Dayme Arocena. Photo courtesy of the artist.

4 Artists Preserving Santería, Kumina & Yoruba Religion Through Their Music

Acts like Ibeyi, Daymé Arocena, Zara McFarlane and Sibusile Xaba are creating spaces for spirituality and religion in their songs.

Contemporary African music does a great job at mirroring the vibrant culture that inspires it. A cross section of its genres will mirror the dominant themes in the lives of Africans, from the infectious dance rhythms of gqom and afrobeats fertilizing the joy in celebration to the soulful meditation of desert rock or Ethio-jazz for pensive days. One aspect of current African music that's quite apparent but often minimized is the space it has created for spirituality and religion.

Over the past few years, artists such as Ibeyi, Daymé Arocena, Sibusile Xaba, Zara McFarlane and many others have etched a major conduit for the flow or spiritual energy through contemporary and popular music. They define their work by various religious and spiritual practices such as Yoruba, Kumina and Santeria. Music is one of the few ways through which you learn about indigenous African traditions as the intricacies of these doctrines are largely overshadowed and eroded by the rapid growth of Islam and Christianity. But what are the ways in which these musicians are instrumentalizing their spirituality and how is it preserving the culture?

Zara McFarlane

British-Jamaican jazz and soul singer Zara McFarlane exhibits a unique use of the inherent spirituality of African music by using the tradition for Kumina to map her heritage from Congo to the Caribbean to the Britain. On her album Arise, released last year, she used the tradition of song and dance that is Kumina as a star system on which to trace her narrative and embodied experiences. Kumina, which originated in the Congo and is still practiced there, was transplanted by the enslaved to the Caribbean islands and finally to Europe.

The listener follows Zara Macfarlane as she fuses jazz, blues and soul sounds with Kumina as a base. She mimics the various mutations that transformed hollow drums and drum chants, finally manifested as a soulful sound in modern music. In a search for her heritage, the album also becomes a metaphor of the mutations the enslaved had to go through as they were transplanted from one place to another, against their will.

Sibusile Xaba

Sibusile Xaba, South African vocalist and guitarist also taps into a cosmic power to create his music. His edge, however is that he takes a more personal approach by using his hypnotic voice and minimal sound to create a dreamscape in which he reflects on the connectedness of life. On his double disc album released last year. "Open Letter To Adoniah" and "Unlearning," listeners are cajoled to walk along this sacred path of song by following the Zulu vocals of a man contemplating life. For Sibusile Xaba, his music is a very personal practice of his spirituality.


For Ibeyi, on their eponymous debut album, paying homage to the Yoruba pantheon and their heritage was the critical instrument for their meteoric rise in the alternative pop scene. The young Afro-Cuban twin sisters used various interpretations of the sonic architect of Yoruba worship songs and invocation to express their own themes of love, loss and estrangement. Aside from singing in Yoruba, the duo also uses the Bata drum in composing, an instrument whose use is steeped in various Yoruba and Santeria ceremonies. On the serenading, yet haunting cut "River," the pair seem to visually portray the healing power of Oshun, deity of the river and fresh water as they eulogize her in the Yoruba phrases nestled at different spots on the song. By engineering their sonic and visual identities around these Yoruba deities, Ibeyi draw attention to a transplanted culture that nourishes their art.

Daymé Arocena

Similarly, Afro-Cuban jazz singer Daymé Arocena also centres the religious aspect of her heritage in her music. Her Santeria faith is paramount in her art and apparent in her appearance, as she is always clad in heavenly white when performing. Unlike Ibeyi, who mainly borrow aesthetics, Dayme Arocena interpolates the song structures of Santeria worship structures to form the base for her Afro-Cuban jazz sound. Her songs are layered with various vocal chants and praises used in the religion, which is a hybrid of Yoruba and Roman Catholic beliefs. Her sophomore album, Cubafornia, begins with a fervent pray to Eleggua, the Orisha of roads and journey as she aims to chart a new path with her sonic fusion, as well as reintroduce the world to the Cuban sound. For Daymé Arocena therefore, the practice of her faith is the genesis of her creativity

Indeed, these artists are not the first musician to incorporate religious motifs into popular music. Many R&B; rhythmic patterns and lyrical structures evolved from gospel music. However, it's critical to highlight how music is one of the shells protecting these belief systems from vanishing as modern African society marginalizes their practices in favour of Islam and Christianity. The symbiotic relationship between artist and faith means that the artists feed of the rich pool of inspirations these practices offer to fuel their creatively whilst protecting the culture by externalising them in song.

Many African societies are inherently musical as they weaponize song and dance as a tool for lubricating their societies as well as preserving their narratives. From Ga fishermen matching the rhythm of the seas with their songs as they pull in the catch to Hausa Griots recounting centuries of history in song, this organic use of song is pivotal to the way societies are setup and ran.

It is quite clear that African artists on the continent and in the diaspora have cleared a sacred grove in popular music for traditional religious practice and belief systems. They have have found a way to broadcast the motifs and values in their culture to a worldwide audience by stitching them in the fabric of popular music.

With artists like Ibeyi introducing their relatively young fan base to the Yoruba pantheon and artist like Sibusile Xaba encouraging a more introspective approach to spirituality, the sacred groove carved out in contemporary music can only grow large as other artists across disciplines should be inspired to advance their traditions in new forms.


The Best African Memes of 2018

Laugh with us into 2019 with OkayAfrica's best African memes of 2018.

Meme culture has become a mainstay on these internet streets. It's essentially an alternate form of communicating, of commentary and of simple laughter. 2018 had its fair share of highs and lows, and young Africans continue to utilize memes to celebrate or to cope with the nonsense.

To reflect on the African memes that broke the internet this year, we tapped contributors and African meme tastemakers to list the best African memes of 2018.

Laugh away below.

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The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.


J Hus Has Been Sentenced to Eight Months in Jail for Knife Possession

The rapper has been convicted following an arrest in June.

Gambian-Biritish grime rapper J Hus has been sentenced to eight months in prison for knife possesion, reports BBC News.

The artist, neé Momodou Jallow, was arrested in Stratford London in June when police pulled him over near a shopping center, claming that they smelled cannabis. Police officers asked Hus if he was carrying anything illegal, to which the rapper admitted that he had a 10cm folding knife in his possession. When asked why, he responded: "You know, it's Westfield."

Hus pleaded guilty at a hearing in October after initially pleading not guilty.

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