From high-energy dance crazes like Nigeria’s zanku to the groovy tunes of South Africa’s amapiano, 2019 has been a strong year for popular African music.
Both emerging and veteran artists pushed their respective sounds beyond borders this year, just as fresh talent from across the continent brought their creative energy into the mix by combining originality all the while paying homage to the greats.
Compiling a shortlist of the top African songs of 2019 can be quite tricky as each country, region and even genre coming from the continent and its diaspora is insular – overflowing with straight hits.
This roundup, however, highlights the youth and African women artists, acknowledges the dominance (once again) of Nigeria’s popular music scene and also takes stats from streaming platforms into account.
Take a listen in this particular order (yes, it is a playlist!) and dig into the top 12 African songs of 2019 below.
Viviane Chidid continues to reign supreme as the queen of mbalax, adapting and evolving her sound to reach new generations. The Senegalese singer’s repertoire pulls from both traditional mbalax music and American rap/R&B.
Lately, she has been inspired by afrobeat that can be heard in Do Dara – one of her lead singles this year.
If there is a sound that has been a beacon for South Africa this year, it is amapiano. A subgenre of house and kwaito that first emerged in 2016, amapiano is easy on the ears, yet danceable.
It blends jazz, kwaito’s signature baselines, high-pitched melodies from the keys and percussion inspired by 1990s South African house.
Amantombazane, featuring Samthing Soweto and amapiano pioneers MFR Souls, is one of the top hits from DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small’s joint album Scorpion Kings.
The two powerhouse producers have since released the second iteration The Return of the Scorpion Kings, which features the likes of Busiswa, Mlindo the Vocalist, Mi Casa and more.
NSG is a six-member collective of rappers originally hailing from Ghana and Nigeria who grew up together in Hackney, East London. The acronym NSG has been known to stand for different, motivational meanings, including No Sleep Gang, New Sound Group, Non Stop Grinding and Never Stop Growing.
The group stepped onto the scene with their 2018 viral hit Options featuring Tion Wayne and has followed suit with tracks seamlessly fusing grime, bashment and afrobeat into a captivating sound.
Trust Issues has been in rotation this year and does not disappoint, showing the group’s versatility and ability to pull from Ghanaian hiplife music effortlessly.
Nigeria’s alte (alternative) movement has shown itself to be the antithesis of mainstream afrobeat the industry did not know it needed.
The scene is genre-bending, as artists who have emerged from the movement, including Santi and Odunsi, explore what freedom looks like in a conservative society.
Lady Donli is an alte artist to watch as she is one of the few women artists developing their sound and growing a fanbase on their own terms.
With Cash, one of Donli’s singles from her debut album Enjoy Your Life, she weaves the universal truth of our addiction to money with the timeless groove of highlife music – thanks to production by The Cavemen.
In 2018, artist and businessman Mr Eazi launched emPawaAfrica – an incubator focused on investing in rising Africa artists. Since its creation, emPawa has served as a full label and management company as well as the foundation for #emPawa100 – a mentorship programme that awards recipients a grant to shoot their first music video.
Joeboy was one of the first recipients of the grant and also advanced to the mentorship boot camp before becoming one of the two artists to receive additional financial support.
The Nigerian artist dropped Baby in March, reaching Apple Music’s top 10 charts for Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya at the time of its release. After listening to this upbeat, easy tune, you will understand how it has maintained its position on these charts since then.
This 19-year-old singer and rapper is yet another emerging superstar approaching the Nigerian music landscape on their own terms.
Rema, the golden child of Mavin Records, hit the scene this year with his self-titled EP after his freestyle to D’Prince’s Gucci Gang went viral in 2018.
Dumebi continues to be the standout from the project, showing that afrobeats can indeed be devoid of being one-dimensional – the song musters up high energy without the need for hard-hitting elements found in afrobeats you would hear at a party.
Rema has since done nothing less than deliver with two additional EPs (Bad Commando and Freestyle EP), as well as take home the Next Rated award at The Headies (Nigeria’s premier award show celebrating achievements in the music industry) – acknowledging Nigeria’s most promising act.
This was Burna Boy’s year. The afrofusion artist knows what it means to make a statement, doing so with his most recent and Grammy-nominated album African Giant.
This project shows Burna’s range, his sonic inspiration and ability to point listeners to artists we should keep an eye on, including Zlatan, who is featured on Killin Dem and has made his mark on the industry this year too.
This track is one of the many zanku anthems – a high-energy, footwork-filled dance craze that has been embedded in Nigerian street dance culture.
Naira Marley’s fast rise to afrobeats stardom stems from his authenticity and affinity with Nigerian street music. Put plainly, his raw, honest music is a reflection of his community and what the everyday Nigerian goes through – good and bad.
For some, Soapy has been deemed controversial due to its accompanying dance steps, but it is Marley’s reflection on his experience in prison – he was arrested by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission on fraud charges – and that of the inmates he came to know inside after being arrested on fraud charges.
Sho Madjozi is unyielding about her multifaceted approach to her music career. The South African-Swedish rapper, singer, poet, songwriter and actress leads with pride for her Tsonga culture, while fusing her experiences living across the continent through her style and approach to hip hop and gqom – a subgenre of South African house.
John Cena was a bomb that dropped in August blowing music fans away when it debuted via Sho Madjozi’s COLORS performance. Inspired by watching the professional wrestler growing up, the clip went viral prompting praise from the likes of Missy Elliott and even Cena himself.
This list would be remiss not to give due credit to the music coming out of East Africa this year. Sailors is the five-man music crew that is now part of the new wave Kenya’s music industry needed.
Wamlambez put them on the map with its catchy hook stemming from a greeting in Kenyan slang riding the hard-hitting mid-tempo percussion grooving underneath.
Sailors represent Kenya’s youth to the fullest and their fast-growing fanbase shows the youth are responding accordingly.
The Forbes 30 Under 30 honouree has accomplished making a name for herself, empowering women in the face of an industry that perpetuates colourism and a monolithic approach to developing female artists.
Although Pookie is from NAKAMURA, her second album, the track alongside its subsequent remixes (featuring Capo Plaza and Lil Pump respectively) have transcended time and even amassed 154 million views on YouTube – and counting.
Gildo Kassa is the producer leading the charge in contemporary Ethiopian music by fusing traditional elements of songwriting and instrumentation with the global appeal of afrobeats.
He has been the mind behind top hits in the scene lately, one of which being Lageba New featuring music crew Shakura.
The catchy tune gives the ears a dancehall bounce with complex melodies that keep you moving.