The Evolution Of Afrobeats Through Its Women

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Afrobeat is synonymous with Fela Kuti, the legendary musician who developed the genre in the late 1960s along with his contemporaries like Tony Allen. They experimented with different contemporary music of the time to create the Afrobeat template. Afrobeat was influenced by numerous genres, including highlife, fuji, and jùju, as well as Yoruba vocal traditions, rhythm, and instruments. Kuti left Lagos in the late 1950s to study at the London School of Music, where he was exposed to jazz. He returned to Lagos and performed a highlife-jazz hybrid, though he had little commercial success. Even though their names are similar, Afrobeat and Afrobeats are very different. The former combines west African music styles with jazz and American funk, while the latter is an umbrella term for contemporary pop music originating from West Africa. It is easy to notice the influence of Fela and Afrobeat on Afrobeats. Many Afrobeats musicians like Burna Boy and Wizkid claim to have been influenced by Afrobeat and Fela. Its sounds paved the way for our indigenous music to be shared globally and carved a niche for African music today. Hence the Afrobeat influences found in Afrobeats today.

When we speak of Afrobeat, there is no mention of the female musicians who were pioneers of the genre. There is also very little known about some of Fela’s biggest influences. In the brief recollection of the influence of Afrobeat, there are no female musicians whose influence on Afrobeat is recorded. There are very few to no accounts of female musicians of the genre from the 1960s and 1970s. The internet and feminist movements have however significantly improved the visibility of female musicians of Afrobeats today. Still, the female musicians of the genre of influence are not well known.

Here’s a history of Afrobeat and Afrobeats through the lens of its female musicians.

The 1960s to the 1980s
While digging through the history of Afrobeat and Afrobeats, hoping to find some women, I came across a brilliant artist Fela cites as a significant influence on his activism while creating and promoting Afrobeats worldwide; Sandra Izsadore. Izsadore, an afro-sporting dancer, musician, manager, and activist closely associated with the Black Panther civil rights movement in the United States, was born Sandra Smith in Los Angeles. In 1969, she encountered Fela and his band in Los Angeles. Sandra is regarded as the ‘Queen Mother of Afrobeat’, and was represented by Michele Williams of “Destiny’s Child”; Saycon Sengbloh, and Paulette Ivory in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Fela.” She has appeared in two documentaries, including “Beware of Mr. Baker”; about drummer Ginger Baker, and & “Finding Fela”; directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney. The encounter with Izsadore would be a pivotal moment in Fela Kuti’s political identity. Kuti was persuaded by her nationalist ideologies at their first encounter. He changed his name from Ransome to Anikulápó and changed his songs to musical assaults on Western dominance because she believed in Black
nationalism and imperialism. Izsadore would later become the only female lead vocalist in Fela’s songs, and the two would develop a romantic relationship. The Upside Down from 1976 is where this is best depicted. Sandra Izsadore’s friendship and mentorship with Fela are crucial to understanding who she is as an artist. Her fame is attributed to the fact that she is the only female featured vocalist in Kuti’s music, particularly on the 1976 song Upside Down.

While Iszadore’s music and influence on Fela became center stage around the world, there was another female musician who had already begun playing Afro-Funk Music, Monnah Finnih. Finnih, also known as Mona Lola Finnih, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1949 to Bolaji and Agbeke Finnih.

She learned about music while attending Methodist Girls’ High School. She played at numerous country clubs before relocating to the US, including Tafawa Balewa Square, Maharani Nightclub, Gondola Nightclub, and Fela’s Afro Spot. She is also the great-granddaughter of the late Sir Adeyemo Alakija, and her uncle was the first chief justice of the federation, Sir Ademola Adetokunbo. She was one of Nigeria’s first international female band leaders who went to the US and rose to fame in the New Jazz scene there.

Finnih, a devoted representative of Afro-funk, started recording music in the early 1960s, although it didn’t fully blossom until she formed her band, Mona Finnih and the Sunflowers, in 1969. She collaborated with Jimi Lee, a former guitarist for the bands Aktion and MonoMono, on three songs. What is known about Monnah Finnish is even less. Only her songs from YouTube and her 1980 smash single with Jimi Lee and the Sensationals, Stroll in the Moonlight, are accessible through Google searches. She is most known for her songs I Love Myself, which features close harmonies sandwiched between jazz horns, and Eni Ma Bimo. Towards the end of her career, she began singing gospel. 16 July 2021 saw her passing. She left behind a large number of relatives and friends, in addition to her two children, Lawrence Brooks (Kristy Brooks) and Nina Brooks.

A pioneer female Afrobeat musician who tops Sandra Iszadore and Monnah Finnih in popularity is Christy Essien-Igbokwe, known as Nigeria’s Lady of songs. Her music is one of the most sampled and popular of all the female Afrobeat pioneers. “Seun rere” is her most popular song to date; I can still remember listening to it on the radio in the early 2000s. She made 11 albums in her music career, beginning with “Freedom” in 1977 and ending in “All of a sudden”, released posthumously in 2013.

