There is always an element of subjectivity in this kind of list, including this one. Moreover, this type of exercise is not intended to be conclusive or categorical. Figures such as the number of views on Youtube or the presence on social networks do not say much about the size of the audience or the actual number of fans of an artist. At the moment, Cassper Nyovest is one of the most popular artists in South Africa and regularly performs in neighbouring countries. But it rarely plays in other countries outside southern Africa and its fame remains confined mainly to that region (and to countries that have access to cable channels such as MTV Base). Similarly, collaborations with other international stars do not say anything more about an artist’s popularity abroad; rather, it shows that he or she has enough resources to afford collaboration with internationally renowned artists.
The criteria I used for the first and second position are as follows: live concerts and longevity. I have studied the calibre of the events where these artists play. There is, after all, a difference between playing in a nightclub with 200 people and regularly playing in large spaces in front of thousands of people like in the O2 arena in London.
In addition, there is the diversity of the audience (Is the audience partly made up of expatriates from the artist’s country of origin or is it a diverse audience also made up of representatives from the host country?) I have left aside the great musicians who are often found in this kind of list in order to also highlight new talents.
1. Angélique Kidjo (Benin)
Make no mistake about it, Angélique Kidjo is as popular on the African continent as she is abroad. The African public has appreciated his music since its debut with “Agolo”. But its influence is such that it would be a great mistake not to include it on this list. Time magazine has elected her “Africa’s first diva” and NPR (National Public Radio, an American union of radio stations) “the largest living African diva”.
Beyond the lists of awards and prizes, Angélique is a real energy ball! She has found a way to use her fame to raise awareness around the world about issues facing African youth. She co-founded the Batonga Foundation, an organization that focuses on educating young girls and motivating them to take charge of themselves as future leaders of the African continent. No one would have imagined (herself understood) that she would become so popular. But here she is, almost 55 years later, still making music, collaborating with various great artists and travelling the world, singing about the change she hopes to see one day. We will not even dare to discuss his dizzying list of awards and nominations.
2. Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa)
Joseph Tshabalala had a recurring dream where he heard Isicathamiya perfectly sung in harmony. In 1964, the same year, he gathered members of his family and formed a group known at the time as Ezimnyama. When Paul Simon went to South Africa to record his album Graceland in 1985, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, by which name they later became known, were already artists with several platinum records. Simon produced their Grammy-winning 1997 album, Shaka Zulu, which propelled them onto the international scene. Since then, they have become ambassadors for their country throughout the world. Recently they won a 4th Grammy Award for their live album Singing for Peace Around the World in 2013.
3. Die Antwoord (South Africa)
Ninja (real name Waddy Jones) flirted with some underground projects before settling down with the band Max Normal.TV, (called Max Normal at first and later Die Antwoord). Ninja’s combined efforts with her partner Yo-landi Vi$$er, propelled Die Antwoord (which regularly performed in small dark scenes in Cape Town) onto the international stage.
They now regularly tour North America, Australia and Europe. They have had some collaborations with international personalities including the stylist (Alex Wang), the directors (‘Chappie’ with Neil Blomkamp) and the photographer Roger Ballen, in charge of directing one of their clips. They also made a name for themselves by refusing to open for Lady Gaga or by tearing up works by artist Jane Alexandra. They are one of the largest rap groups on the African continent exporting abroad. With each new project, we get the impression that they are just getting started and we can only wonder with which project they will surprise us again.
4. Tinariwen (Mali)
Tinariwen does what is called “desert blues”. But this attempt to classify them into a particular genre fails to capture the full range of their musical genre. These Tuareg musicians, who won a Grammy in 2012, are part of the Berber people of northern Mali and were rebel fighters until 1979 when they decided that music, not weapons, was the way forward. Their influences are inspired by Chaabi protest music, rock, pop, Algerian rai and many other genres.
Despite the fact that they have been musically active for some time, they were only spotted in the early 2000s. They have since toured the world (North America, Europe, Japan and Australia) and have participated in major festivals such as Coachella, Roskilde and WOMAD. When you listen to Tinariwen’s music (their album Aman Iman is a good album to discover their music), you feel the desire not to limit yourself to a specific style. Their guitars are now their ammunition, and offer us guitar riffs, punctuated with sounds from the desert; this unexpected sound is the basis of their international success.
5. K’Naan (Somalia)
K’Naan Warsame is not based in his home country Somalia. He left his homeland when the war broke out. He grew up in North America, playing in the snow and perfecting his rap techniques using the tapes of rapper Rakim that his father brought him back when he was still a child.
K’Naan became popular when Coca-Cola selected “Waving Flag” as the official anthem of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. This allowed him to tour a hundred countries with this campaign, becoming a superstar overnight, even though he was already successful with the release of his second album Dusty Foot Philosopher and Troubadour and his third album which includes “Waving Flag”. He is currently meeting with leading world figures to discuss global issues, as he did during his participation in the Clinton Global Initiative held in Morocco. Meanwhile, his audience is eagerly waiting for him to launch a new musical project.
6. The All-Stars Refugee of Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone)
Since their training in a refugee camp in 2004, Sierra Leone’s All-Stars Refugee has gone from success to success. A film inspired by their story has already been made, they appeared on the popular Oprah Winfrey show, and performed in front of a large audience in New York and Japan. Their documentary film was produced by Ice Cube, the famous American hip hop artist and renowned actor. They opened for Aerosmith at one of their shows in North America. This group, despite the fact that they regularly meet great international legends, are not yet sufficiently known on the African continent. Their album Rise&Shine (2010) is a good festive album. Their latest album, Libation, was released in 2014.
7. Wizkid (Nigeria)
The kid is as popular as Davido or D’Banj on the continent, its popularity clearly extends beyond Nigeria’s borders. The list of awards for which he has been nominated is impressive (from MTV Africa Music Awards to Channel O Music Video Awards, BET Awards and MOBO Awards). But it is the buzz he creates internationally that attracts our attention. For example, he has been invited to the studio to write for Rihanna or has made a few appearances at Chris Brown concerts.
8. Nneka (Nigeria)
Nneka has been based in Europe since the beginning of her professional career and this explains why she is more popular elsewhere than on the continent itself, and precisely in Nigeria, her native country (Nneka was born in Nigeria and grew up in the Delta region; at the age of 19 she left to pursue her studies in Germany). Nneka’s talent has been recognized by musicians such as Nas and Damian Marley; she won a MOBO Award in the Best African Act category in 2009) and has performed live on the very popular American talk show, David Letterman’s Late Show. Artists such as Rita Ora and Chase & Status have respectively sampled and remixed her works. Nneka is currently on tour promoting her latest album My Fairy Tales. In recent months, she has performed at festivals in Italy, Belgium and Germany.
9. Fuse ODG (Ghana)
Born in London and raised in the United Kingdom, Fuse ODG (real name Nana Richard Abiona) recently created buzz by refusing an invitation to the BET Awards. He cites as a reason’the poor treatment of African artists’ by the organisers, but also because he was already scheduled to play at the Glastonbury Festival on the same day.
Despite his Ghanaian origins, he considers Britain his second homeland. His song “Azonto” which has been ranked number 30 in the UK Top Chart and has strongly contributed to the popularization of afrobeat is Fêla Kuti’s mix of afrobeat with New-Age electronic sounds and which results in an enchanting pop effect! He also launched the Azonto phenomenon (a very popular dance that created several viral videos a few years ago).
10. Boddhi Satva (Central African Republic)
Boddhi Satva’s songs and remixes have become synonymous with a guaranteed good atmosphere. This is particularly true in dance music nightclubs both on the continent and abroad. Influenced by African spirituality, it produces sounds inspired by ancestral African melodies that when played by DJs, set the dance floors ablaze. DJ Boddhi Satva divides his time between the Central African Republic where he was born and Belgium where he lives and hosts a radio show.
Considered as the foal of the great producer, Osunlade, he was chosen by Little Louie Vega (Masters @ Work) as producer and DJ during his tour. Boddhi Satva has also released unofficial remixes on songs by artists such as Björk, Little Dragon, Erykah Badu and Radiohead. More recently, he collaborated with Kaysha on the afro-house hit “Mama Kossa”. On his latest album, Transitions, there are collaborations with artists such as Les Nubians, Davido and Karun (former member of the group Camp Mulla).