The African entertainment space is perhaps too vast and too cumbersome to measure. But in the scattered data available we find the continent houses the world’s third largest homegrown film industry in Nigeria’s Nollywood, which according to a recent United Nations report, is larger than Hollywood by volume and second only to India’s Bollywood in worth, estimated at around $3 billion. The music arena is sweeping is similar terms.
If an artiste is defined by wholly the extent of their output and global influence, then these women are candidates for celebration.
She is perhaps the most iconic of modern African songstresses. Known for her electric performances and creative music videos, Kidjo began her musical life in Benin, then known as Dahomey, part of a musical family. Her mother was a theater director and her father, a photographer.
She fled her country following a coup in the early 1980s seeking a secure setting to chase her musical dreams.
“It was not possible to write your own music if you weren’t talking about the communist regime and the people in power. It was one thing I didn’t want to do. So the only option I had was to leave, otherwise I was going to end up in jail,” she says, speaking to us in 2015.
Since then, Kidjo has risen to become a Grammy-award winning artiste with over 37 albums in her repertoire.
The youngest in a large family, Kidjo’s childhood was colored by late nights, singing with her older brothers, at a little bar by the Cotonou lagoon. Eventually, she was headlining at jazz festivals across Europe with the legendary pianist, Jasper van’t Hof, and his afro-jazz ensemble, Pili Pili.
It was a difficult road to stardom.
“It was not easy…my parents were not rich enough to send [me] money. It was very hard, I had to find work. I did babysitting, I did hotel room cleaning, I did hair-braiding, I was a backup singer in a band. It was a matter of survival but I was free and that freedom had no price for me,” she recalls.
Kidjo did more than survive, she flourished. Her time with Pili Pili eventually led her to a recording deal with Island Records in Paris. A string of number one hits followed and she became a world music icon, picking up awards and accolades at every turn.
TIME magazine hailed her as “Africa’s Premier Diva” in 2007 but she remains true to her personal philosophies in an industry that is notoriously unkind to those with weaker spirits.
“One thing I learned as a young girl singing was always to be true to my inspiration, never ever give that up in order to please other people. If you cannot sing your song alone without instrumentation and be happy, don’t put it out there! You cannot be an artiste thinking that you want to be somebody else. You need to know what kind of artiste you want to be and why you want to be that,” she says.
Kidjo’s latest album, Eve, is dedicated to the women of Africa. She details stories of youth and rise in her memoirs, Spirit Rising, My Life, My Music published by HarperCollins in 2014.
Actress and playwright, Zimbabwe
Gurira is a consuming personality. She is both an actress and playwright. Her plot lines are at once accessible and complex, delving into the lives of everyday women fighting the insurmountable and emerging, at their conclusion, to a victorious reckoning. She writes to entertain and educate.
Her Off-Broadway play, In The Continuum, on women making peace with their HIV status debuted when she was still an MFA student at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and won three accolades including the Helen Hayes Award for Best Lead Actress.
Her most recent production, Eclipsed, written in 2009, follows the lives of five Liberian women at the height of the country’s drawn-out civil war as they navigate the horrors of wartime and the people they become.
This has scaled even higher heights than her previous one. It received an African treatment in 2014, at Johannesburg’s Soweto Theatre, in an adaptation directed by South African actress, Warona Seane. The current production opened at the Public Theatre in New York City to rave reviews in October 2015 with Kenya’s Oscar-winning diva, Lupita Nyong’o, at the lead.
As an actress, Gurira can be seen weekly on American hit television serial, The Walking Dead, as the no-nonsense, zombie fighting Michonne. She also has six film credits to her name, notably as Adenike Balogun, a Nigerian woman dealing with infertility, in the independent drama, Mother Of George. Eclipsed ran at The Public Theatre in New York until November 29. A third play, Familiar, based on a Zimbabwean family transposed in Minnesota is slated for 2016.
For moviegoers outside East Africa, Nyong’o must have seemed to burst into view out of relative obscurity. However, she was on the Kenyan stage and television before she took on the hearts and minds of red carpet watchers worldwide.
Nyong’o was a thespian from a young age, as a member of Ian Mbugua’s Nairobi Phoenix Players, she lead as Juliet in a local adaptation of the Shakespearean, Romeo and Juliet.
However, her big break was a culmination of efforts. She signed on as a member of production staff on various big budget films from The Constant Gardener, shot in Kenya, to Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.
From there she won a place at the Yale School of Drama where she was awarded a prize, in her final year, for ‘outstanding ability’ in her craft. Earlier, in 2008, she appeared in an independent short film shot in New York. The year after that, she directed a documentary, In My Genes, on the much discriminated-against albino population in Kenya. It won first prize at the Five College Film Festival.
With all of this behind her, she was cast in her breakthrough role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s stellar cinematic effort, 12 Years A Slave, just three weeks before her graduation. From there came her surprise Oscar win.
Her most recent project is with Zimbabwean playwright Danai Gurira and her play Eclipsed, playing a young woman who finds herself a sex slave in the rebel camps of wartime Liberia.
Perhaps one of the most successful singer-songwriters in the Arab-speaking world, Massi marries beautifully composed guitar harmonies with her enchanting voice, often the only instruments in her employ, to tell stories through her songs. First-time listeners might compare her music to the American blues softened by the poetic lightness of careful lyrics.
While she is based in France, she was born in Algeria to a forward-thinking, but poor, family of six in 1972. She learned to play the guitar quite early and often performed her compositions to keen family and friends. At the beginning of the 90s, as the country plunged into civil war, Massi joined a political rock band called Akator and had a successful seven-year run with them, producing underground hits and popular music videos.
