Music has always been an integral part of the African culture and can be traced way back between circa 8000 and 3000 BC. Many of us growing up can identify their era with the artists who shaped their childhood. It is not uncommon to hear older folks complain of how music today has deteriorated compared to their era and to some extent, they may have their reasons to believe that. Music, just like any craft, grows and evolves to cater to the needs of the time. So, while sending letters was the norm in the 19th and 20th century, mobile phones and the internet have dominated the 21st century and thus the music written back then to describe writing letters to loved ones cannot relate to those living in this time as communication now has been simplified to simply just sending a text message or making a quick call. For us to understand where we are headed musically and artistically as a continent, we must first understand where we are from and get to appreciate more the founding fathers of modern music. Here is our top five picks for the best African artists who pioneered the craft to the next level.
Fela Kuti( 1938- 1997)
Fela Kuti was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and composer. He is widely regarded as the pioneer of the now popular Afro-beat genre and was widely popular from the 1960s with his unique sound. He is a popular name among Kenyan households and is well respected both in Africa and around the globe. Following his 1969 tour of the United States, he was influenced by black activists and his music became heavily politicized. The melodious singer blended Yoruba and English in his music and resonated highly among the unemployed, disadvantaged and oppressed members of the society. He spoke against oppression by Nigeria’s military government which led to authorities frequently raiding his club to look for reasons to arrest him. Some of his most popular songs include Zombies, Teacher don’t teach me Nonsense, Bast of no Nation, V.I.P, Let’s Start among many others that he released alongside his band Egypt 80. His infusion of American Jazz and Yoruba music made his live performances to die for across the globe and was one of the best African acts. Truly, Fela’s legacy will live on forever as the now popular Afro beat has taken the world by storm dominating global music charts and sweeping multiple awards. May his spirit live on forever.
Lucky Dube is one of, if not the biggest, artists to have ever originated from Africa. His death was truly heartbreaking and one of the saddest events to have occurred this century and the whole world was shocked by it. Almost everyone knew of Dube or at least one of his songs. One of his most popular tracks, Prisoner, came out in 1989 during the apartheid era in South Africa and was among the leading singles from the album ‘Prisoner’. His music documented the struggles that South Africans were going through during the Apartheid era and also provided hope to the oppressed of better days to come. Some of his most popular hits include; Remember Me, Back to My Roots, It’s not Easy, The Way It Is and the unifying song Together as One. He recorded 22 albums in Zulu, English and Afrikaan in his career spanning 25 years and was Africa’s biggest selling reggae artist. He won multiple awards globally and was even considered as the best recording artist from Africa. His ability to fuse Reggae music, that was originally seen as Jamaican music, with issues happening back at home made him respected worldwide by leaders and other artists as well. Though he may be gone, his music still lives on and is played all over as the message is still relevant to today’s problems. Lucky Dube is the true definition of an African legend.
Hugh Masekela( 1939- 2018)
Hugh Ramapolo Masekela was a South African trumpeter and artist and is widely recognized as the “father of South African jazz”. He was one of the world’s finest and most distinctive horn players perfecting the trumpet and flugelhorn. He mixed jazz with music from all over the African continent and diaspora and the end result was beautiful music soothing to the soul. He was also a powerful singer and songwriter and used his platform to speak out against the apartheid regime which eventually led to his exile for thirty years. He gained international status and would often perform for presidents and royalty across the globe as well as concert audiences and often collaborating with other musical greats. During his time in exile, he furthered his craft and continued speaking out against the apartheid regime all whilst still continuing to develop his own unique style. He travelled all over Africa collaborating with legends like Franco, Makeba and Fela Kuti. He released over 40 albums in his lifetime and won countless accolades among them was the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest awards. Some of his most popular tracks include; Stimela, Thanayi, Grazing in the Grass, Patience and if you haven’t heard any yet, these are the best to start with.
Oliver Mtukudzi( 1952- 2019)
Oliver was a Zimbabwean musician with a strong powerful voice known for his hit song “Todii” released in 1999. His distinctive style set him aside as one of the greatest artists in the world as he stayed true to the African culture all while selling out shows all over the globe. He blended Zimbabwean and South African music to create beautiful rhythms known as “Tuku music”. He fused traditional Shona instruments such as the marimba into his music giving it the distinct African feel. The prolific guitarist was an avid human rights activists and the aim of his music was to create awareness on societal matters like HIV/AIDS, alcohol abuse as well as self-respect among his listeners. His works earned him the role of serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. His collaboration with Kenya’s Eric Wainaina was a massive hit which saw the Shona culture blended effortlessly with the Kenyan culture to create a masterpiece. He managed to record 67 albums during his career and still branched out into acting as well. He regurlaly toured Europe and North America selling out shows and cementing his spot as one of the best African artists to have ever touched the microphone. His work ethic was unmatched as his huge catalogue already speaks for him, as well as directing and writing several screen plays. Despite mostly singing in Shona and Ndebele with occasional English, he truly embodied the saying real music transverses language.
Franco was a prominent house name in the 20th century especially to the lovers of Congolese music. He was the leader of the most popular and significant band at the time known as TPOK Jazz. He was a master guitar player and most Kenyans born and raised from the 80s up to the early 2000s are well familiar with his music. He was nicknamed “Sorcerer of the Guitar” and “Grand Maitre of Zairean Music” by his fans. His most popular song, Mario, sold over 200,000 copies and was certified gold, a rare feat for African artists. Many international artists and organizations recognized his skills and impact and was regarded by most as the continent’s greatest musician. So huge was his impact that upon his death, the then Congo president declared a four day mourning period. He redefined and popularized rhumba with his guitar prowess turning it into a style known as soukous, which dominated the African airwaves at the time. Many of today’s new top artists cite Franco as a major source of inspiration for their work. He managed to release over 1000 songs with his band and was releasing two songs a week for over 30 years. His songs were longer than usual as most were between 9 and 18 minutes and was clean, romantic and sophisticated while majorly staying deep rooted in the traditional sound of ondemba. This is what made people love him the most and although he died at a young age, he sure did leave a legacy.