This piece was created in partnership with Afro Nation. Billboard and Afro Nation recently launched the first-ever official Billboard Afrobeats U.S. Songs Chart, tracking the most popular rising new music in the rapidly growing genre. The 50-position Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart, which will go live on Billboard.com on March 29, ranks the most popular Afrobeat songs in the country based on a weighted formula incorporating official-only streams on both subscription and ad-supported tiers of leading audio and video music services, plus download sales from top music retailers.
While the last few years have seen Africa solidify its position in the global music market as the latest hotbed of international megastars, the face of contemporary African music has been predominantly male, led by the proverbial “big three” of Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido. Yet for those paying attention to the scene, it is increasingly difficult to ignore that African women artists are gearing up to take the world by storm.
Women have always been integral in shaping the sound of African music. The ingenious ‘Lady of Songs’ Christy Essien Igbokwe, the delightful Onyeka Onwenu and the formidable duo Lijadu Sisters helped define the ’70s and ’80s. As the ’90s and 2000s rolled around, so did fierce stars like ‘First Lady of Nigerian Hip Hop,’ Sasha P, as well as Kenny Saint-Brown and Goldie. However, 2021 presented the much-needed “Aha!” moment for a new generation of women artists.
With her unmistakable tone and honeyed vocals, Nigerian singer Tems became the unofficial voice of summer 2021, earning two top 40 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to memorable appearances on Wizkid’s Grammy-nominated, history-defining anthem “Essence,” as well as “Fountain,” off Drake’s album, Certified Lover Boy. In the same vein, Ghanaian-American artist Amaarae stiffened her grip on various social feeds and the Billboard charts with the Kali Uchis-assisted remix to her single “Sad Girls Love Money,” as she toured the U.S., UK, and Europe off the back of her critically acclaimed debut album, The Angel You Don’t Know. The album is presently the most-streamed album by a Ghanaian act on Spotify.
Along with Tems and Amaarae, an array of women artists is emerging, and daring to push past the limitations of conservative societal expectations, to offer diverse notions of African femininity to the world on their own terms. This shift began taking shape within the last decade, as deeper smartphone penetration and adequate broadband connectivity on the continent meant more widespread access to the internet and streaming platforms such as SoundCloud, YouTube, and Apple Music for Africans.
As streaming services evolved into a primary revenue channel, the world became smaller and far more connected. With just a few clicks of a button, a musician could score a viral hit on TikTok, upload a social media post that unlocks superstardom, or independently build an active listenership from all corners of the world.
For women artists, this greater connectivity provided a solution to the age-old problem of visibility, and meant no longer having to play to the tune of local industry gatekeepers as the only avenue to be seen and heard. After all, those gatekeepers often afforded little space for women and made no effort to conceal it – be it managers who openly make known their bias against female artists, the consistent propagation of rivalries, or constant censorship. Women artists began unlocking thrilling levels of creative freedom, bereft of approval and permission-seeking. As Nigerian-Beninoise artist Ayra Starr boldly declares on “Cast (Gen Z Anthem),” “Suck on these nuts if you ain’t approve of.”
Each line of that song exemplifies the unapologetic, no-holds-barred approach the teenage singer and other new-school women artists apply to their artistry and careers. It is a similar energy that sees Ria Sean fully embrace her sensuality on records like “Satisfy My Soul” and “Pin Me Down,” or Ghanaian singer Moliy expressing her longing for an escape from sobriety on “Loud.”
“Women are no longer afraid to speak their minds and express themselves,” notes Benewaah Boateng, music curator and Spotify manager for West Africa.
There’s a transformation occurring for women in the industry, and it isn’t just through the music. The rules regarding fashion are either being done away with or turned on their head. It does not matter to Teni the Entertainer if anyone says her career won’t go far if she sports durags, oversized tees and brightly-colored baggy pants – her style reflects her carefree spirit. Deto Black will always remind you that she is a true “bad bitch”— if not through her audacious bars on songs like “Body Count,” through her risqué outfit choices.
Having worked with artists like Tiwa Savage and Amaarae, fashion stylist and creative director Daniel Obasi appreciates the power of these expressive individual style choices, especially as they command the world’s attention. “Fashion helps create career-changing moments,” he says. “It offers your fans a chance to bear witness to your evolution.”
Meanwhile, more women are finding their voices by experimenting with eclectic sounds, like Wavy The Creator’s fluid blend of electronic dance music with elements of 70s disco, 90s R&B, and more or the high-octane bars of rising rap maven SGaWD. “What I love the most about women artists from these parts is how diverse and unique they are in their own right. And whatever your taste may be, an artist is catering to that,” says culture writer Makua Adimora.
Consequently, the scope of what is understood to be music from the region is expanding beyond the Afrobeats/Afropop tags. While speaking with Billboard about genre categorization last year, Tems explains that she has “never been an Afrobeats artist,” adding, “I don’t work according to genres.” So far in her career, Tems’ music has bordered on different sounds ranging from neo-soul and R&B to reggae.
The same could be said of Amaarae, who consistently churns out pop-punk records in one breath and R&B-infused melodies in another. One can point to the alté scene — a movement heralded by young genre-defying and experimental artists—for creating a lane for both artists to thrive. “I wouldn’t say genres have lost their relevance in totality, but with more and more genre-fluid artists, it’s quite tricky to navigate,” Adimora adds.
In the long-standing relay race towards eliminating the gender gap, each passing generation builds momentum and sets a new pace for the next. As music historian and musicologist Suzanne Cusick notes, “Gender is always a concern for women, for gender somehow marks a woman as not a man, not the norm, not the universal.” Though significant progress for women occurred in the last few years, this still rings true. There is still a wide gap for women to fill in the race towards equality locally. In both Nigeria and Ghana, Spotify’s top 5 most streamed artists list in 2021 featured no women artists.
For future generations, women-led organizations are taking charge to ensure safe spaces to foster further advancement opportunities. Femme Africa is one such organization, with a mission “to control the narrative and change the cultural perceptions and societal norms of womxn…starting with the vibrant music scene.” Recently highlighted as a member of Spotify’s Equal board, the organization implements mentorship programs, seminars, and workshops. “We want to build a media company and also an offline space for women to come together, speak to one another, and learn from each other, says Ayomide Dokunmu, Femme Africa founder. In one of its efforts, its annual music showcases have given space for discovering new voices like the scintillating songbird Solis and the raunchy pop/rock-leaning Somadina.
Similarly, the Nigerian chapter of Women In Music (WIM) is setting its sights on creating additional spaces for Nigerian women artists within the international music market, through partnerships with companies and associations such as TuneCore, TikTok, Amazon Music and ASCAP. “Awareness is key,” Stephney Bassey, vice chair at Women In Music Nigeria, mentions. “At WIM, we are creating avenues for this purpose by providing educational mentorships, networking opportunities, coaching, and mental health support not just for artists but music executives, producers, entertainment lawyers, and journalists as well.”
A more dynamic African music industry is being created as women claim their space within it. As Boateng suggests, this visibility has the power to extend even beyond the industry, to reshape the experiences of women in everyday life. “Everyone is so open and unafraid,” says Boateng. “There is an expression of confident femininity subverting what we were once taught is the right way to exist as a woman.”
Ify Obi is a Nigerian-based culture writer and creative content strategist. Her work seeks to center the intersections of art, music, and fashion with the realities and histories behind African culture. You can follow her on Twitter @IfyObi_ and Instagram @Ify_Obi.