However, as the war raged on and her popularity soared, she became a target for the conservative fundamentalists that were quickly winning political ground in the country. They threatened her family and they threatened her life. Unfazed, Massi continued her musical conviction, cutting her hair short and disguising herself as a man.
“I grew up in a modest family in Algeria but I [was given] a lot of chances because my parents liked music, so it was easy to listen and to play the guitar. [This became] very hard because it was the civil war, it wasn’t easy to play on stage. In past it wasn’t a problem, but when the movement of Islamists it became very hard for us women to express ourselves, to [wear] clothes that we want. People thought that I [performed] on purpose, to attract attention but that wasn’t my idea,” she told the BBC in October.
Despite her camouflage, it was clear the extremists didn’t care for her music or her opinions. The death threats continued. In 1999, she accepted an invitation to play at a Paris festival and she never returned. Days later she was signed on to a local imprint of Universal Records and two years later she emerged with a celebrated first album, Raoui. It became a commercial success in Europe.
Although a deep yearning for the country she left behind echoes in her music, Massi understands that her voice is much stronger outside the constraints of the conservative society she fled.
“What I did in France, I could never do in Algeria,” she says.
In 2015, she released her latest album, El Mutakallimun, a collection of ancient poems from 9th century Arabic poets living in Cordoba, Spain, put to music. She says she wants the album to counter the negative stereotypes perpetuated of the global Islamic community.
Africans, the world over, have patronized a Nigerian movie at one point or another. With complex plot lines and exaggerated theatrics, Nollywood is the undisputed home of African cinema. And of its many on-screen darlings, Nnaji is perhaps one of the more prolific. In 2009, Oprah Winfrey dubbed her the ‘Julia Roberts of Africa’.
A former child model, Nnaji got her start in acting almost by accident. A local soap opera was short of child actors and they called into the modeling agency for recruits. Three names were put forward and she was among them. At eight years old, the actress was born.
“I enjoyed it, it was fun. I never felt so alive,” she told CNN in 2011 about the experience.
Over a decade later, she made her Nollywood debut at 19 with the movie, Most Wanted. Since then, her talent has been lent to over 80 titles of the industry and she has found herself thrust forward as a Nigerian ambassador appearing at film screenings in London and beyond.
This responsibility is not taken lightly.
“As long as you are a celebrity, you are an ambassador [to the rest of the world] they can’t see the whole country so what you show people is basically…what you show [of] back home,” she says.
In addition to acting, Nnaji has an album, One Logologo Line, released by a Ghanaian record label in 2004. She is also an accomplished model spawning a line of endorsement deals including being the face of Lux beauty products in West Africa.
However, she still has more planned for the future. In 2008, she launched her own clothing line St. Genevieve which donates some of its profits to charity.
Entertainers do exist in spaces outside music and film. While she is shy to admit she is a performer, writer and poet Shire launched her career at a poetry slam when she was just 16. Although the concept was new and bewildering to her, she got on-stage and performed her piece and to her surprise, won.
“I was very nervous. I didn’t really understand what a poetry slam was. Then I won. My friends jumped around. I didn’t want to ever do another poetry slam, but I think it has a lot to do with how I approach readings,” she says.
Since then she has used the internet to share her work becoming a sensation among a new breed of literary minded young Africans. She has released a popular album of spoken poetry, warsan versus melancholy (the seven stages of being lonely) and has been invited to perform her work from Berlin to Johannesburg.
However, she insists that first she is a writer.
“I’d rather listen than speak. It’s overwhelming, the amount of detail I see in really mundane scenarios: strangers touching one another; someone arguing on the phone; a man falling asleep on the train. I’ll fill in the gaps of the story myself. In my mind I’ll follow them home, I’ll imagine their childhood, what their bedroom looks like, if they are in love with someone who does not love them. The downfall is that I give everything (and everyone) too much meaning. Sometimes a thing is vacant and I’ll create depth for it; that’s not always fair,” she says.
Shire is an also an editor at SPOOK magazine, which focuses on the alternative literary arts. In 2012, she released her debut book of poems, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth.
Funny woman of East Africa, Kansiime was an internet superstar before she even got on television. Her videos have been liked and shared thousands of times over even though her comedy persona is very Ugandan.
Hailing from a little village in western Uganda, she began her career in comedy while a student at Kampala’s Makerere University. She dabbled in drama and music but continued on with a degree in Social Sciences due to family expectations. Desperately looking for an avenue to showcase her talents, a friend urged her to record her skits and upload them online. After her first few hits, it was clear that she was a big, and unique, talent.
“I didn’t see it coming. I would post a clip and get a reaction, and I thought that I would put it on YouTube…I got motivated and kept on posting and posting till I started receiving phone calls and [even] receiving money from people who weren’t even in Africa. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew I was doing a job and I liked it and people liked it,” she told Kenyan media in 2014.
Encouraged by the outpouring of support, she carried on to become a viral hit in no time.
“I just wanted to act. I didn’t understand [then] that acting would make people laugh,” she says.
Already, she has almost a quarter of a million followers on her YouTube channel. Some of her videos have been watched over a million times. She has performed in a variety of venues from London to Lilongwe.
Currently, her weekly online comedy sketch show Don’t Mess With Kansiime can be seen on her YouTube channel. In 2015, she released a debut music album, My Name Is Kansiime, available for digital download on Amazon and Itunes. Kansiime performed live in Washington D.C and New Jersey, as part of her World Tour, in late November.