15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous African Singers

Written by Dan Farrant

The second-largest continent of the world, Africa, is a melting pot of cultures, languages, and music. It is home to some incredibly talented singers who have made a name for themselves both inside the continent and far beyond its borders. 

This list takes a look at 15 of the most famous African singers of all time, from icons like Miriam Makeba and Fela Kuti to more modern stars like Angelique Kidjo and Salif Keita. Let’s begin!

1. Miriam Makeba

Hailing from Prospect Township, Johannesburg, in South Africa, there’s no one who had a greater impact on African music than Miriam Makeba

Nicknamed Mama Africa, she is credited with introducing African music to the mainstream. She is also considered among the first music artists from Africa who gained global recognition, her most famous work being the Afro-pop dance hit “Pata Pata.”

Aside from her impact on the music industry, Makeba was also a civil rights activist. She first gained international attention for her role in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid film that has become a huge part of African culture.

She had a long, illustrious five-decade career in the industry until her untimely death in 2008. Her legacy continues with African artists such as Youssou N’Dour and Angélique Kidjo, who have cited Makeba as their inspiration.

2. Fela Kuti

Another socially significant African singer is Fela Kuti, a Nigerian singer-composer and political activist. The son of a women’s rights activist, it is no wonder that Kuti is regarded as one of Africa’s most challenging and charismatic artists.

A pioneer of Afrobeat music, Kuti shot to fame in the 1970s with his band Africa 70. As an all-around musician, his discography is impressively vast. Among his most popular songs are “Shakara,” “Yellow Fever,” and “Water No Get Enemy.”

While at the height of his popularity, he was also highly engaged in political activism. He founded Kalakuta Republic, a commune that served as a safe haven for artists, musicians, and intellectuals.

His death in 1997 was a great loss to the music industry, but his groundbreaking legacy continues today. His son, Femi Kuti, has continued to release compilations and reissues of Kuti’s works, including The Best of the Black President.

3. Angélique Kidjo

Multi-Grammy awardee singer Angélique Kidjo was born in Cotonou, French Dahomey, which is currently known as Benin in West Africa. 

Coming from a family of performers, it is inherent in Kidjo’s blood that she was born to shine and that she did. She won an astonishing five Grammy awards and is considered Africa’s Premier Diva.

A polyglot, she sings in all five languages that she’s fluent in, adding to her artistic appeal. Some of her foreign-titled songs include “Malaika” and “Batonga.” Her songs “Lozogo,” “Djin Djin,” and “Eve” also topped the Billboard US World chart.

A formidable figure in the music industry, Kidjo is also an artist with a big heart. She founded the Batonga Foundation, which aims to empower African girls through education. A fierce human rights advocate, she was also appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2002.

4. King Sunny Adé

Born Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye in Ondo, Nigeria, King Sunny Adé is an African pop and jùjú singer and multi-instrumentalist. He holds the distinction of being the pioneering African pop musician to succeed internationally.

Adé is best known for his unique approach to music: a fusion of traditional African poetic lyrics, jùjú/Ogede casting, and the blending of synthesizers and pedal steel guitar. Among his most popular songs are “Aiye nreti eleya mi,” “Oluwa lo yan mi,” and “Ara nfu mi-Oro fi sibe.”

An influential music artist, Adé founded his own independent music label, Island Records. He is also a chairperson of the prestigious Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria.

Adding to his arsenal of musical accomplishments, Adé is the first Nigerian singer to be nominated for the Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Hard Rock Café Hall of Fame in 2016 and into the Headies Hall of Fame five years later.

5. Ali Farka Touré

Born in Niafunké, Mali, Ali Farka Touré is recognized as one of the most renowned singers in Africa and around the world. His signature sound, a combination of traditional Malian music and West African blues, has earned him three Grammy Awards and immense critical acclaim. 

Beginning in the early 1990s, Touré toured all around America alongside other American blues, folk, and reggae artists. Talking Timbuktu, Touré’s 1994 album in collaboration with American musician Ry Cooder, was an international success, making him the first African bluesman to do so.

Many of Touré’s compositions and songs have been featured in international popular culture, including “Bèrèbèrè” in Marvel’s Black Panther and “Soukora” in the French movie Irma Vep.

