A few months ago I attended a DJ lecture by Teju Cole. Part of Performa, the month long performance biennial in New York last November, the prompt for the lecture was something along the lines of, “How does music inform one’s sense of Africanness?” More listening than lecture, Cole proceeded to play a number of tracks from his early adolescence in Nigeria, young adulthood in the United States, and beyond that all played a part in how he has come to terms with his separate identities as a Yoruba, Nigerian, and finally African man.
While geographic relocation plays a large part in the broadening out of one’s identity, in Cole’s experience (and in my own) music has been an anchor in concretizing these connected yet separate shifts. I have always felt that a large facet of my African identity has been intrinsically tied to the music I was fed growing up in Ivory Coast as well as the sounds I actively sought once I moved to the U.S. Beyond just listening, being able to feel a deep connection with African music made my insecurities about not having a hometown and not being able to speak the native tongue of my parents almost disappear. In the rhythm and grooves of the music that my body naturally bends and sways too, I found a sense of peace and confidence that I knew couldn’t be taken away from me.
I was inspired by Cole’s lecture to dig into the tracks that helped me define my own sense of African-ness. Not just for that sweet sense of nostalgia, which is nice, but also in the process I found myself digging more into the history of specific genres and sounds, which in a way helps me better understand why certain music resonates with me now.
It’s obviously more than five tracks, so if you’re interested in the whole playlist, it’s linked below.
“Muchana,” Kanda Bongo Man
This was always the background music of parties growing up. Hearing it again in my later adolescence, it always felt like a warm hug. Taking me back to our cherished Abidjan days, before the war, before the illness, when our makeshift Pan-African community was just reaching its peak. My father’s generation had made it out of the apartments, to the large and over the top houses they spent years, money, and ambition building. These were the houses that my generation would grow up in–before the interruption. Houses we’d throw parties at for young and old, playing the sounds of Kanda Bongo Man, while the children run around, the teens roll their eyes, and the adults drink and two step to the bright synths and soukous rhythms.
“Ma Folie,” Meiway
Meiway was the first pop star of my life. A musical legend, he pioneered a whole genre in Ivory Coast, Zoblazo. A larger than life character himself, Meiway’s music stirred up national pride in Ivorians in a way that was both modern and traditional. Singing in his local language, Appolo, he managed to tell stories in his music while incorporating traditional rhythms from southern Ivory Coast, call and response, and orchestral instrumentation. His modernity comes from the synthesizers he would throw in as well as influences from other genres such as highlife and hip-hop. Meiway also loves extended instrumental breaks, with this song being no exception. This song is about losing your mind and you feel it in everything from the horns to the percussion. The horn section in this song is so epic, I still sing along to the notes as if they had words.
“Jupa,” Fally Ipupa, J Martins
Praises to Fally Ipupa for one of the smoothest intros ever let alone the Congolese vocal candy he delivers in his verse. This song was a major moment for me because it was the first time I heard Afrobeats–an interesting example as this is a collab between a Nigerian and Congolese artist, so it’s more of a fusion than pure Afrobeats. I first heard this song soon after I moved to North Carolina. Far from the ethnic diversity of the DMV and even farther from the continent, I was feeling very confused about what I was, what I could claim, and where I wanted to be, until I heard this song. As silly as it sounds, I knew I wanted to be in this song. I wanted to live in it’s rhythms, it’s melody, and it’s overall production. I didn’t care that I didn’t understand enough of what they were actually saying–it just felt right.
….And that’s how I fell in love with afrobeats.
“Bread and Butter,” Radio and Weasel
I remember playing a Ugandan song for one of my elementary school friends once, an American, (not this song) and she told me it sounded like circus music. At the time I was really offended but also hyper aware of that particular song’s production. Yes, in a lot of ways it did sound like someone had put on some corny presets on one of those old school electronic keyboards and constructed a song in a few minutes (while I don’t knock that, that’s a different discussion). But after that moment I just stopped checking for a lot of Ugandan music until I heard this song. A super bouncy, dancehall-esque beat, catchy hook, and cushiony bass line delivered so well by Radio and Weasel, this song was IT when it came out. More personally, it became a major source of pride that opened up my mind to what I was missing in Ugandan music.
“Bush Baby Disco,” Just a Band
One of the sadder days in music history was when Just a Band went on hiatus. (Still waiting for that reunion!). This song was huge for me because it was the first time I heard quirkiness and alternative sounds in modern African pop. Once again, not a function of it not existing, but more-so me being overly absorbed in Afrobeats. Check out Just a Band’s catalogue, you won’t regret it.
I’ve linked here a Spotify playlist with these songs and a few more that served similar functions. Check it out if you want to hear my musical biography.