For years, Afro Pop has included a wide range of loosely related popular styles from the African continent that crosses countries, languages, and cultures. It’s a sort of one-stop shop, if you will, for all things African. And although sometimes oversimplified in the West, it has created the opportunity for some of Africa’s biggest musicians to increase their visibility to audiences worldwide.
As Afro Pop continues to expand and broaden its scope, female artists in particular have excelled in challenging what this music means in the 21st century. Singer-songwriters like Fatoumata Diawara and Rokia Traore have spearheaded a wave of timeless Malian folk music, while veteran matriarchs such as Oumou Sangare and Angélique Kidjo continue to release new projects that fully embrace modernity without sacrificing their musical lineage. Afro Pop also includes contributions from the African diaspora, including artists like Ethiopian-American jazz singer Meklit, and boundary-stretching Sudanese-American group Alsarah and the Nebutones.
We’ve put together a playlist of 50 African women from all over the continent and around the world, highlighting some of the many styles that make up African music today. To get you started, here are a few of our favorites.
It’s been seven long years since Fatoumata dropped her classic album Fatou. In the years following, she’s acted in movies, released multiple collaborative projects and raised awareness about the difficulties her home country of Mali faces. Such a long break can sometimes have an adverse effect on an artist’s craft, but Diawara’s upcoming follow-up, Fenfo (Something to Say), picks up right where Fatou left off. “Nterini,” the album’s first single, addresses the global refugee crisis with a heartbreaking story of abandonment. The song is impossibly infectious, and is made even more powerful by the message, delivered with a real sense of pain and urgency.
What better example of the 21st century evolution of Afro Pop than Angélique Kidjo’s newly released cover of the 1983 Talking Heads song “Born Under Punches?” On her upcoming full-length, due in June, Kidjo covers the entire Remain in Light album, having always felt a connection to that album and its distinctly African undertones. With this reinterpreted version, she’s finally brought David Byrne’s music back to its rightful home.
Ethiopian singer Tsedi is a brand-new voice coming from the African diaspora. Her debut single, sung in both English and her native Amharic, shares a wealth of knowledge handed down to Tsedi by her grandmother: a series of proverbs that manage to perfectly link the past with the present in both tradition and musical style. “Sew Sew New” is a great example of African music being influenced by the West without losing its roots or its soul.
This title track from Poulo’s 2017 album, released on the always-amazing Awesome Tapes from Africa label, finds the Malian singer inspiring vivid images of nomadic desert life as the song unfolds like a campfire sing-along. Her voice is both haunting and soothing, and is accompanied by a hypnotic rhythm that features both electric and acoustic elements that align perfectly, just as Poulo’s backup singers step in to elevate the tension halfway through.
A discussion of African women in music would be incomplete without highlighting one of the most recognizable songs to come from the continent. Often referred to as the Madonna of the Townships, Brenda Fassie was a true rockstar in the 1980s and 1990s. She lived fast and died tragically young, but not before she gave her native motherland one of its most beloved 20th century songs. “Vul’indela” is sung from the perspective of a proud mother pushing her gossiping neighbors out of the way as she celebrates her son’s marriage. Despite the ’90s production, Brenda’s voice and lyrics feel timeless, and the song can be heard throughout Africa to this day.