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Tyla, Tems, & Ayra Starr: How African Pop Stars Are Leading Music's New Wave

— Clockwise from top left: Busiswa Gqulu, Tems, Tula, Amaarae, Moonchild Sannelly, Uncle Waffles, Ayra Starr, Aya Nakamura, and Tiwa Savage. Collage by Ashley Peña

Africa, with its 54 countries and more than 3,000 languages, is not a cultural monolith—and pop music is finally embracing its diversity. In recent years, African women have become some of the most inventive and exciting new artists in the global pop industry. “I felt it was bound to happen,” said Tems, the Nigerian singer, songwriter, and producer who has been making waves this year. “There was a breakthrough, and then an influx and rise in female artists especially. It’s not surprising. It’s exactly how it should be.” In the current musical landscape, African women are not only boldly reimagining what pop music can sound like but also challenging the narrow Western standards of what a stereotypical pop star can be.

“I’d been rehearsing my conversation with Rihanna for my entire life,” said Ayra Starr, a Nigerian singer-songwriter who finally got to meet her idol the night before we spoke. When Starr mentioned that Rihanna gave her some “inspiring advice,” I asked if she could share the highlights. “I’m not giving Rihanna’s advice to anyone; it’s for me and me alone!” she said, laughing. The precocious 21-year-old knew from a very young age what she wanted to be: “an African teenage pop star,” she said, citing Hannah Montana as an inspiration. Starr was only 19 when she released her album 19 & Dangerous, which included the hit single “Rush.” The track’s music video has been watched more than 338 million times since it was uploaded to YouTube last year. Starr has been referred to by both critics and fans as “the face of Afrobeats” for Gen Z.

Afrobeats has exploded in popularity in the past decade, particularly among listeners within the African diaspora. Contemporary Nigerian artists like Burna Boy and Wizkid have grown devout fandoms and become household names around the world, exporting fresh sounds to new listeners in the process. According to Spotify, there were 13.5 billion Afrobeats streams on its platform in 2022. While it is an incredibly auspicious time to be part of this genre, Starr, who sings in Yoruba, English, French, and Nigerian pidgin, is also determined to help evolve its image, mission, and messaging. She makes a point to address taboo subjects in her music, such as female representation. “I feel like I was born in the perfect era,” said Starr. “Rihanna, Beyoncé, Tiwa Savage…these great women who came before me are the ones who said, ‘You can’t put me in a box.’ Now people like me are free to just create.”

The explosion of African music is directly linked to digital culture. Africa had 570 million Internet users in 2022 and currently has the youngest median age of any continent: 19. It is effectively one of the world’s most important hotbeds of youth culture. Many of the female musicians who represent the newest sounds have been thrust into the spotlight by the radical potential of digital visibility and organic, community-driven enthusiasm.

“Dancing is really at the forefront of the genre,” said Uncle Waffles, a DJ and producer from Eswatini, who is mostly known for playing a subgenre of South African house music called amapiano. “Due to language barriers, dancing is really how people understand the culture.” Uncle Waffles had started to DJ during the pandemic when a video of her dancing while playing a set in Johannesburg went viral. Much like Afrobeats, amapiano—which was born in the townships of South Africa—has expanded and flourished well beyond its country of origin. The advent of TikTok and its dance challenges has been a key component of the spread and development of African sounds, most of which are deeply rooted in danceable and movement-inspiring rhythms and beats. “Women are at the forefront of creating content. They’re the ones who are performing and who are able to create a world around it, as opposed to a lot of males, who believe it’s just about the music,” said Uncle Waffles. “Girls understand that it’s also about your image, and figuring out how to reach spaces you wouldn’t otherwise reach.”

If you search for the name of the South African superstar Tyla on TikTok today, you’ll find about 1.5 million videos. Her popiano (a blend of amapiano, R&B, and pop sounds) anthem “Water” became a sensation thanks in large part to her promotion of Bacardi, a dance that has spawned various Internet challenges. The track earned Tyla a Grammy earlier this year for Best African Music Performance. More recently, she released a full-length, self-titled album that’s been making its way up the charts. “When amapiano became a thing, we were just partying to it and enjoying it—it was something that united us,” Tyla told me over Zoom. “Seeing it blow up and become something that people all over the world listen to…it’s surreal to experience.”

For decades, African beats and rhythms have been an integral part of the evolution of popular music in the United States and beyond. They influenced jazz, which influenced blues, and then rock, and so on. Artists like Tyla, who are folding in the pulse and spirit of underground African sounds, are furthering that often overlooked lineage of cultural exchange and enrichment. “Pop doesn’t have to be just one thing; it can sound like anything—an Afrobeats song, an amapiano song. I’m excited to hear how it broadens and expands,” she said.

Major headliners like Drake, Future, Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez, 21 Savage, and Ed Sheeran have incorporated African sounds into their own work in recent years, and have helped bring attention to African creativity on airwaves and stages around the world. A number of other mainstream musical projects have also highlighted and platformed rising talents—think of the soundtracks to The Lion King, Black Panther, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as well as Beyoncé’s ode to the beauty of Blackness, Black Is King. Even a darker, more experimental strain of South African house music called gqom has increasingly entered public consciousness in the West, thanks in large part to its many female ambassadors, such as Babes Wodumo, Moonchild Sanelly, and Busiswa Gqulu. The upcoming Olympic Games in Paris might prove to be one of the biggest platforms yet for African talent: The French-Malian star Aya Nakamura has been tapped as a candidate to perform at the Opening Ceremony.

“We should be considered global pop artists. We deserve to be in the conversation and recognized as influential parts of the pop canon,” said the Ghanaian-American artist Amaarae. “But at the end of the day—and no matter what I do—I am an African woman, and I stand in that first and foremost.” Amaarae is best known for her quirky breakout hit with Kali Uchis, “SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY.” Last year, she released Fountain Baby, which was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2023, according to Metacritic. Amaarae, who, much like Tems, has circumvented the traditional gatekeepers of established musical genres, is often categorized with the loose descriptor “alté,” which refers to a scene of alternative contemporary African musicians who have a more atypical, fusion-based approach to pop.

“Before, a lot of artists were very reserved about expressing things that are rooted in their true feelings,” said Amaarae. “I’m seeing that change in pop culture generally, but especially in African music. It’s beautiful to see that kind of growth.” In speaking about the success of African women in pop, Amaarae was also eager to point out that women are thriving across other previously male-dominated genres, like hip-hop. “I think we are unafraid and are matching that fearlessness with a certain level of quality, in both music and performance,” she added. “All I can really see and say is that the future of music belongs to women.”

Source: W Magazine

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