meta-scriptMeet KOKOKO! The DIY Electronic Group Channeling The Chaos & Resilience Of Kinshasa | GRAMMY.com
KOKOKO! press photo
KOKOKO!

Photo: Sven de Almeida

interview

Meet KOKOKO! The DIY Electronic Group Channeling The Chaos & Resilience Of Kinshasa

The exciting live electronic act out of the Congo discusses their fiery, pulsing, sophomore album, 'BUTU,' the manic sound of Kinshasa, and using improvisation to keep their performances energized.

GRAMMYs/Jul 10, 2024 - 03:00 pm

No one else sounds like KOKOKO! —  they are a truly unique aural experience, an emphatic statement that does justice to the exclamation point in their name.

The experimental live electronic group out of Kinshasa — the active, populous capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo — is a reflection of their city. Their shouted and chanted lyrics reflect people's frustration with their government, as well as the sonic signals of industrious local vendors. Even their DIY instruments are an example of their resourcefulness: Although DRC is a resource-rich country, that wealth has been extracted by and for Western powers for centuries. Locals are left with limited resources and experience regular power outages and intense, ongoing conflict.

KOKOKO! was born after French electronic producer Xavier Thomas — who makes left-field, globally-influenced electronic music as Débruit — met talented local singer and musician Makara Bianko on a visit to Kinshasa. He was captivated by Bianko's large, nearly daily outdoor performances with his massive dance crew. The group, which also consists of locals Boms and Dido who fashion DIY instruments, incorporate much of Makara's improvisational and interdisciplinary energy into their music and energetic live show, while Thomas brings in synths, drum machines and other electronic elements.

After releasing their powerful debut album Fongola in 2019 on indie label Transgressive Records, KOKOKO! started getting booked at music festivals around the globe, as well as on NPR's Tiny Desk series and Boiler Room. Now, the cutting-edge group is pumping up the BPM and bringing the lively Kinshasa nighttime to the rest of the world via their urgent, high-energy sophomore album, BUTU, on July 5 on Transgressive.

Read on for a chat with Thomas and Bianko about their captivating new album, the music scene in the Congo, how their music reflects Kinshasa, and much more. (Editor's note: Bianko's answers are translated and paraphrased from French by Thomas.)

What energies, sounds and themes are you harnessing on 'BUTU?'

Xavier Thomas: "Butu" means night in Lingala [one of the national languages of the DRC]. The album is all about that high energy, specific atmosphere that happens when the night falls in Kinshasa.  

It's a very loud and crowded city. It gets pitch-black quite quickly because it's on the Equator. The sun sets really fast all year long. The sounds of the city kind of wake up [at night]; the generators are plugged in and the club music and evangelical church music [start] competing. All the inspirations are from all these sounds and everything that happens in the night in Kinshasa. 

The band plays a lot of DIY instruments; what instruments are on this album and can you point to their specific sounds? 

Xavier Thomas: There're the go-to things and then there's the found objects or the ones you can build. Simple things that are kind of ready-made, like detergent bottles — you can play it with a stick with a little bit of rubber, and it kind of makes bongo sounds with a slight natural overdrive.  

And you can also build your own string instruments with what you found on the street. For example, there's plastic chairs that have metal feet, and you can do a kind of metallophone with; if you chop the tubes, you will get different pitches, etcetera. You can find something in a mechanic shop that sounds really good straight away when you hit it; metallic percussion. So that's all the different DIY instruments or found percussion that you can make or work with. 

Was it mostly the same instruments as the first album, or were there some different things you were incorporating as well? 

Xavier Thomas: There are different things. Also, on this one, we use a little bit more of electronics, as it's a bit more upbeat and influenced by the club and the small music production studios of Kinshasa. 

There are also some field recordings. For example, on some tracks, there's horns from moto taxis that we pitched and made melodies with. But yeah, it's roughly the same instruments. 

The term DIY is often attached to the band. Of course, you just talked about the instruments, but I was also curious what DIY and improvisation looks like in your music-making process and performances. 

Xavier Thomas: It was an all-over DIY thing when we started. I used to make a lot of the videos. We [still] work with a small team, so we always have problems getting visas. We're doing a bit of everything just to keep going forward and traveling and to get our music everywhere. So, the DIY is not just the music, it's [all very] hands-on. Even on stage, we don't turn up with a big team, it's pretty much us at the moment. 