Other brilliant female musicians who broke the erasure of earlier documented female artists include the Lijadu Sisters. In the early years of Afrobeat, The Lijadu Sisters were among the most influential female voices. The brilliant twins who were also Fela Kuti’s cousins were born in Jos and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third-largest city. After taking to the stage in their youth, their debut single, Danger, catapulted them into international stardom, leading to global tours.

Another powerful voice at the time was Christy Ogbah. In her career, Christy Ogbah produced three excellent albums, two for the pop label Duomo and one for the highlife label Mosokam. All three albums are credited to Christy Ogbah & Her Melody Group. While her single English-language song, the wall-of-fuzz dance track Advice is what she is best known for, Ogbah also excelled at slower synth-heavy pop songs sung in Ishan that were neither disco nor funk, but instead a much more fascinating hybrid. Songs like Iyiye and Iyebhado turn into sluggish loops of multi-tracked vocals and melodic Moog accents; a strange boogie drone. Her rich voice occasionally resembles a synthesizer. Ogbah combines the hybrid sounds from her first two releases as she explores the intersections of highlife and Lagos disco. She was a police officer at the time, per Duomo Sounds Ltd.’s liner notes.

The early 2000s
This period in Nigeria’s music industry saw the transition from reggae and hip-hop dominant in the late 1990s to an era filled with more indigenous lyrics. Weird MC’s critically acclaimed 1996 single Allen Avenue brought her into the limelight and introduced her as the first female figure in Nigeria’s rap music evolution. Artists and producers like Don Jazzy, 2 face, Psquare, Dbanj, and MI had started experimenting with the style of fusing pidgin English and Yoruba lyrics with popular hip hop and RnB melodies that would evolve to become Afrobeats. Female artists at the time were not very well known for Afrobeats as the genre had not been fully formed or named yet, but there were female musicians who brilliantly competed with the male musicians of the time.

Aituaje Iruobe, popularly known as Waje is a Nigerian singer from Edo State with a three-octave vocal range. She first became well-known after appearing on the P-Square remake of Omoge Mi. Waje also contributed to the 2008 smash song Do Me by the duo. Additionally, she sang vocals on Banky’s Thief My Kele and M.I’s One naira. Her music still retained a style similar to male musicians in the era. Another female musician with a similar sound is Omawumi. Omawumi rose to prominence as a contestant on Idols West Africa where she was voted the 1st runner-up of the competition when it ended in May 2007. Since then, she has had numerous performances on the stage with musicians such as P-Square, 2face Idibia, Phyno, D’Banj, Banky W, M.I, Sasha, 9ice, Chaka Demus and Pliers, Carl Thomas, Angie Stone and Donell Jones, and Angélique Kidjo, among others. In September 2008, Omawumi released her debut single, In The Music. Her album Wonderwoman was released on November 11, 2009.

The 2010s rise of Afrobeats
In the early 2010s, the foreign melodies were swapped for more traditional beats, and DJ Abrantee created the name Afrobeats in 2011 to package and present the sound to the British audience. The rebirth of Afrobeat and the birth of Afrobeats brought a revolutionary group of female musicians. The first female musician who was popularly associated with this seemingly new genre was Tiwa Savage. She paved the way for more female artists in the genre. Born in Isale Eko, she relocated to London at 11 for her secondary education. Five years later, she began her music career doing backup vocals for artists such as George Michael and Mary J. Blige. Her debut studio album, Once Upon a Time, was released on the 3rd of July, 2013. Seven singles supported it: Kele Kele Love, Love Me (3x), Without My Heart, Ife Wa Gbona, Folarin, & Olorun Mi, and Eminado. The album was nominated for Best Album of the Year at the 2014 Nigeria Entertainment Awards and Best R&B/Pop Album at The Headies 2014. Another female artist that followed in popularity is Yemi Alade, the singer, songwriter, actress, and activist. Alade won the Peak Talent Show in 2009, after which she signed to Effyzzie Music Group and had a hit with her single “Johnny” in 2014. The two powerhouses made success in Afrobeats attainable for female artists. Later on, more female Afrobeats musicians, like Mochedda, Tems, Fave, and Ayra star, broke into the scene and attained immense success in a short time.

This era of female Afrobeats musicians is the most successful and widespread group of female musicians in the genre’s chronology. The internet has been instrumental in promoting the music of female musicians in this era by planting the power to market and publish their music in their own hands. A perfect example is Tems, who started out producing her music. We see that women are bolder now, not afraid to control every aspect of their sound and how it is marketed to the world, and these women, unlike the women before them, will not be forgotten.

Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a Writer and Freelance Journalist from Kaduna state Nigeria; her work has been published in AMAKA studio, Popula, Muslim Girl, and others. She currently writes the Arewa voices column for Document Women.