In April 1966 thousands of artists, musicians, performers, and writers from Africa and the Senegalese capital, Dakar, to take part in the First World Festival of Black and African Culture. The festival constituted a highly symbolic moment both in the era of decolonization and the push for civil rights for Africans around the globe.
Music has always been an important tool in the struggle for Pan-Africanism, and very few musicians have stayed true to their path in giving Africa a voice.
This article, in no particular order, highlights 10 top musicians who use their art to promote pan-Africanism and unity among Africans. While some targeted their songs at the struggle against racism and colonialism, others preached peace and unity among Africans, while some simply showcased Africa’s rich cultural heritage cum values.
Below is a list of 10 music legends that stood for Pan-Africanism with their voices and instruments.
1. Miriam Makeba: She was effectively the voice of the South African freedom struggle known affectionately and reverently as “Mama Africa.”
Makeba died as she lived using her exquisite, expressive voice to fight the good fight. For most of her life that meant speaking out against the racist regimes that ran her native South Africa. Her very last performance found her in Italy, in solidarity with Ghanaian immigrants who’d been shot to death in September. She died immediately after singing her famous piece “Pata Pata.”
Many years prior, the songs she chose to sing gained her exile from her country, then under the thumb of an openly racist apartheid regime. She was even denied permission to attend her mother’s funeral.
Spending 30 years in exile allowed her to avoid direct contact with the apartheid regimes and to tour the world and testify at the UN against the whites-only regime. But she still experienced tragedy. Over and above the decades of lost contact with loved ones, she lost relatives and friends in the Sharpeville Massacre (1960) and other government-inflicted acts of brutality and had to mourn them from afar.
2. Angelique Kidjo: Kidjo’s voice tells you that she is not a woman to be trifled with. With her closely cropped hair, glowing brown skin and almond eyes, she struts across stages in pantsuits and printed shirts, casting spells on riveted audiences.
Kidjo is from Benin and attributes much of her success to the way she was raised by her parents. In an interview, she recalled her father saying to her when she was a child, “Do not come back to the house and tell me you failed because you’re black.”
Her mother fought for her to have an education, and, because of it, she said, “As a girl, I decided my future.”She started The Batonga Foundation in 2006. Named after one of her hit songs, the foundation builds schools and provides scholarships and mentoring services for girls — many of whom have HIV or AIDS — in five African nations. The girls tell her she is the only reason they are going to school. “I cannot be indifferent when people are suffering,” Kidjo said. “When they suffer, I suffer.”
3. Fela Kuti: From ‘Zombie’ to ‘International Thief Thief’ (ITT), Fela Anikulapo Kuti displayed brazen defiance against the Nigerian government and other corrupt officials of his time. According to Remi Adekoya, Fela’s “lyrics were scathing denunciations of Nigeria’s socio-economic reality. He focused on corruption, abuse of power, mental emancipation from colonialism, and the need for Nigerians to stand up for their rights”.
His major weapon of criticism was his music, which he christened ‘afrobeat’. A firm believer in socialism and Pan-Africanism, Fela was a passionate supporter of human rights, and many of his songs- which were also known as ‘yabis’- were sarcastic, dark, and full of verbal abuse. In most cases, his songs were direct attacks against Nigeria’s military government in the ’70s.
In 1977, following the government’s attack on his home, Kalakuta Republic, Fela released Sorrows, Tears, and Blood. In the lyrics -“Everybody run, run, run/everybody scatters, scatter/Some people lost some bread/Some people just die … Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood/them regular trademark” – his words were indicting and blunt, affirming the army’s reign of tyranny and terror.
As a civil rights activist, who constantly opposed the government, Fela was jailed several times, but once he was freed, he continued his message of condemnation against the Nigerian government. Through his songs which were mostly in pidgin English and Yoruba language, Fela spoke against timidity which breeds devotion to government authorities, saying, “My people are scared of the air around them, they always have an excuse not to fight for freedom”
4. Brenda Fassie: South African singer Brenda Fassie was one of the country’s most iconic anti-apartheid voices. She earned a slew of nicknames, as well as a reputation as the bad girl of South African pop, and her death in 2004 was as mired in controversy as her career.