The DIY aspect came out of necessity for the music and instrument creators, of not being able to afford to buy or rent an instrument. So it started like that, trying to make a one- or two-string guitar, a two-string bass, and a drum set. And then it went beyond that, realizing we can find original and new sounds if we're not copying existing instruments. 

When I met Makara, he was doing five-hour public rehearsals six times a week on his own with 40 or 50 dancers. He had to work out all the technical problems with power cuts and amplifiers exploding. Makara still has that energy, even when we're sound checking. A lot of that DIY intuition is still coming in. 

The recording process has to be DIY because you're recording in outside music studios in little compounds or in difficult neighborhoods of Kinshasa, so there's a lot of sounds in the background. You just grab the moment where the energy, the music, the inspiration feels right. That's another DIY part of the project, it's pretty much recorded outside of recording studios for the most part. 

How does that also speak to access to instruments, internet and music studios for music-making in the DRC more broadly? 

Xavier Thomas: Well, there's some big artists in the Congo that have a lot of money and travel to play even in the U.S. and France. A few artists have everything they want and they're very famous and wealthy. But most of the studios I've seen are a tiny room in the corner of a compound, yet people are doing the most impressive productions and recordings with very little, whether it's electronic or live music. It's very resourceful and sometimes you don't hear it, you could not imagine it would be coming from such a small studio. 

I wish I could ask about every song on the album, because it feels like there's so much energy and context in each one. Can you tell me about the opening track, "Butu Ezo Ya" — the energy starts out so strong. Is there a message behind that song? 

Xavier Thomas: The first track is kind of an invitation. It's saying the night's coming, be ready. We have all the sounds that we grabbed in the streets. That's the track where the horns of the motorbikes are pitched and turned into melodies. It's an invocation, an invitation, to the listener to step in the Kinshasa night because it's really something.  

We wanted the opening track to be a little bit overstimulating, which is the impression you have the first time you step into the night in Kinshasa. So that's the idea, to [channel the] overwhelming street sounds that suddenly from chaos become organized and become the opener of the album to invite you to the more organized music after. [Chuckles.] 

Makara Bianko: I'm inviting people to step into the night, step into the album.

The album's next track, "Bazo Banga," is really captivating as well.

Xavier Thomas: "Bazo Banga" means they are scared. Sometimes people chant it when they're protesting. It can also be used in sport events about the other teams. There's a lot of frustrations in Congo; the population is a bit abandoned by the government. Sometimes there are political things that can't be said or expressed because it's a bit dangerous. So, in this track — Makara has explained the lyrics to me before — it's a way to regain a bit of control by trying to impress the other side. 

Makara Bianko: There's another angle mentioned at the end of the track: We're bringing so many new sounds that their hips are not going to hold. They are scared they are out of date, that they will not be matching our energy or be able to move because we're going too fast. During the track, I'm quoting a lot of images of why they could be scared. 

Xavier Thomas: In Kinshasa, our sound is still very different. At the beginning, with all the music, art performers, people who do body performance as well, who gravitate around our music and are sometimes part of the videos; [other] people thought we were all so crazy. The music didn't fit any standards there, even though Makara has a lot of influences, more when he was younger, in more standard music like Congolese rumba or ndombolo. I think people can still be a bit scared of our style and our energy, the people we work with, it's a bit different. 

In what ways is your music incorporating — as well as radically shifting — traditional and popular Congolese music? 

Makara Bianko: Growing up in Kinshasa, there's a lot of Congolese rumba and nbombolo. I'm also influenced by [Congolese] folk music, really old rhythms and chants. Congo is so big that this has just been mixed in our music, but we are presenting it like it's a new recipe. It doesn't taste like what you're used to even though the ingredients are there. There's also influences [in our music] from outside countries like Angola or South Africa. 

Xavier Thomas: What struck me the most when I first met Makara at this concert — from my Occidental angle — he has a very punk energy. Even though people aren't listening to punk music in Kinshasa, Makara would stick his mic in the speakers and play with feedback, and he has a very powerful voice and sometimes a very threatening singing tone. It was not influenced from punk; it was his own energy, his own frustration. 

I think music helps express the frustration a lot of people have in Congo, and people see that in him, through his anger and when he talks about things people encounter on the street that they can relate to. So yeah, some of the old folk music is there as influences, but it's very important to him to not do the same thing that a lot of artists have done for the last 40 years and to bring something new. 

