Tems’ global success is only the tip of the iceberg for women in African music
THE FACE cover star just topped the US Billboard Chart via her feature on Future's Wait For U. Does Tems' fast rise reflect a wider change for female African artists?
Every month, THE FACE columnist Wale Oloworekende covers the most exciting releases and music news stories from across the African continent. Check out his previous columns here.
There is no history of popular African music without the talent and ingenuity of its women. While men have undoubtedly hogged much of the limelight, women have been a critical part of African music’s propulsive journey to the heart of modern pop. From the searing conscious anthems of anti-apartheid singer Miriam Makeba to the ‘70s rock of the Lijadu Sisters and pan-Africanist ideals of Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, female musicians have been a part of the journey at every step. During the mid-to-late 2010s, Nigerian artist Tiwa Savage made herself the leading female voice of the first generation of contemporary afropop acts to engage with the western world.
Tems is one of the leading acts of afropop’s second wave. Earlier this month, THE FACE cover star became the first Nigerian singer to reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, courtesy of her contributions to Future’s track Wait For U. Although the hit includes a sample of Tems performing a live session of her song Higher rather than a newly recorded feature, Future chose to credit her as a featured artist to help promote her work. “Soon as I heard the @temsbaby sample over @atljacobbeatz Instantly connected to my soul,” he tweeted.
Over the last three years, Tems has moved from holding down a stifling digital marketing job to being one of the world’s most exciting new music stars, as the 26-year-old’s beautiful voice and soul-stirring songwriting has blurred the gap between Nigeria’s pop-driven mainstream and the more leftfield altê scene. Last year, she reached number nine on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart with Essence, a collaboration with Wizkid that became the song of summer 2021 (with a little help from Justin Bieber, who hopped on a remix). Mere weeks later, she was tapped by Drake for a sweltering amapiano-influenced belter on his anticipated album, Certified Lover Boy.
Tems isn’t the only African woman enjoying some well-deserved global attention for their music. “Things are changing for sure,” she told THE FACE.“I think more women are believing in themselves, I think more women are coming out and realising that they can do it.”
In part thanks to TikTok virality, last year Ghanaian-American artist Amaarae also hit the Billboard Hot 100 with her Kali Uchis and Moliy-featuring remix of Sad Girlz Luv Money, all while being at the cutting edge of experimental African music and fashion. In Nigeria, Mavin Records’ signee Ayra Starr – who released her debut EP and album last year – received eight nominations for the 15th edition of the popular Nigerian award ceremony, The Headies, and is already regarded as one of the most exciting young talents to watch out for globally.
In the south of the continent, Kamo Mphela, Lady Du and Sha Sha fuelled the amapiano explosion, while the always-distinctive South African artist Moonchild Sanelly is building a base in England following collaborations with Ghetts and Trillary Banks. And let’s not forget about the buzz around Nomfundo Moh, Fave or Nadia Mukami either. The girls are coming – don’t say no one warned you.
Listen to THE FACE's Best New African Music playlist on Spotify
Burna Boy – Last Last
According to Burna Boy, his next album Love, Damini – scheduled for release in July – promises to reflect on his personal life with glimpses at the successes, setbacks and growth that have lined his journey. In his latest song, Last Last, the African Giant reminisces on the end of his relationship with London-based rapper Stefflon Don and how the romance’s end has affected him. Over an instrumental sampling Toni Braxton’s 2000 single, He Wasn’t Man Enough, the singer uses the Nigerian slang of ‘breakfast’ – meaning heartbreak – to discuss his hurt, while the song’s chorus advocates for alcohol and weed to help numb the pain.
Maua Sama – Cinema
Over the last 10 years or so, Tanzanian music has made sizeable contributions to afropop. We’ve heard exciting interpretations of its bongo flava sound thanks to the effort of acts like Zuchu, Diamond Platnumz, Rayvanny and Maua Sama. Sama’s debut album, Cinema, sits at the intersection of bongo flava, R&B and mellow afropop as the 32-year-old Tanzanian singer explores variations of romance.
Check out the album.
