Lists aren’t meant to be definitive, and this one isn’t either. For starters, measures such as the number of Youtube views or Social Media presence don’t say much about the spread of one’s fanbase. For example, Cassper Nyovest is currently the biggest artist in South Africa and manages to sell out shows in other countries in the Southern African region. However, he hasn’t toured extensively anywhere else, and his celebrity remains confined mainly to South Africa – and increasingly to parts of the continent which have access to satellite channels such as MTV Base. International collaborations, too, say more about how much money an artist has in order to afford a high-profile feature than they do about how big an artist is overseas. Google search results and the number of internationally-renowned publications which have written about an artist are factors, but don’t weigh heavily.
My main decider, especially for positions 1 and 2, was live shows and longevity. I looked at the calibre of shows the artists are booked to perform at. There is, after all, a difference between performing at a club with 200 people in attendance and performing at massive stadiums such as London’s O2 Arena in front of thousands. Add to that the diversity of the audience (ie. are they mainly expats from the artist’s country of origin, or representative of the host nation)? In the interest of unearthing new talent, I’ve left out some of the legends that people come to expect on a list of this nature. Feel free to give us your thoughts by leaving a comment.
1. Angelique Kidjo (Benin)
Don’t get it wrong, Angelique Kidjo is big on the African continent. People everywhere have been into her music since the early days of ‘Agolo’. But such is her influence that leaving her out of this list would amount to a criminal offence. Check this: Time magazine has called her “Africa’s premier diva” while America’s NPR has called her “Africa’s greatest living diva”. But compliments and lists aside, she’s truly a powerhouse! She’s figured out a way to use her celebrity in order to raise consciousness worldwide about issues plaguing African youth. She’s co-founded the Batonga Foundation, an education-oriented organization aimed at training young girls to take charge as leaders on the African continent. When she was born in Benin all those years ago, no one knew she’d ever be this big – including her. But here she is, some 55-odd years later, still making relevant music, collaborating with amazing artists, and travelling the world as an advocate of the change she wants to see. We won’t even go into her astounding list of award wins and nomination.
2. Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa)
Joseph Tshabalala would have a recurring dream in which he’d hear isicathamiya sung in perfect harmony. This was in 1964, the same year he assembled close family members to start a group known then as Ezimnyama. When Paul Simon went to South Africa record his Graceland album in 1985, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as they came to be known, were already multi-platinum-selling artists. Simon produced their Grammy-winning 1987 album, Shaka Zulu, which propelled them to international superstardom. They’ve never looked back since, and have become ambassadors for their country on several stages across the world. Their most recent Grammy nod was for their live album entitled Singing For Peace Around The World in 2013.
3. Die Antwoord (South Africa)
Ninja (real name Waddy Jones) flirted with a few underground projects before settling on Max Normal.Tv, the precursor to Die Antwoord and successor to the Max Normal project he’d started in the early 2000s.The combined efforts of him and partner Yo-landi Vi$$er have seen Die Antwoord go from performing to scenesters in Cape Town’s nightclubs, to artists whose tours regularly take them from North America to Australia and Europe. They’ve got a string of collaborations with noteworthy fashion designers (Alex Wang), filmmakers (‘Chappie’ with Neil Blomkamp) and photographers (Roger Ballen, who was roped in to direct one of their videos). For fun, they’ll turn down Lady Gaga’s request to open for her, or rip off Jane Alexandra’s work. They’re one of the biggest rap exports we’ve ever had on the African continent. With every project, one gets a strange feeling that they’ve only just begun. What’s next?
4. Tinariwen (Mali)
Tinariwen play what has been described by the mainstream media as ‘desert blues’. It’s a fitting label, one of many, but one which fails – like all labels do – to capture the full gamut of their musical souls. The Grammy Award-winning Tuareg musicians, part of the Berber people of Northern Mali, were rebel fighters until 1979 when they decided that music, instead of guns, was the way forward. Their influences rake in chaabi protest music, rock, Algerian pop rai and more. Despite having been playing music for a long time, they only came to the world’s attention at the turn of the millennium. They’ve since toured the world (North America, Europe, Japan and Australia) performing at acclaimed festivals like Coachella, Roskilde and WOMAD. Listening to Tinariwen’s music (their Aman Iman album is a good place to start), one gets a sense of a group intent on not keeping things confined in safe spaces. Their guitars are ammo for them, with riffs reeking of desert funk so left-field it’s amazing that they’re so widely acclaimed!