What's going on in Kinshasa and the DRC in terms of electronic music? Are there other DIY electronic acts coming up?  

Xavier Thomas: There's a lot of electronic music now, I think the big scenes are in South Africa or Nigeria for big pop electronic music. Congo used to influence a lot of West Africa and Central Africa and now Nigeria and South Africa have quite strong industries, so sometimes there's a bit of that influence.  

With more Congolese rhythms for electronic music, you can have the whole range from very pop to very alternative. In the neighborhood where we started, there's a few more bands coming up now with DIY instruments who play a bit more like folk music from the Equator region in the north of the country. In Europe, I've noticed three bands since we started that now work with more DIY instruments. There's a music producer, P2N, from the southeast of Congo who makes repetitive electronic music in a kind of hypnotic, dance way. 

The band has been touring quite a bit since the first album. Locally, are you an active part of a scene, or is it more like you're doing something different there and bringing that around the world? 

 Xavier Thomas: We're still quite unique in Kinshasa, and if we play there it would be more of a block party. Makara has a lot of dancers in his crew, and dancers would join from the youngest at the beginning [of the show] to the more experienced, bridging between classic Congolese dance and more contemporary dance. There's a lot of theater in the dance as well.  

When we play there, it's still alternative. Once in a while we might play a bigger stage, but we play out [of the country] way more in front of way more people. We try not to play too often [here]. It's a huge city, so it can be tricky with the power cuts and everything. It's more of the art scene and people from the performance art school and dancers who gather if we do an event in Kinshasa, it's not huge crowds. 

You've performed on some pretty big platforms, as well as at global music festivals. What goes into your energetic live performance; is there improvisation? 

Xavier Thomas: It's key that we are still incredibly passionate, and we feel the music and leave a lot of space for improvisation. Then we can surprise each other, even during a gig. One track can be one length or double the next time, depending on the feeling, the crowd, the sound system and the time we play. 

Usually, people end up really moving, sometimes without realizing. We don't spare any energy. You end up drenched in sweat. I think because our excitement is real, the music is not over-rehearsed. We're still always excited at every show. I think people can feel that it's not staged. There can be unexpected things happening, which keeps us energetic, motivated and surprised on stage. 

How does the band usually feel after a performance? Is it a cathartic experience? 

Xavier Thomas: Well, we have our kind of ceremonial thing. We usually talk together at the beginning; we gather and stick our heads together, and we say where we are and what we want to achieve. At the end of the concert, the whole hour or so feels like it's passed by really quick, and you're still left with that rhythm or energy, even though you might be super tired, sometimes traveling and playing every day. Sometimes we have more energy at the end. At the beginning, we feel tired, and then the energy really comes in, and we feel super energized and super sharp and really awake at the end. It's good for us. 

What does Kinshasa sound like to you? 

Xavier Thomas: For Makara and I, to explain to somebody who's never been to Kinshasa, it's a very sonic city. I've never seen [anything like it]. It's so crowded; I think it's 15 million or 18 million people now. [Editor's note: 17 million is the latest estimate.] Everybody lives on the ground floor. There aren't too many high buildings, so the density of people is very high. For this reason, it's visually a bit crowded and overwhelming with people, cars, colors and everything.  

Therefore, to be noticed or stand out, everybody needs to have their own little signal or jingle. You can tell who's around you with eyes closed. A nail polish vendor would just bang two little glass polish bottles; that sound carries far away and they have their rhythm. People who sell SIM cards have a loop on their megaphone. 

Sound is how to be noticed; how to sell yourself, what's your role, what's your identity. That's obviously, without talking about music and sound systems. Churches have their own huge sound systems and they can clash with the club in front. Also something very typical in Kinshasa; it goes to the fullest, to the max, everything is used at its highest potential. The sound is pushed in overdrive and distorted because you want to be louder than the next person. It's all these little sound signals that can tell exactly who's around you or sometimes where you are as well. For me, that's the sound, plus the traffic. 

Wow. It must be so different going somewhere more remote, or just where it's quieter. It must feel almost like something's wrong. 

Xavier Thomas: There's not many moments with silence because at night the city is still alive. People like to go out. You can have a church next to you with a full live band and a huge PA sound system at 3 a.m. Quiet moments are rare.  

Makara: It's hard to deal with silence. I don't feel comfortable in silence because I've never really experienced it. 

