“Though we have all encountered our share of grief and troubles, we can still hold the line of beauty, form, and beat — no small accomplishment in a world as challenging as this one. Hard times require furious dancing. Each one of us is proof.”
I chose to compile these women’s stories in alphabetical order as per the respective African countries they were born in. There will be ten countries shared for each post and a playlist will be linked at the end of each one. Enjoy!
ALGERIA - Souad Massi
“Remaining silent would mean that terrorists have won and that all the intellectuals they murdered died for nothing."
Born on 23 August 1972, Souad Massi is an Algerian Berber singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With her fiery political lyrics that championed intellectual and creative freedom coupled by the fact she was a woman singing in public, her music triggered the wrath of religious extremists. The 1990s were viewed as Algeria’s “Black Decade”, a time when the raging civil war included the murders of a host of prominent musicians, and Massi fled to Paris in 1999. Definitely outspoken about the problems in Algeria, Massi’s music sings truth to power with its unique blend of folk, shaabi (Arabic street pop), rock, and flamenco. “I learnt early in my career that freedom comes with a heavy price,” she says. “While I always did what I wanted and released things that were never commercial, it is something that I had to fight for again and again.”
ANGOLA - Belita Palma
Considered to have one of the most emblematic voices in the history of Angolan popular music, Isabel Salomé Benedito de Palma, best known as Belita Palma was born on 15 October 1932. Her musical work left an important mark on the historical legacy of her home country. Growing up, Belita Palma attended various musical and political gatherings organized in the neighborhood of “Viúva Leal”, at her maternal grandmother's house on Saturday afternoons. These meetings, which were often attended by important musicians as well as figures of Angolan nationalism, exerted a decisive influence on her artistic work. Palma is usually seen as one the foremost voices in Angolan anti-colonial art, especially with her participation in the musical group N'gola Ritmos, of which she was lead singer.
Together with her sister, the songwriter Rosita Palma, Belita created music that became the foundation of Angolan popular and political music. She passed away in the year 1988, but her voice, legacy, and spirit still carries on.
BENIN - Angelique Kidjo
"The traditional music which I grew up with, [taught] me the importance of music as a communication tool."
A powerful singer and tireless, electric performer, Angelique Kidjo has been one of the most successful artists to emerge on world music stages in the 1990s and 2000s. Her music not only draws from African traditions but also interprets the ways those traditions developed after Africans were seized and taken to the New World. She was born in the coastal city of Ouidah, Benin on 14 July 1960, to government postal official Franck Kidjo, an enthusiastic photographer and banjo player, and his choreographer wife Yvonne. In addition to being a full time musician, Angelique’s passion for African children and women is not only evident in the lyrics of her melodies but in the various ways she gives back to the communities she has been involved in.
BOTSWANA - KhoiSan Maxy
Olebile Sedumaedi, popularly known as KhoiSan Maxy is an artist from Botswana who grew up in a musical environment. Best known as the Queen of the Sands, her love for music began at a tender age. In 2000 she earned a household name through her Sesarwa song dubbed ‘Kalahari’ (Uwe Uwe). The track became her biggest hit in traditional song history. A deep love for her country’s landscapes, traditions, and history is tangible and evident in the music she makes. Her music, which rings with socially conscious themes, is congruent to the work she has done to raise awareness, funds and support for local organizations that cater to HIV/AIDS patients.
BURKINA FASO - Ado Gorgo Léontine
When talking about the history of Burkinabe music, one woman’s name is recurrent throughout – Ado Gorgo Léontine, who is 89 years old with a 67-year music career. She is the real queen of Burkinabe music. Propelled onto the national stage by Larlé Naaba Anbga, this singer from Kando in the province of Kouritenga was discovered by the public of Upper Volta through broadcasts of her storytelling as well as singing of tales and legends on national radio. Léontine later became the leader of an all-women group called La Troupe de Larlé, whose stories and songs were broadcasted in the entire Upper Volta. The other members of the group were Mariam Dermé, Abibo, Antine and Mariam. Léontine has travelled all over France (Marseille, Paris, Bordeaux and Lille) with her music and storytelling, and her troupe has maintained massive popularity since its formation in the 1940s. Well known songs by La Troupe de Larlé include ‘Yilgikom’, ‘Saow Yidma’, ‘Koukin Daaga’. The group was invited numerous times to perform in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Today, this troupe from the golden age of Burkinabe music is regarded as a national treasure and many modern musicians do not hesitate to return to it for inspiration.
After the death of Larlé Naaba Anbga, Léontine formed a new troupe called Namendé, which brought together many great traditional musicians, among them the late Amidou Zongo. Unfortunately the new group did not enjoy the same success as La Troupe de Larlé but had a major influence nonetheless. During the second conflict between Mali and Burkina Faso in 1985 when the countries’ leaders called for a patriotic movement on national radio, Léontine and her troupe composed songs matching the surge of this patriotic mood.