5. K’naan (Somalia)
Sure, K’naan Warsame isn’t based in his homeland, Somalia. He left with his family just as the civil war was getting into full gear, on the last plane out of the country. He grew up in North America, shoveling snow and perfecting rap techniques from the Rakim cassette tapes his father would get for him while he was still a child. K’naan came to prominence after Coca-Cola selected ‘Waving Flag’ as its official anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He toured over a 100 countries with that campaign, essentially becoming a superstar overnight, though he’d already had success following the release of his second album, Dusty Foot Philospher, and Troubador, his third album that included ‘Waving Flag’. Nowadays he hangs out with some of the world’s greatest minds, discussing issues of global significance like he did recently at the Clinton Global Initiative held in Morocco. All the while, the world waits with baited breath for K’naan to unleash new music onto the stratosphere.
6. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars (Sierra Leone)
Since forming at a refugee camp in 2004, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have never looked back. They’ve had a movie done on them, been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and performed in front of capacity audiences in New York and Japan. Their documentary film was produced by Ice Cube, an influential American hip-hop MC and well-renowned actor. They’ve opened for Aerosmith during one of their shows in North America. These guys are rolling with legends, yet aren’t widely known on the African continent. Their album Rise & Shine (2010) will still get a party popping. Their latest release is 2014’s Libation.
7. Wizkid (Nigeria)
Wizkid may not be as big as, say, Davido or D’banj on the continent. Sure, we feel his presence, and he dominates beyond Nigerian borders. The list of awards he’s been nominated for and won is staggering – from the MAMAs and the Channel O Music Video Awards to the BET Awards, the MOBOs and The Headies. But it’s the waves he’s making internationally that we should be paying attention to. When the ‘kid’s not in studio writing music for Rihanna, Wizkid gets called to do cameos during some of Chris Brown’s live performances.
8. Nneka (Nigeria)
Nneka has been based in Europe throughout her professional singing career, which explains in part why she’s bigger elsewhere than she is on the continent – and specifically in Nigeria, where part of her roots lie (she was born and raised around the Delta region and moved to Germany at 19 to study). She’s received praise from the likes of Nas and Damian Marley, won a MOBO for Best African Act (2009), and performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. Rita Ora and Chase & Status, respectively, have sampled and remixed her work. Nneka’s currently on the touring circuit in support of her latest album, My Fairy Tales. In recent months she’s performed at festivals in Italy, Belgium, and Germany.
9. Fuse ODG (Ghana)
Born in London and raised in Ghana, Fuse ODG (real name Nana Richard Abiona) added another milestone to his growing list of acclaims by recently turning down an invitation to the BET Awards, citing what he termed their mistreatment of African artists as the reason. That, and he was booked to perform at the Glastonbury festival on that very day. And while his roots may be in Ghana, it’s in Britain, his other home, where he’s come into his own. His song ‘Azonto’ not only reached #30 on the UK singles chart, it also contributed to the explosion of a dance craze, and the acceptance of Afrobeats – a genre mixing in elements of Fela’s Afrobeat with nu-age electronic music sounds, to great pop effect – in the UK.
10. Boddhi Satva (Central African Republic)
When a Boddhi Satva song or remix plays, everyone knows it’s about to go down! This is especially true in dance music clubs both on the continent and abroad. Influenced by African spirituality, he produces ancestral beats and melodies which find their way onto countless DJs’ sets, making entire dancefloors devolve into a messy joy-ride that’s ultimately beneficial to the stompers and floor-hoggers. Boddhi Satva splits his time between the Central African Republic, where he was born, and Belgium, where among other things he hosts a radio mix show spinning exclusive dance beats. He’s a student of another acclaimed producer, Osunlade, and was hand-picked by Little Louie Vega (Masters @ Work) as producer and tour DJ. Boddhi Satva’s also released unofficial remixes for the likes of Björk, Little Dragon, Erykah Badu and Radiohead. Most recently, he’s collaborated with Kaysha on the afro-house hit Mama Kossa. His latest album, Transitions, features songs from Les Nubians, Davido and Karun (formerly of the Kenyan group Camp Mulla).