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Tekno press photo
Tekno

Photo: Emmanuel Oyeleke

interview

Tekno Talks New Music, Touring America & His "Elden Ring" Obsession

Ahead of his Back Outside tour, which hits the U.S. June 22, Nigerian artist Tekno details the origins of his name and sound, as well as his predictions for the future of African music on a global stage.

GRAMMYs/Jun 26, 2024 - 01:37 pm

It takes a lot of guts to declare yourself the "King of Afro-pop," but Tekno has the hits to back it up. 

The Nigerian artist is a staple of the country’s Afrobeats scene, responsible for massive hits such as "Pana" (over 66 million Spotify streams). He’s collaborated with massive artists across the world, starting in 2012 when he enlisted Davido for his breakout single "Holiday." He’s also entered the studio with the likes of Drake and Swae Lee, and Billie Eilish is a professed fan.  

Despite this, Tekno hasn’t quite reached the levels of fame that colleagues WizKid and Burna Boy have stateside, but that may be about to change. He’s touring extensively across the U.S. this summer as part of his Back Outside Tour, supporting his 2023 album The More The Better. Tekno also recently inaugurated a label partnership with Mr. Eazi-owned emPawa Africa, defecting from SoundCloud.  

The video for his latest single, "Wayo," features the artist as a cab driver going through relationship problems. It's a perfect example of Tekno’s classic pan-African pop, with romantic lyrics and a sweetly melodic sound.  

GRAMMY.com caught up with Tekno ahead of his tour, which kicks off June 22 in Columbus, Ohio, to chat about his new music, career goals, and a surprising video game obsession.

You recently released a new single. Tell us a little bit about "Wayo?"

"Wayo" is basically me just tapping into my roots sound, the original pan-African Tekno sound. Our music has morphed and just grown into so many different sounds over the years. And it's very easy to forget that this sound existed before all this music that's playing right now. So I had to deep dive into that. That's basically how I describe "Wayo," I call it a basic Tekno love song. Like it's basically how I started really.  

I don’t know if you’re aware that there’s an entire genre of music called "Techno?"  

Yes, yes, it’s close to house music.  

They’re pretty close. Actually, techno music was invented here in America by Black musicians in Detroit.  

Oh, wow. Yeah, people don’t really listen to the techno genre out here yet. They prefer more melodic and groovy music. 

So in that case, I did want to ask you about your artist name. Because if people don’t really listen to techno music in Africa, where did your name come from?  

I was much younger, and I was looking for a name while I was in church. I’m a Christian, so I was looking for a name that had some form of Christianity to it, even though I knew I wanted to be a secular artist. And then I found this name, "tekno," and it's Hebrew, it means something like "God's people" or "God's word." It's spelt a little bit differently, I can't really remember. But I just liked the meaning of it, and the name stuck with me. And that's how I started calling myself "Tekno."  

You've declared yourself the "King of Afro-Pop." Why do you consider yourself to be the king of Afro-pop, and why that instead of the King of Afrobeats or another label like that? 

It's more of a personal thing in a way. My favorite artist of all time, forever, will always be Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson is the King of Pop. So when I named myself the "King of Afro-Pop," it’s because I like Michael Jackson, but it's also because I'm the king of Afro-f—ing-pop. So the name just kind of has a good ring to it.

I want to talk a little bit about partnering with Mr. Eazi; why did you decide to join EmPawa? What do you think the partnership holds for your future, and for the future of music in Africa? 

I just love making music so much, that's the goal for me. And I've gone from camp to camp, level to level, and after a while it just starts to wear on you. I don't want to just keep moving from Triple MG to Universal to SoundCloud; I want my own thing that’s a little more permanent. And Eazi is not just my friend, he's my brother. We've been talking about this for years, about doing business together.  

There are reasons why it made so much sense for us to come together, but I don't want to share everything. But I like being a priority. If I'm on SoundCloud, I don't want to be on a list of 27 artists where I'm maybe number 18 and my music doesn't get the focus it needs. Like, say I put out a song, and everyone on SoundCloud has gone on holiday. And I'm not aware because I'm Nigerian, I don't know that this day or that day is a holiday in the States. But working with a brother and a team that is home, where we know the system and we understand the culture, it's just way, way better. Because we know ourselves, we know our culture. So working with a brother that has this amazing setup at EmPawa, it just made so much sense.  

