musicians and the entertainment industry and becomes a “house of data for music in Africa,” he said.
“There will be a lot of ways people can use the data we have,” Novati said.
AfroCharts is focused on serving and featuring independent artists. Unlike many of its music streaming platform competitors, AfroCharts allows artists to upload music directly to the platform, and it doesn’t charge them for uploading their songs or require musicians to go through a distributor, Novati said.
“We want to serve all those people that nobody thinks they have music,” Novati said. “Because I believe each country has at least 2,000 superstars.”
Some of Novati’s current favorite songs on AfroCharts:
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