THE description “world music” is a lazy catchall for sounds and musical artistes who defy categorisation and who produce sounds that are innovative and unconventional in global popular culture. Yet, this category captures many of the artistes on the African continent making some of the most creative musical choices.
Whether fusing northern Ugandan spoken word culture with rap and hip-hop like the Bila Wa movement, or inventing a genre called “gospel porn rap” like Ghana’s FOKN bois, African artistes around the continent are making music in exciting ways. Some of these artistes and styles are popular and they have received global recognition. Others are still burgeoning and have small followings in underground circles. Nevertheless, all of them have one thing in common - through their lyrics, their sounds, or their personas, they all earn the label “unconventional.”
Ghana: FOKN bois
Hailing from Ghana and with bold personalities that shine through their music, FOKN bois are unafraid to scandalise while they thoroughly entertain. The group is made up of a playful duo named M3ensa and Wanlov the Kubolor. They term the genre of music they produce “gospel porn rap” and no topic is too sacred for them to make fun of in their lyrics. Their songs include “Thank God, We Are, Not a Nigerians,” “Want to Be White,” and “Strong Homosexual Guys.”
Their lyrics satirise, provoke, offend, and amuse, which is probably why, although they do not receive too much airtime on radios, they are extremely popular on the internet and appreciated around the continent. They pride themselves on having produced the first pidgin musical “Coz Ov Moni,” a film that premiered at film festivals around the world. The two continue to make songs and daring musical productions, guaranteed to be original whether one likes their jokes or not.
The nomadic ex-refugee Tuareg group Tinariwen, are unlike any other group on the continent. A Saharan blues band that sings in the Tamasheq language and French, the group fuses homemade percussion instruments with guitar rock. The group was born in Muammar Gaddafi’s Tuareg rebel camps in the early 1980s, but they abandoned armour for instruments, dedicating themselves to music in place of militarism. Tinariwen’s inspirations include Jimi Hendrix and American blues music. They record their albums in tents in the desert, which they pay homage to when they talk about what makes their sound so unique. They have collaborated with numerous international artists and won a Grammy award in 2011 for their album “Tassili.”
The rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people on the African continent continues to be a contentious topic. Thus, one must admire the bravery of an artist such as Titica from Angola who is a transgendered musician. Her presence has sparked conversations and exposed many listeners and viewers to the less visible “T” in “LGBT.” Titica’s music is a style of rap-techno named “kuduro,” and she has excelled in this genre, garnering the best kuduro artist award in 2011. Her mainstream success in Portuguese-speaking Africa, Brazil, and Portugal, is a testament to the strength of music, given the fact that people enjoy her music and her presence in parts of Africa where homosexuality is illegal.
Uganda: Bila Wa movement
On the eastern side of the continent, coming from a part of the world known for a 20-year war, Joseph Kony, and child soldiers, a young group of artistes are changing the reputation of northern Uganda. The Bila Wa movement is a rap musical phenomenon, driven by youth from Gulu, Ugandan that fuses poetry and hip-hop with the languages and the storytelling culture native to that region. The fusion of local instruments with witty rhythmic lyrics makes this genre of music truly unique. This platform is a novel sound to be reckoned with and an artist such as MC Wang Jok exemplifies the sonic creativity within this rap crew.
South Africa: Die Antwoord
Hailing from the Southern part of the continent, and well known for their avant-garde style, Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “The Answer”) are a musical group whose visual aesthetic and in-your-face aggressive lyrics have garnered them international notoriety. The group comprises vocalists Ninja and Yolandi Visser, and DJ Hi-Tek produces their music. Formed in Cape Town in 2008, they perform a style of rap-rave music, with futuristic overtones and inspired by zef counterculture. They aim to “shock” and seek to use their art to wake people up. They are an alternative internet sensation and their videos and songs are highly provocative and unusual.
Angola: Nastio mosquito
Another musical entity gaining a reputation for visual as much as sonic outputs is the Angolan performance artist Nastio mosquito. He is a multimedia performance artist who works through different mediums and whose creative outputs tend to defy easy characterisation. One might describe his sounds as provocatively sexual Lusophone house music. He combines music videos, spoken word, motivational talks, and pop cultural references to produce collages of multimedia artwork that are growing in popularity within avant-garde art circles. Like some of the other artists mentioned, Nastio mosquito seeks to challenge his audience and one never knows what to expect when he performs.
Soul-jazz songstress and innovative artiste Somi is half-Rwandan, half Ugandan, but of late, she draws musical inspiration from her time spent living in Lagos, Nigeria. She is not only an artiste but also an arts scholar, trained at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in New York and recognised as a TED global Performing Arts fellow. Somi’s contributions are not only in the musical realm but also in the world of arts activism. She does this through her award-wining non-profit New Africa Live, which is dedicated to creating events and opportunities for contemporary African artistes in today’s globalised world. Somi is one of those musicians whose soulful sounds are truly worldly.
Congo: Konono N° 1
Konono N°1 is a Grammy-award winning Congolese collective that makes music out of instruments formed from items found in junkyards. They have a sonic aesthetic that is a combination of vocals, self-fashioned percussion instruments, and electronic likembé (a traditional Congolese instrument). Their sound is raw and they hold great appeal amongst other world-renowned, unconventional artists like Icelandic Björk—with whom they collaborated in 2007. Konono Nº1 collaborated with artistes such as Pink, Seal, and India Arie on Herbie Hancock’s 2010 “Imagine” album, which earned the Grammy Award for “Best Pop Collaboration.” They are no strangers to multi-artist collaborations having taken part in a Congotronics vs. Rockers project that saw them collaborate with 10 congotronic bands and 10 indie-rocker bands, performing in 15 festivals around the globe.
Tanzania: Mzungu kichaa
Danish-born Mzungu Kichaa is a product of Tanzania and as his name suggests in Swahili—“a crazy white man.” He has a Tanzanian band and performs Bongo flavor songs—a fusion of reggae, rap and traditional Tanzanian music—in Swahili, often to the bemusement and delight of his listeners. His 2009 breakthrough album “Tuko Pamoja” featured the hit single “Jitolee,” in which he collaborated with Tanzanian stars Professor Jay and Mwasiti. He has been nominated for Danish World music awards on several occasions, and his 2012 collaboration with Kenyan star Dela on the song “African Hustle” was a regional hit. Mzungu Kichaa exemplifies the notion of “African music from an unusual source.”
—The author is a Ugandan multidisciplinary performance artist and scholar who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya.