Africa’s musicians: Good for the dawn of humanity, not good enough for musical greatness?

Damien Glez
By Damien Glez

A French/Burkinabé artist and editorialist.

Posted on Thursday, 12 January 2023 10:04

Image by Damien Glez

Rolling Stone Magazine has just published a rather subjective list of the 200 greatest singers of all time. Where does Africa and its many great talents factor in?

Rankings are a part of daily life, be it through sports or music. In a recent publication, the American magazine Rolling Stone published a list of the 200 greatest singers of all time – all within the last 100 years. Many ardent fans of the singers on the list subjected it to heavy scrutiny.

Fans of legends like Celine Dion of Canada, or Michael Jackson of the US, whose songs, vocal, and album sales accomplishments have all merited praise, elicited particular uproar.

Only three Africans in the Top 100?!

Out of the 200 singers on the Rolling Stone list, only seven Africans have been honoured: Nigeria’s Burna Boy, with his voice as sweet as caramel, occupies 197th place, with his compatriot, Fela Ransome-Kuti, ahead of him by nine places, honoured for his authoritarian, direct, and firm tone.

Less known to newer generations than his son Youssoupha, Congolese Tabu Ley Rochereau is presented to readers as the 178th best singer of all time, in possession of a weightless tenor whose notes seem to hang hypnotically in the air.

For South Africa, Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde, nicknamed The Lion of Soweto, roars his way into 153rd place, with the magazine praising his deep bass moan, capable of shaking the very clouds themselves.

Three Africans – yes, only three – rank among the first 100 singers. The vertiginous tenor of Teranga Youssou N’dour nicely occupies 69th place, preceded by two legendary female icons: the Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum, the eastern star whose breath-taking and powerful contralto convinced Rolling Stone to award her 61st place; and Mama Africa herself, South African anti-apartheid activist Miram Makeba, ranked 53rd.

Collective rock consciousness

Africa, responsible for at least 15% of the known world population, surely cannot represent only 3.5% of that same world’s greatest singers and songwriters. Any classification like this would be subjective, especially according to a press organ whose identity seems linked to the collective consciousness brought together around the same wavelength of rock’n’roll.

Even if the publication was also founded by a jazz critic, even if it presents itself as dealing with the catch-all persona of pop culture presentation, the fact remains: no critic – even if the classification of greatness is established from a collective musical ethos – can completely escape its cultural egocentrism.

The average African will console themselves with a self-reminder – that the popular music genre known to the Western world is irrigated with African themes.

Of course, in due time, avowed musicologists will regret that the iconic Mariah Carey is 183 places ahead of Fela Kuti, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist and inventor of an original musical genre.

Could this rating status be linked to a desire to focus on high-pitched vocalisations? Perhaps, perhaps not. One cannot be terribly sure.

The 162nd place is occupied by the only Frenchwoman at the top: Françoise Hardy, now legendary for her whisper-like delivery. The average African will console themselves with a self-reminder – that the popular music genre known to the Western world is irrigated with African themes.

Even so, the majority of artists occupying this controversial ranking are steeped in African heritage, from the Nigerian-British Sade Adu (51st) to African-Americans Ella Fitzgerald (45th), Whitney Houston (2nd), or Aretha Franklin, the undisputed queen of the ranking.

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