A Tribute to the African Women Artists Who Influenced My Feminism

by Moiyattu Banya When I travel on international flights, one of my favorite things to do is to sample new artists on the in-flight radi...

by Moiyattu Banya

When I travel on international flights, one of my favorite things to do is to sample new artists on the in-flight radio system. Somewhere during my flight from Accra to Harare I discovered Fatoumata Diawara, a young female Malian artist. I fell in love with the music, the strings and the message that she sent through her songs. For the most part, I didn’t even understand the words, but the power I felt through the song transcended beyond the lyrics. The music resonates with African Feminism for me: strong, creative, feminine power . On my flight I began to reflect on how African women artists have truly shaped my life as an African woman and also as a feminist.

African women artists exposed me to social issues at a young age. I remember growing up, and some of the first music I was exposed to in Sierra Leone was South African musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka, one of my favorite artists. Chaka Chaka has a beautiful voice, and has used it to sing about the issues around her, as well as everyday life, love, and relationships. I connected to the way she sang about independence, freedom, and other social and political issues.

Then there was Miriam Makeba (may her soul rest in peace). Miriam Makeba’s voice was critical at a time when the apartheid regime in Southern Africa was still oppressing blacks in South Africa. I remember her appearance on Paul Simon’s Graceland concert, one of the first outlets which exposed me to the injustice of what was occurring in South Africa.

I would dance and sing my heart out when these artists came on the air. There was something about their music that liberated me as a young girl, and knowing they were African women empowered me even more. I envisioned them as distant aunties who were giving me vibes.

These artists also enabled me to embrace my femininity and womanhood. I would never forget when I first heard and watched Angelique Kidjo’s music video for “Agolo.” I was in my living room and I remember I could not take my eyes off the screen because she was so beautiful, and looked like a queen—in fact, to me she was and still is a queen. Her music was all over the airwaves; her sounds and the vibrant nature of her vocals taking over. Angelique expressed her femininity in such a beautiful and unapologetic way, I enjoyed watching her because she was so bold and strong in her presence.

When it came to expressing their sexuality, Yondo Sister left an impact on me. She was one of the leading artists of the Soukous genre during the 1980s and 1990s. Yondo possessed a unique sense of style with her big cargo pants and crop-tops. Even as a young girl I remember being drawn to her. Yondo’s music and dancing made me become more expressive in my own self through dance. I would spend hours trying to dance like her in-front of my mother’s dresser , and arrange my lips in a way as if I were singing the language of her music.

Today, women artists such as Somi, Tiwa Savage, Jojo Abott, Nneka, Fatoumata Diawara, Oumou Sangare, Les Nubians and many more continue to use their music as a way to sing about everything from the personal to the political. At a very early age I saw women leaders within this realm of the music industry. They were my role models. I can truly say my feminism began through the tunes of these women musicians.

What has been so powerful about these artists is that to me they were some of my first introductions to feminism before I even knew what feminism was. Over the years I have adopted my own version of feminism. Feminism, especially African feminism, exudes power. It overcomes patriarchal structures that colonial histories placed upon our societies, and defies the various gender norms and stereotypes that seek to place us in a box of who we should be. The beginning and nurturing of my identity as an African woman and feminist within the lyrics, songs, the power in their voices, and the unapologetic expression of their identities.

Photo of Miriam Makeba via Lipstick Alley

Moiyattu Banya is a native to Sierra Leone, digital mover and shaker, feminist and writer. She currently teaches women studies courses at Temple University and also does international consulting with social enterprises in West Africa. She is founder of the lifestyle brand, Women Change Africa. Moiyattu is part of the African Women’s Development Fund’s (AWDF) community of African women writers.

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