African people are no stranger to music that moves. With beats and melodies that have travelled the world over and informed today’s most recognised genres – to say African music inspires and is emulated around the globe is a gross understatement.
Music in Africa is not an isolated artform – and its purpose is multifaceted. It is meant to be felt, to inspire action, to spark movement. It is a collective symbol, rather than simply a string of sounds. African music is often intrinsically linked with dance and is used to pay homage to precolonial traditions, mark celebrations and milestones (including childbirth and successful wild game hunts), welcome visitors, ward off evil spirits, and pay respect to the deceased.
Our musicians have been politically exiled (Grammy award-winning Miriam Makeba, known as ‘Mama Africa’, was an outspoken anti-apartheid advocate and heavily involved in South Africa’s civil-rights movement, making her the target of both Western and African governments) – just as their art has been used wrongfully for others’ personal gain (there is a long history of African artists’ melodies being used without permission on American tracks, leading to a number of successfully prosecuted intellectual-property lawsuits).
Ask and many Africans will tell you: music is in our DNA, drumbeats in our bloodline. Perhaps it’s a desire to hold onto the history that both colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade attempted to rip from our grasp. Perhaps it’s a way to connect with our ancestors – to learn from their struggles and channel their strength. Perhaps it’s because the land we call home is a mecca of musical inspiration, rich with the kind of sights that are begging to be the background to a stirring soundtrack.
But, whatever it is, there is no denying that Africa knows music undeniably well – that it flows through our people with a kind of ease that’s enviable, that it is the number-one contributor to genres ranging from jazz and rock-and-roll to blues, samba, and salsa.
So which modern African artists are exploring this age-old artform particularly well? We would be hard-pressed to discuss the modern African music scene without mentioning Queen Diva Mampi. A multi award-winning Zambian pop and R&B musician and songwriter, Mampi Mukape (born Mirriam Mukape) released her first album in 2005 and has seen skyrocketing success since. But you don’t just hear Mampi roar – you also see her coming. She’s a fashion icon whose bold style and penchant for vibrant colour and striking cuts earn her just as much praise as do her albums. There is no denying she’s carved out a lane for herself – one she cruises in with incredible confidence and grace. A lane that, in so many ways, is inherently African: an intersection of fashion, culture, music, and movement.
And then there’s Sauti Sol, a Kenyan afro-pop band that released their first album in 2008 to critical acclaim. No one does eclecticism quite like the Nairobi-formed group – with songs that explore police violence and political corruption sitting right alongside smooth R&B love ballads and upbeat pop tracks. Like Queen Diva Mampi – albeit executed in a far different way – the group knows just how to tap into what Africa is all about: diversity and interwovenness, singularity and sameness.
Whether it’s songs that stem from past hardships, drumbeats rooted in tribal traditions, artists interweaving catchy tracks with the threads of high fashion to create an iconic identity, or albums punctuated with political messaging in the name of sparking change and shaping a brighter future – music here is an integral part of our complex cultural ecosystem. It certainly has the power to stand on its own – but, like all things inherently African, it’s best when shared and paired with something purposeful.