He sadly passed away in 2006 after a long battle with bone cancer. A foundation was created in Touré’s honor. Touré’s impact on African blues music continues to be remembered and celebrated worldwide.

6. Hugh Masekela 

A multi-instrumentalist and singer-composer, Hugh Masekela was born in Emalahleni in South Africa. The Father of South African Jazz, he is known for his vast discography of jazz compositions. 

His most successful single is “Grazing in the Grass,” an instrumental composition which topped the Billboard US Pop and R&B charts. His late ’80s hit song “Bring Him Back Home” also became the unofficial anti-apartheid anthem during the Free Nelson Mandela movement.

His contributions both to the music industry and African civil rights have earned him numerous honors. This includes the Order of Ikhamanga at the 2010 South African National Orders Ceremony, the 2007 African Music Legend Award, and the Channel O Music Lifetime Achievement Award.

He passed away at the ripe age of 78 in 2018, yet he will forever be remembered as one of the greatest African singers of all time.

7. Majek Fashek

Renowned roots reggae singer Majek Fashek hailed from Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria. After the disbandment of Fashek’s first band, Jastix, he embarked on a solo career. 

His debut album, Prisoner of Conscience, became an instant success in Nigeria. The album earned him six Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) awards, an amazing feat for a debut album. From this album, he earned the moniker The Rainmaker for his hit song “Send Down the Rain.”

Fashek’s music style is often compared to the reggae pioneer Bob Marley. This similarity catapulted him to the forefront of the African music industry, which was dominated by indigenous African music genres like jùjú. He passed away peacefully in his sleep in 2020, ending his three-decade career.

8. Yvonne Chaka Chaka

South African Yvonne Chak Chaka is one of the most famous singer-songwriters in Africa and globally. Dubbed the Princess of Africa, Chaka Chaka is known for her hit songs “Umqombothi” (African Beer) and “I Cry for Freedom,” among many others.

Her profound impact on the African music scene has led her to perform for some of the most powerful names in the world, including Queen Elizabeth II and US President Bill Clinton.

More than a music artist, Chaka Chaka is also a humanitarian and an accomplished teacher. She has been a fervent advocate for various causes, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. She is also a part-time Literacy teacher at the University of South Africa.

To this day, Chaka Chaka continues to wow audiences with her powerful performances and passionate message of social justice and human rights. 

9. Oumou Sangaré

Grammy-award-winning Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré is a native of Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. Sangaré had a rough start in life, often singing in the streets to help her family get by. This, however, paved the way for her later career. 

At only 16, she joined Djoliba, a percussion ensemble, and together, they toured all over the world. In 1990, Sangaré debuted her solo career, and her first album, Moussolou, was a commercial success. Fellow Malian singer Ali Farka Touré was a huge influence on her career, and he helped her sign with World Circuit Records.

Sangaré’s music is deeply rooted in her culture, and she works hard to promote local cultural values through her songs. Nicknamed the Songbird of Wassaloulou, some of her most famous songs are “Yere faga,” “Moussolou,” and Diya gneba.”

Beyond her musical career, Sangaré is a strong advocate for women’s rights. She also serves the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as an ambassador.

10. Tabu Ley Rochereau

Rumba singer Tabu Ley Rochereau hailed from Bagata, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He first came into prominence in the mid-1950s as part of the jazz group L’African Jazz. 

He soon formed African Fiesta National and, later, L’Orchestre Afrisa International, one of Africa’s most successful music groups. Born Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu, it was around this time that he started going by the stage name Rochereau. A few years later, he adopted the name Tabu Ley.

Dubbed the African Elvis due to his powerful stage presence and vocal delivery, he pioneered a style of African rumba known as soukous. Despite being in a group for most of his career, he is known as one of the best vocalists and songwriters in Africa.

Throughout his five-decade career, he produced 250 albums and a staggering 3,000 songs. Together with his group, they produced hit songs enriched with Rochereau’s vocals, such as “Yola,” “Mundi,” and “Londende.”

11. M’bilia Bel

Another singer hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we have M’bilia Bel, who rose to fame in the 1980s. In her teenage years, she performed alongside Abeti Masikini as her backup singer.

