La femme fatale africaine

Africa Is a Country is partnering with AfroWave Echoes to present their quarterly playlist of African music.

Miriam Makeba and Dizzy Gillespie. Image credit Roland Godefroy via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0 Deed.

The recent explosion of artists like Rema, Amaarae, Tyla, and Ayra Starr on to the international stage, underscores the growing global recognition of African music. We at AfroWave curate playlists that speak to the multiple fusions and adaptations of local genres and their accompanying scenes in Africa—including afrobeats, highlife, amapiano, and alte—that are taking over local and international charts. At a time when music journalism faces challenges, our goal is to serve as a platform that celebrates and contextualizes Africa’s musical landscape, while also building a community around it.

In the vibrant tapestry of African popular music, the threads woven by African women shimmer with a resilience and brilliance that have both challenged and transcended the constraints of their time. Female musicians often showcase greater innovation as a direct response to the patriarchal systems that restrict their creative expression and roles. This innovation is a form of resilience against the stringent societal norms and gender-based constraints prevalent in both traditional and contemporary African societies. By blending traditional and modern sounds, articulating their struggles through music and activism, and leveraging digital platforms to bypass industry gatekeepers, these artists create unique musical styles and foster community engagement. Operating at the intersection of tradition and modernity, their work not only brings vibrancy and dynamism to African music but also challenges and transforms societal perceptions of gender, illustrating the profound impact of overcoming oppression through creativity.

African women were always at the forefront in the emergence of African popular music. Mariam Makeba, affectionately known as Mama Africa, emerged in 1967 as a pioneering force. Her classics, such as “Pata Pata,” offered the world a glimpse into the rich diversity of African music. Makeba’s voice, embodying the spirit of the African continent, transcended boundaries, making her a symbol of the fight against apartheid and a champion for civil rights worldwide.

The legacy of Makeba paved the way for a new generation of artists such as Brenda Fassie, Angelique Kidjo, and Tiwa Savage, each carving their niche within the pantheon of African music. Fassie, dubbed “The Madonna of the Townships,” brought South African pop music to international prominence in the 1980s with her electrifying performances and lyrics that resonated deeply with the apartheid struggle. Kidjo, from Benin, has been celebrated for her eclectic fusion of West African traditions with global genres, earning her multiple Grammy Awards. Tiwa Savage, from Nigeria, has become a powerhouse in afrobeats, reflecting the evolving landscape where female artists gain recognition for their talent and innovation.

Despite their successes, these women navigated a male-dominated industry rife with sexism and racism Makeba’s marriage to Stokely Carmichael, a prominent Black Panther Party leader, in 1968 led to cancellation of her record deals and concerts in the United States, demonstrating how political and racial discrimination impacted her personally and professionally. Angélique Kidjo has been more vocal about her experiences and views regarding gender equality in the music industry and society at large. Her music often includes themes of female empowerment, and she has used her platform to speak against the cultural practices that discriminate against women. Kidjo’s career, marked by her refusal to be pigeonholed into traditional roles or genres, challenges the gender norms and expectations that often limit African women’s creative and professional opportunities in the music industry.

More recently, Tiwa’s music video for her smash hit, “Wanted,” featured her dancing seductively in a nude catsuit, and was banned in Nigeria for being “too raunchy.” This treatment highlighted the double standards and contradictory societal
expectations placed on women in comparison to men, who regularly sexualize women in their videos. In 2005 MzBel was brutally attacked after a performance by a rabid mob of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology students, an attack for which she received no justice. Both Tiwa and MzBel talk about how the media at the time negatively impacted their careers because of how they chose to express themselves and their art.

The struggle of African women in music is not confined to West Africa. One of our curators, Laura, a Dublin-based DJ from Rwanda, explained that while “women were always present in the music I consumed, they mainly appeared in music videos as back-up singers, and generally as the subject of the lyrics.” Despite these challenges, her and her female peers in Rwanda found inspiration in female artists who broke through and gained wide traction.

Jess, another one of our curators, and a DJ who splits her time between London and Accra, recalls the impact of music channels like MTV Base and Channel O in her youth. She explained to us: “Channel O was where I first interacted with African music from other countries and discovered legends such as Angelique Kidjo and Brenda Fassie.” Through Channel O she was excited to finally see in Black African form what she had only been able to see on MTV from the West: beautiful sexy women dancing in the latest fashion/costumes and singing about fun, relatable topics that excited her—like telling men they didn’t need or care for them, owning their bodies and agency, feeling themselves and bragging about how hot and fly they were. These representations inspired her to pursue a career in music.

Such stories of perseverance and activism among African women in music highlight their crucial role in advocating for women’s rights, social justice, and equality. They have broken ceilings and forged paths for future generations, serving as beacons of hope and calls to action for the music industry to support diverse voices.

Other notable artists to highlight from our playlist include Lady Donli, who revolutionized the classic genre highlife, modernized it, flipped it on its head and bulldozed her own lane in music history. Artists like Somadina and Mowalola, effortlessly traverse punk rock and EDM, while Bloody Civilian finds her own lane with electronic-r&b and pop-fusion. Ayra Starr and Tyla dominate afropop, Brazy and SGawd pioneer “afro sexy,” a concoction of EDM, afrobeats, Jersey bounce and rap; while Amaarae brings it all together, dancing effortlessly across hip-hop, trap, r&b, pop, rock, and afrobeats.

In the gqom and amapiano spaces, artists like Sho Madjozi and Uncle Waffles are also making moves. Madjozi stormed the world with “John Cena,” which became a viral hit. Known for her dance moves, Uncle Waffles blew up last year with the viral song “Adiwele.” Today, she’s one of the most sought after DJs in the world.

We would be remiss not to mention the queen of contemporary Francophone music, Aya Nakamura. If Beyonce had a French equivalent, it would certainly be Aya. Her breakout hit “Dja Dja” is one of the most streamed songs ever by an African artist. In 2021, she challenged preconceived notions about who can be a fashion icon by appearing on the cover of French Vogue. In 2023, she sold out her shows at Accor Arenas in Paris in 15 minutes, setting a record for French artists. The best thing about all these names? They remain authentic and true to their African roots, singing in their local languages and flairs, appealing directly to and driving their own culture.

These contemporary examples illustrate the success of African women in music. As the global audience continues to embrace African popular music, it is imperative that the contributions of African women are not merely acknowledged but elevated. Their resilience, creativity, and activism are not just footnotes in the annals of music history; they are central chapters in the ongoing narrative of African cultural expression and its impact on the world stage. The legacy of these women, against all odds, serves as a powerful reminder of the role of art in societal change and the enduring strength of the human spirit.

In the essence of “La Femme Fatale,” a stereotype of which we celebrate the reclamation of, we at AfroWave have meticulously crafted a playlist that honors the impactful legacy of African women in music. Explore and support some of our cherished favs!

Further Reading