Read more: Mr. Eazi’s Gallery: How The Afrobeats Star Brought His Long-Awaited Album To Life With African Art 

You've collaborated with some American artists before, and Billie Eilish said she is a big fan of yours. Is there anyone in the U.S.-UK ecosystem that you would consider a dream collaboration? 

I’d definitely love to work with Billie Eilish. 100 percent. But Drake would always be my favorite collaboration, just because we've been in the studio together. We've talked about it. You know, if I start something I want to see it finished.  

He's just an inspiration to the business. Drake, he makes you know that you gotta work, because as big as Drake is he works harder than everybody else. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t love to collaborate with so many other artists whose music I really love.

Are you following the beef between Drake and Kendrick at all?

That was so good, man. I didn't consider that a beef, because when I would watch boxers in the ring fight, let’s say I'm watching Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, it doesn't matter who I'm a fan of. It doesn't matter who wins, I'm entertained.

As a big fan of music, I enjoyed every Drake song and I enjoyed every single Kendrick Lamar song. But if you ask me who I prefer, I would always pick sides and choose. But was I entertained? I definitely was, for sure. 

How is working with Americans different from working with Africans?  What are the distinctions you find between the two? 

Back in Nigeria we don't work in big studios, we work at home. Like, if I want to work with Wizkid I would probably go to his house, or he would come to mine, and we would make music there. But if I'm going to work with Travis Scott, we're gonna go to the studio. If I'm working with Billie Eilish we're gonna go to the studio. 

You’re touring North America this year. Do you have any expectations, or anything you’re looking forward to?  

I'm just happy to be back outside. I went through this period where I had lost my voice in 2019. And after that happened, and I went through surgery in New York, Corona[virus] happened right after.

And in this whole period, I kind of just stayed away from how much I worked and how much I put out music in the past. I feel like I got used to not being active, so I haven't necessarily been performing for a while. That’s why this tour in the U.S. is called The Back Outside Tour.  Because for a long time I haven't been outside, I haven’t been performing, I’ve just been at home.

I like to game [and] I like to make music. I make so much music, but I feel like being home has kind of restricted the amount of music I put out. Because anytime I’m outside, I just get this feeling like I want to conquer the world, I want to do more; I want to put out more.

I want to do more than I've done in the past. So this tour for me is just getting back outside, just getting myself out there and just being on the road heavy. You get lazy if you stay home for too long; we’re habitual creatures. So now I have the mindset that I have to forcefully keep myself out there and just be outside. I'm gonna be touring for three months in the U.S. That's a long time.

You mentioned you’re a gamer. What have you been playing recently? 

Recently I've been on "GTA V"; the online is extremely good. Just because it has this plethora of radio stations where while you're gaming you can still bask in this vast playlist. And it’s just fun because you get to play with people around the world. I [also] have this Nigerian community I play with. It's like a way to just be around the people even though I'm in the house, so it's really lovely. And "Call of Duty" is a great one too. But my all time favorite I would say is "Elden Ring." I got locked into Elden Ring for like eight weeks. 

Amapiano has really become the dominant sound coming out of Africa in recent years. What do you think will be next? 

Tekno sound! They miss it! My sound is like "Game of Thrones," season one to seven. 

Not season eight. 

Not season eight. I didn’t say that, you said that! [Laughs.

Basically, I’m not saying amapiano isn’t beautiful music, I’m not saying Nigerians haven’t found a way to evolve it in a way that’s different from the South African type. The South African sound will always be the original one, and every time you record on a South African amapiano beat, you can just tell the difference in the sound. It’s their culture, they own it. 

But we [Nigerians] are extremely good at taking your sound and putting our own flavor on it. It’s still your sound, but we play with it. So I feel like it’s been two years of the same [amapiano] and after a while people are gonna want another type of song. I’m not saying Amapiano will go away all of a sudden, it’ll never go away. But people want that pan-African sound. The local rhythm. And Tekno got that.  

Learn more: 11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More

Can you go into detail? How do you describe this pan-African sound?  

These are songs that always tell a story, it’s never just random. "Wayo" is talking about, "If I invest in my love, would I get a return?" "I no come do wayo" means I'm not trying to play games. I'm serious. If I invest in this love, would I get it back? This thing we call love? Do you truly believe in it? Or you're just with me for the sake of dating somebody?  