Not soon after, she was discovered by African rumba pioneer Tabu Ley Rochereau. He took her under his wing as one of the vocalists for L’Orchestre Afrisa International. 

With Rochereuau’s influence and his compositions, Bel swiftly rose to prominence and became known as the Queen of Rhumba. Her hits “Mobali na ngai wana,”  “Balle a terre,” and “Bafosami” dominated the African music charts during her early career.

In 1988, she left Rochereau’s and debuted her solo career. She collaborated with soukous guitarist Rigo Star Bamundele for her first album, Phénomène, which became a commercial success. She continues to perform and release music up to this day.

12. Youssou N’Dour

Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’Dour has been considered one of the most famous singers in Senegal and Africa since the 1970s. He began his career during his teenage years as part of several bands. 

N’Dour’s breakthrough on the international stage came in the 1980s when he collaborated with Peter Gabriel on the hit song “In Your Eyes” as backing vocals. This opened doors for him to perform and collaborate with numerous other renowned artists from around the world.

N’Dour’s music is often characterized by its powerful vocals, meaningful lyrics, and a vibrant blend of genres such as mbalax (a Senegalese rhythm), reggae, and traditional African music. Among his hit songs include “Mame Bamba” “7 Seconds,” and “Chimes of Freedom.”

N’Dour’s influence goes far beyond his music. He served as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador and has been involved in politics and humanitarian efforts in Senegal, including being the country’s Minister of Tourism and Culture. 

13. Fally Ipupa

Growing up, Congolese singer Fally Ipupa was exposed to the vibrant music scene of Kinshasa. He was deeply influenced by the sounds of Congolese rumba, which laid the foundation for his musical journey as the Prince of Rumba.

He first gained local recognition when he joined the rumba band Talent Latent in 1997. Two years later, he joined Congolese musician Koffi Olomidé’s orchestra, Quartier Latin International. During his stint, he was also working on his solo projects, releasing studio albums such as Droit Chemin and Power. 

It was in the late 2000s that Ipupa gained traction in the international crowd, holding concerts in Germany and France, among others. His songs “Kiname” and “Bad Boy” were especially popular, winning him several awards and nominations.

Ipupa also has a heart of gold: he established a non-profit organization, Fally Ipupa Foundation, to help the less fortunate. He is also a UNICEF National Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

14. Thomas Mapfumo

Zimbabwean singer Thomas Mapfumo holds the distinction of pioneering the Chimurenga genre. This style of music blends traditional Shona rhythms and melodies with politically charged lyrics, earning him the title The Lion of Zimbabwe for being the people’s voice.

One of Mapfumo’s most famous albums, Hokoyo!, featured the hit song “Disaster,” which criticized the state of affairs in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe’s mishandling of the economy. His music served as a call to action, encouraging people to be aware of their rights and to stand up for justice.

However, his outspoken stance against the Mugabe regime led to significant challenges in his life. Mapfumo went into exile in the United States in the early 2000s, fearing persecution due to his critical lyrics. 

After a two-decade hiatus, Mapfuno returned to Zimbabwe to perform. He continues to record new music up to this day, keeping the spirit of Chimurenga alive.

15. Tiken Jah Fakoly

From the Ivory Coast in West Africa, we have reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly, a prominent figure in the world of African music and activism. His music is known for its powerful messages that touch on social and political issues in Africa. 

One of Fakoly’s most popular albums, Coup de Gueule, was a powerful critique of the political situation in Ivory Coast and the larger issues of war and instability in Africa. It included songs like “Quitte le pouvoir” (Leave the Power), which became an anthem for political change.

Because of his strong stance against oppressive regimes, Fakoly went into exile in 2003 and was declared persona non grata in Senegal in 2007. Despite these, Fakoly continues to spread his message of peace and justice, and he is still considered an important voice in African music.

Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Singers From Africa

That wraps up our list of the most popular singers from Africa! From the smooth tunes of Fally Ipupa to the upbeat music of King Sunny Adé and the political undertones of Thomas Mapfuno, Africa has an incredibly rich music scene. 

Each of these singers brings something unique to the table and, in their own way, are all important voices in African music. 

Did we miss any of your favorite African singers? We’d love to hear from you, and we’ll add them in!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.