Davido – Stand Strong
On Stand Strong, Davido’s first single of 2022, the Nigerian superstar wrestles back the narrative of his career to place himself at the centre of the genre he helped popularise ahead of the release of his third album. Over a groovy beat supplied by breakout afropop act Pheelz, Davido sings about his haters and his fears being easier to face. After a ten years stint at the top of popular music from west Africa, Stand Strong represents the afropop titan at his most pensive, with regular Kanye collaborators The Sunday Service Choir for company. “You see the money and the fame, the success/But you really don’t know what’s going on in my life,” Davido sings reflectively as he prepares for another epoch in his storied career.
Kwaku DMC – Road To The Jungle
Long before the rappers from Kumasi’s asakaa scene piqued global attention for their hard-hitting music, they were local icons, using their songs to push a modernist image of their hometown that borrowed heavily from American hip-hop culture and mannerisms. On his latest mixtape, Road To The Jungle, cult hero and Life Living Records associate Kwaku DMC gives a contextual lecture on the pulse of Kumasi. Standout track Agree is gritty collab with Life Living labelmates Reggie and O’Kenneth that boasts the menacing turn of phrases, thumping basslines, and lyrical ingenuity that made early 2021 asakaa music truly special.
Listen to the full tape here.
Buruklyn Boyz – EAST MPAKA LONDON
Buruklyn Boyz – comprised primarily of Ajay and Mr. Right – are archivists of Kenyan urban culture. They relay tales of their upbringing and lives in Buruburu, which is located in the middle of Nairobi, over thumping drill instrumentals. On their debut album, EAST MPAKA LONDON, the group takes their sound in a slicker direction, relying on influences from R&B and soul to create a compelling body of work. Thematically, EAST MPAKA LONDON still is packed with gritty stories, but the duo also luxuriate in the glow of stardom (Usikan Hii Section) and make grand romantic declarations (Nothing But Love) to display the evolution of their sound.
Listen to the whole album.
Kizz Daniel & Tekno – Buga (Lo Lo Lo)
Few afropop acts operating today can carry a tune like Kizz Daniel does, and even fewer are as reclusive as the 28-year-old. In spite of this, since he pitched his tent with American music distribution company Empire, Kizz has been in imperious form, closing out 2021 with Barnabas, a seven-track extended play that topped many end-of-year lists in Nigeria. The singer’s dominant streak has carried over into 2022 with an exciting addition to the remix of 1da Banton’s No Wahala and a bigger moment has been engineered with the release of Buga (Lo Lo Lo), a collaboration with singer and producer Tekno Miles. Since its release, Buga (Lo Lo Lo) has topped charts in Nigeria and gone on to become the most shazamed song globally.
ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES… ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES…
Olamide – Baddest Guy Ever Liveth (2013)
The biggest progression that happened in Nigerian music in the 2010s occurred far away from the typical power axis of popular music from the country. Prior to the mid-’00s, mainstream music in Nigeria was mostly influenced by the flow and cadences of American rap and R&B, leading many artists to rhyme in put-on American accents. Away from the spotlight, a crop of rappers from Lagos’ inner-city ghettos embraced their authentic accents, often rapping in Yoruba or Igbo. Initially, they struggled to be taken seriously and were derisively referred to as ‘local rappers’. But they persisted, gradually earning respect for the gut-wrenching honesty of their work.
Among this scene was a skinny kid from Bariga known as Olamide, whose 2011 debut album Rapsodi established his reputation as a musician to watch out for as the texture of Nigerian music underwent a marked change. Olamide’s next album, the ironically titled Yahoo Boy No Laptop (a nod to the accusation of being involved in cyberfraud that dogged the earliest years of his career), introduced him to a wider audience. But it was his third album, the incendiary Baddest Guy Ever Liveth, that established him as one of Nigeria’s premier music acts.
Featuring songs like Durosoke, Sitting On The Throne, Dope Money, and Anifowose, BGEL was a pop turn for Olamide, who infused his belligerent rap flows with sung hooks that made him an unmissable presence on radios across the country. While the likes of Wiz and Davido earned more global recognition during the 2010s, Olamide arguably had the most powerful influence on Nigerian pop culture. The impact of BGEL – stylistically, lingo-wise, and thematically – can be gleaned in the music of rappers like Zlatan, Naira Marley and Mohbad, who have enjoyed success with a sound that’s loyal to Lagos culture.