In a world forever changed by COVID-19, music remained one of the most accessible comforts. Even when it was not possible to share music physically, artists hunkered down and were able to continue the fine art of collaboration, thanks to the miracles of technology. Some of the best music of the year was created in the thick of the pandemic when lockdowns were enforced and live music gatherings were forbidden. From the global domination of Afrobeats to the evergreen sounds of the desert blues, these are the best African records of 2021.
Afrique Victime – Mdou Moctar (Niger)
Moctar’s explosive fourth studio album embraces a political stance that is both a scalding rebuke to Western imperialism and a celebration of desert life. Recorded primarily in Tamaqesh and French, Afrique Victime pulsates with righteous anger, with Moctar delivering some unforgettable work with his famously untamed guitar solos. Desert blues never sounded better than on the album’s title track, an Afrobeat inflected 7.25-minutes push back on the colonial plunder of natural resources in Niger.
Couleur – Dobet Gnahoré (Côte d’Ivoire)
The sixth album by the Grammy-winning singing and dancing diva was recorded at the height of the pandemic lockdowns back home in Abidjan. Like some of her earlier work, the influences on Couleur come from a variety of sources: rumba, coupé decalé, electro grooves, and even Afrobeats. The traditional and contemporary rhythms meld seamlessly to make for an inviting, dance-ready whole. On Couleur, Gnahoré, who recently parted ways with her former record label, is hopeful, expressing messages of emancipation.
Everywhere We Looked Was Burning (Live) – Emel Mathlouthi (Tunisia)
Best known for providing the soundtrack to the Tunisian revolution in 2011 with her protest anthem Kelmti Horra, Emel Mathlouthi has since built a thriving career for herself as one of the most successful crossover artists from North Africa. This year, Mathlouthi released the spectacular live version of her first English language album, Everywhere We Looked Was Burning, originally released in 2019. The live renditions recorded while on tour across Europe prior to the pandemic demonstrate not only Mathlouthi’s massive vocal talent but her stunning stage presence.
Legacy+ – Femi Kuti and Made Kuti (Nigeria)
The Kuti dynasty is alive and well and Legacy+ is proof. Upon Afrobeat maestro Fela Kuti’s death in 1997, the mantle to keep the movement was inherited by his son, Femi Kuti. It is clear that now extends to his grandson, Made Kuti. Classic and forward-looking in turns, Legacy+ works as a fine distillation of Afrobeat’s true essence.
Made in Africa – Eddy Kenzo (Uganda)
Ugandan superstar Eddy Kenzo has probably not ever been as creatively inspired as he is on this ambitiously titled record. Endlessly groovy even at a lengthy 21 tracks, Made in Africa is a wholesome curation of regional sounds complete with mellifluous rhythms and guitar riffs. Kenzo extends an arm of welcome to some of his biggest musical influences, collaborating with the likes of the iconic Kanda Bongo Man on Moni as well as Mali’s Monique Seka on Missounwa, both remixes of their original hits.
Made in Lagos: Deluxe Edition – Wizkid (Nigeria)
For years, Wizkid has been at the forefront of the movement to take Afrobeats to the rest of the world. With the deluxe version of his excellent 2020 studio album Made In Lagos, he delivered. The deluxe edition adds four new songs to its predecessor including a remix of the globe-spanning hit, “Essence”, previously featuring only Tems but now adding Canadian superstar Justin Bieber to the song’s ranks. On this album, Wizkid outpaces any competition and establishes himself as an artist of singular configuration.
Mother Nature – Angelique Kidjo (Benin)
To record her tribute to Mother Earth, Beninese legend and Grammy perennial Angélique Kidjo gathered an army of collaborators, most of them younger and connected to the rising Afrobeats scene. The result is Mother Nature, a fast-moving and pleasurable experiment in staying tuned and keeping up with the times. Kidjo’s pan-African community – including Yemi Alade, Burna Boy, and Sampa the Great – warns about global concerns such as climate change and political unrest, but the overall build of the record is an unabashed celebration of the African diaspora.
Rumble in the Jungle – Scorpion Kings X TRESOR (South Africa)
For their latest collaborative effort, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza de Small, the producing and recording duo known as Scorpion Kings, invite Congolese-born singer TRESOR for a stellar run through of some of the slinkiest Amapiano fusions to be put down this year. Rumble in the Jungle is the fourth merry-go-round for the iconic duo who can – as both solo artists and collaborative acts – take plenty of credit for the current mainstreaming of Amapiano. The record finds interesting and exciting ways of bridging the gap between TRESOR’s soulful vocals and the high-powered energy of dance music.
Subconsciously – Black Coffee (South Africa)
The veteran South African DJ and producer born Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo capitalises on the global thirst for sounds from the continent to update his creative reach and broaden his audience. Subconsciously’s twelve tracks are rooted in Black Coffee’s house music origins, only this time slowed enough to accommodate the diverse needs of his array of guest stars. Standouts include “10 missed calls” featuring Pharrell Williams and Jozzy and “Ready for You” with British singer Celeste.
Water & Garri – Tiwa Savage (Nigeria)
On a superb five-track EP that makes efficient use of a roster of guests – including American superstars Nas and Brandy – Nigerian diva Tiwa Savage deepens her artistry and makes entreaties to a new generation of listeners. Water & Garri opens with the record’s finest tune, “Work Fada”, a sweeping 6.26-minute stunner that even her ardent fans probably aren’t quite prepared for. Savage advocates for putting in hard work before working through some complicated feelings particularly on love and loss.
Wilfred Okiche is a reader, writer, medic, culture critic and occasional ruffler of feathers. He works in a health centre in Lagos but manages to find the time to pursue other interests. His writing has appeared on various print and online platforms.