From Ayra Starr to Kamo Mphela, women on the continent are reimagining the pop landscape with amapiano and alté
“I believe we have always had African female superstars. We just haven’t had the global stage representation until now,” South African singer Kamo Mphela insists. “Now, with the rise of technology and the digital age, we are seeing more of our African female artists and their art being showcased and spotlighted.” Kamo Mphela is part of a class of fast-rising African female superstars and one of the most influential presences in amapiano.
While there have always been female musicians paving the way in Africa, the ratio of male superstars performing on a global level to female artists on that same level has always been poor. During the 2000s, which saw the rise of Wizkid, Fuse ODG, P-Square, Sarkodie, Davido, Don Jazzy, and more, it became more apparent than ever how male-dominated the music industry was in Africa.
The few women who rose to similar levels of cultural relevance and commercial success as these men were often called ‘the first lady’ of music or any label they were signed to. The title was meant to signal their success in succeeding as women in the music industry, however, it often revealed that these labels and by extension, the industry, had space for just one woman to perform at the level of success as these men. For these women artists living on the continent, it has never been an issue of a lack of talent but a lack of space provided for them on a local level and the global stage.
Today, living in a highly connected world and a global audience, genres and artists from the African continent are now a worldwide phenomenon and are making waves on the worldwide stage. As a result, there has been a rise in female stars from Africa thriving on the continent and beyond. We have collated a list of the most exciting female stars from Africa across pop, R&B, afrobeats, amapiano and even a fusion of one or more of these genres.
Abir is a powerhouse vocalist who has built a dedicated following on social media by posting close-ups of her covering songs by other artists, often with her wireless microphone in hand. She describes her sound as ‘aro-pop’, noting that while it is very much pop music, it is also heavily inspired by her Arabic roots and heritage. The 27-year-old Moroccan artist has captivated her fast-growing audience with a voice that could be compared to Adele, Ariana Grande, and Celine Dion, while remaining sonically distinct. “I feel like more people today are seen for creating music that actually feels and sounds like them as opposed to changing who they are to fit into a box or genre that doesn’t completely accept them for who they are,” Abir tells Dazed. “I think the accessibility we have today is also very important. We can reach all these people who can connect with our true selves and sounds all without having to change who we are as artists.”
Ayra Starr is one of the newest kids on the block, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. Raised in the Benin Republic by Nigerian parents and with a childhood that heavily featured Lagos and Cotonou, her sound is a blend of afro-pop and R&B, resulting in summer pop anthems and soft fusion of afrobeat and R&B to tracks that sound like they’re plucked straight out of the Nigerian alté canon. While Ayra’s debut EP made it clear that she was a force worth reckoning, her debut studio album 19 and Dangerous reveals a level of mastery that many artists twice her age lack. For Ayra, the women who came before her allowed her and others like her to expand their artistry fully. “The older African women in music paved the way for someone like me,” Ayra tells Dazed. “It is because of them we have come to a place where we have accepted ourselves for who we are, we are more expressive about our femininity and femininity and we are not letting anything hold us down.”
“My sound is a fusion of traditional R&B and trap-soul,” South African singer Elaine tells Dazed. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Elaine’s debut EP Elements which she released in 2019 while studying law at Wits University, made Elaine the first independent female artist to reach Number One on the iTunes and Apple music charts in South Africa. Today, Elaine is pushing the boundaries of R&B in Africa, layering it over other genres and sounds, and reinventing its very notion. For Elaine, the rise in African female talent isn't a surprise, but very much expected. “Africa has and will forever remain abundant in gifted artists. I just think people are starting to pay more attention and that’s resulting in a lot of global crossovers and success, which feels amazing to be a part of.”
Kamo Mphela is part of a new wave of Gen Z artists on the African continent. Born in Durban, 21-year-old Mphela’s interest in dance and the interpolation of dance music and her environment was what set her on the path of music. Today, Mphela is one of the most distinct voices and personalities behind the global rise of the amapiano movement. “My sound is inspired by my environment and what I grew up listening to. South Africa is the birthplace of rich history and I believe my sound has been deeply inspired by the people who raised me and the city that groomed and moulded me,” Mphela tells Dazed. “We are a dance continent and I believe my sound pays tribute to my heritage of sound, rhythm, and art all around me.”
With a BET Award for Best New International Act already under her belt and hailed by many as the ‘queen of amapiano’, Zimbabwean artist Sha Sha is one of the hottest musical acts on the continent. Weaving together the blocky dance beat of amapiano with her knack for turning ballads into bops that, sitting securely under amapiano but also flirting with other genres, has elevated her from emerging artist to icon status – even though she is yet to release a debut album.
WAVY THE CREATOR
‘‘Female artists in Nigeria have always been just as good as male artists or sometimes even better,’’ Wavy The Creator tells Dazed. ‘‘But just like in every music industry around the world, there’s always that extra work a female artist has to do to be heard or seen. I believe it’s divine timing, the ones who have come before us set the pace and made the way – we are going to take it across the globe.’’ A distinct blend of punk, pop, scintillating lyricism, and a non-conformist attitude is what makes up Wavy The Creator.
The artist first rose in popularity as the personal photographer of one of Nigeria's most prominent rappers, Olamide, but has since become one of the leading female pillars of the alte music subculture in Nigeria. Wavy's knack for visual storytelling has turned her into a distinct phenomenon for her undefinable and non-conformist sound and videography, making her earmarked by many as one of the most talented emerging artists in Lagos today.