Fassie was born in the Cape Town township of Langa in November 1964, and she performed up to her untimely death in 2004. Though just 39 years old, she left an indelible mark on South Africa, from the dark days of apartheid right through to the early days of democracy.
That Brenda Fassie became the voice of a generation was no accident. She was the daughter of a pianist and was named after American country singer Brenda Lee. She began singing to her mother’s accompaniment on the piano and busking to tourists, at a very young age.
5. Hugh Masekela: Known as the father of South African jazz. But he was not just known for his musicianship. The artist used his public platform to speak out against apartheid and substance abuse.
Masekela's career as an artist was groundbreaking from the start. He collaborated with other South African artists to record the first modern jazz record by an all-black band in South Africa. His music formed part of what writer Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country, calls the "soundtrack of the revolution," made by artists who were part of the struggle against apartheid.
6. Johnny Clegg: One of the most celebrated voices in modern South African music, singer, dancer, and activist Johnny Clegg, who co-founded two groundbreakings, racially mixed bands during the apartheid era, died in Johannesburg at age 66. He had battled pancreatic cancer since 2015.
Clegg wrote his 1987 song "Asimbonanga" for Nelson Mandela. It became an anthem for South Africa's freedom fighters.
Johnny Clegg was born in England, but he became one of South Africa's most creative and outspoken cultural figures. He moved around a lot, as a white child born to an English man and a female jazz singer from Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia). His parents split up while he was still a baby; Clegg's mother took him to Zimbabwe before she married again, this time to a South African crime reporter when he was 7. The family moved north to Zambia for a couple of years and then settled in Johannesburg.
7. Salif Keita: (born Aug. 25, 1949, Djoliba, Mali), the Malian singer-songwriter known for blending elements of a wide range of local African—especially Mande—music traditions with jazz, rhythm, and blues, and other international popular-music styles to pioneer the Afropop dance-music genre.
Despite a noble lineage tracing back to Sundiata Keita, the 13th-century founder of the Malian empire, Salif Keita grew up as an outsider in several important respects.
First, he was raised not in an environment of royal affluence but a poor farming household. Second, owing to his albinism—a condition traditionally viewed as a harbinger of misfortune—he found himself a pariah, rejected by both his family and his community. His choice to pursue music, moreover, violated the occupational prohibitions of his noble status and, consequently, distanced him even farther from his family.
8. Joseph Shabalala: born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala, was a South African singer and musician who was the founder and musical director of the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
As a young Zulu man in apartheid-era South Africa, Shabalala's work options were limited. As he told South Africa's The Citizen in 2014, he had wanted to become "an educated person, maybe a teacher, doctor, or something like that."
But after his father died when he was just 12 years old, he had to quit school to take over the farming that his father had done near the town of Ladysmith, in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. When he was older, he worked as an auto mechanic in Durban during the day while singing at night.
9. Oumou Sangaré: (born February 25, 1968, in Bamako, Mali) is a Grammy Award-winning Malian Wassoulou musician, sometimes referred to as "The Songbird of Wassoulou". Wassoulou is a historical region south of the Niger River, where the music descends from an age-old traditional song, often accompanied by a calabash.
“I feel very close to African youth. I am very concerned about how Africa is developing and the future is always in the hands of youth. That’s also the reason my album targets young people and modern sounds. We need to show to the world that we are Africa, but we look forward and we believe in our future.”
While her sound remains rooted deep in the continuity of Malian tradition, at the same time this is Oumou as we have never heard her before.
10. Toumani Diabaté: He is a Malian kora player. In addition to performing the traditional music of Mali, he has also been involved in cross-cultural collaborations with flamenco, blues, jazz, and other international styles.
Hailing from a musical dynasty that stretches back 77 generations, Toumani Diabaté's exquisite kora playing has gone global.
He pioneered African music through which he showcased Africa’s rich cultural heritage to the world while preaching peace and unity across the continent.
Please feel free to mention other legends in the comment session below.
Credit: Solidarity-us.org, dailycal.org, venturesafrica.com, theculturetrip.com, Britannica