Léontine’s traditional music inspired many young women to embrace a musical career
Sources and further reading: I unfortunately was unable to find a clear photograph of her but her music video in the playlist below has some lovely shots of her performing. The text is entirely by Music in Africa (here), here,
BURUNDI - Khadja Nin
Khadja Nin was born in Burundi on 27 June 1959. Her resilience, evidently marked in her music, has carried her through tough times. Primarily singing in Swahili and Kirundi her musical journey as a whole echoes in tandem with her experiences in life.
She says of her album Ya, “[that it] is a bit different from my previous albums as it marks a big change in my life. The first twenty years of my life were wonderful and I will always keep them in my mind. The following twenty years were tough with the loss of very close people and my experience of war, hard times and loneliness, with a child to raise. So I hope that the next twenty years will be a rebirth, a new freedom. With this record, I cast off my old skin for a new one. I treat the former era with a lot of respect and decency but I definitely get rid of my mourning dress.”
CAMEROON - Anne-Marie Nzie
The golden voice of Cameroon, Anne-Marie Nzié was born in 1932 in Lolodorf, Cameroon. Her father was a local guitarist and she began singing in a church choir at the age of 8. She had her first songs played publicly in night clubs when she was 24.
A custodian and carrier of traditional Cameroonian bikutsi music, she was a staunch advocate for human rights and true freedom from the prevailing French colonial rule. Her most cherished song in Cameroon, "Liberte," was considered rebellious at the time that Cameroon gained independence. A pioneer musician, in what was a male-dominated space, Nzié’s life and career flowed in tandem with the cultural politics of her country.
She passed away on the 24 May, 2016 but her voice, legacy, and spirit still carries on.
CAPE VERDE - Cesária Évora
Cesária Évora, affectionately referred to by locals as Cize was not your typical African heroine. She was born on 27 August 1941 in Mindelo, Cape Verde. She’s remembered in her island country 400 miles from Dakar, Senegal in West Africa, as much for her haunting voice that got her the name, the Queen of Mornas (a Cape Verdean musical and dance genre,) as she is for her rebellious resilient spirit.
Évora famously refused to perform in shoes the first time she was invited to perform at Gremio Recreativo, one of the fanciest establishments in the island of Sao Vicente at the time. This earned her the nickname, The Barefoot Diva, and she continued to always perform without shoes on, proudly proclaiming her humble roots. She is also remembered for her stage appearance, always modestly dressed, with a bottle of Cognac on stage and a cigarette in her mouth. The Cape Verdean story is one of immigration, separation and longing and her songs echoed the same narratives of love, loss, nostalgia and longing. She passed away on 17 December 2011 but her voice, legacy, and spirit still carries on.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC - Idylle Mamba
“I lived in a society where at the time young girls didn't have much voice, and just had to agree to do what they wanted. This is added to the fact that I lost my mother who was my shield very early on, it caused me a lot of pain. To cure this pain, I started singing, first the songs my mother listened to, then my first song which was intended for her. When I sang, I had the impression of traveling, of living in another world, I invented my world and each time it calmed me. Little by little, I started to write and sing what I could not say as a young girl orally ... music became my psychoanalysis.”
Idylle Mamba was born on 2 August 1985 and is the youngest child of 16 brothers and sisters. Her name Mamba means “smile” in Sango, her mother tongue. As a teenager she joined Focus Masseka, an all women experimental music group that created songs with traditional kitchen tools.
From a country that has been marked with inter-religious violence, hers has been a bright and loud voice of peace and love. She says, “I am a simple girl, a sensitive girl and I stand against troubles in the society: injustices, [and] contempt. "
CHAD - Mounira Mitchala
Her first name Mounira means in Chadian Arabic "the radiant" and her stage name Mitchala means the "sweet panther", names that unquestionably describe the singer and songwriter to a tee. Mounira has had a journey full of pitfalls, and she has had to fight to be seen and to exist in her fullness in a very conservative country, plagued by political turmoil and several civil wars. Being a woman, and a singer in Chad where "the artist is considered someone who is worth nothing" and where the weight of religion and traditions bear heavy, her determination and sweet resolve show through her music.
From a very young age, her father introduced her to the rhythms of traditional Chadian ethnic groups, as well as to the American blues and jazz that he loved. Mounira studied law motivated by the prospect of creating an equitable system of justice in Chad. It is with this same drive and passion that she creates her music which primarily speaks about the difficulties faced by women in Chad, as well advocating for the right of good basic living conditions for the entire Chadian population, the right to peace, to personal choices, and to a loving marriage.