This type of music always has a deep rooted message in the melodies; it's not just like a regular party thing. There's always a good tale behind the sweet melodies. So like, no, no matter how new school our music goes, this type of sound would always be this type of sound. You're not taking it where. It’s culture. 

The video for "Wayo" shows you driving a cab. Did you ever have to hold down a day job like that before you became a successful musician?  

Oh my god. I've been a houseboy. I catered for four little kids. They were so stubborn, man, that was the hardest thing I've done in my life. [Laughs.] That would have to be a different interview. I've worked in churches, too. I grew up from a very humble background and I'm grateful to God that I experienced that. 

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Creepy Nuts

Photo: Courtesy of Creepy Nuts

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Global Spin: Creepy Nuts Make An Impact With An Explosive Performance Of "Bling-Bang-Bang-Born"

Japanese hip-hop duo Creepy Nuts perform their viral single "Bling-Bang-Ban-Born," which also appears as the opening track from the anime "Mashle: Magic and Muscles."

GRAMMYs/May 1, 2024 - 03:39 am

On their new Jersey club-inspired single "Bling-Bang-Bang-Born," Japanese hip-hop duo Creepy Nuts narrate the inner monologue of a confident man, unbothered by others’ negativity and the everyday pressures of life.

In this episode of Global Spin, watch Creepy Nuts deliver an electrifying performance of the track, made more lively with its bright flashing lights and changing LED backdrop.

"Before I show them my true ability/ My enemies run away without capability," they declare in Japanese on the second verse. "Raising the bar makes me very happy/ ‘Cause I’m outstanding, absolutely at No.1."

"Bling-Bang-Bang-Born" was released on January 7 via Sony Music and also serves as the season two opening track for the anime "Mashle: Magic and Muscles." The song previously went viral across social media for its accompanying "BBBB Dance."

"Basically, the song is about it’s best to be yourself, like flexing naturally. Of course, even though we put effort into writing its lyrics and music, it’s still a song that can be enjoyed without worrying about such things," they said in a press statement.

Press play on the video above to watch Creepy Nuts’ energetic performance of "Bling-Bang-Bang-Born," and don’t forget to check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Global Spin.

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Elyanna
Elyanna

Photo: Courtesy of Elyanna

news

Inside Elyanna's World: How Creating 'Woledto' Allowed The Singer/Songwriter To Find A New Layer Of Herself

Elyanna's distinctive new album, 'Woledto,' combines the sounds of her Palestinian and Chilean heritage with an appetite for powerful pop songstresses.

GRAMMYs/Apr 11, 2024 - 01:34 pm

Elyanna is every bit an artist of our specific moment. The 22-year-old Los Angeles-based singer weaves together global influences, merging sounds from her personal history with a wider pop sensibility. 

With hints of Rihanna’s sultriness and Astrud Gilberto's effortless cool, Elyanna's music is often accompanied by a pulsating beat and traditional Middle Eastern instruments. 

By uniting musical traditions from the Palestinian and Chilean sides of her family, she creates songs that are at once sweetly enticing and bracing. "Al Sham," for example, opens with ethereal, floating vocals before morphing to incorporate aggressive synths and drums. The result is a growing, idiosyncratic body of work made for both crying on the dancefloor and rump-shaking. 

Paradoxical? Sure, but there are no contradictions in Elyanna’s art, only unexpected connections that make sense as soon as she starts talking about how they fit together. Of her forthcoming album, Woledto (in English, I Am Born), Elyanna explains that she and her brother/co-composer/producer Feras wanted to create music with unusual depth. "I want people to find these clues, because that’s the kind of art I like, when it’s deep and not always on the surface," she tells GRAMMY.com.

She knows Woledto is a big swing, and relishes the feeling of freedom and self-determination that comes with that kind of risk. "I really put my heart and all my emotions, everything I feel in it, and what I love about it is that I think that it's ahead of its time."  

In 2023, Elyanna notched a unique milestone as the first Arab artist to perform in Arabic at Coachella. Her subsequent debut tour sold out every date, and her next performance in the U.S. is set for April 27 at Los Angeles’ storied Wiltern Theater. The singer/songwriter takes it all in stride, with a natural self-possession; Elyanna is an energetic, curious young woman who’s as at ease on the road as she is in the living room studio she maintains at her parents’ home. 

With Woledto out April 12, Elyanna sat down with GRAMMY.com to chat about writing authentic bangers, repping every facet of her identities at Coachella and beyond, and her seamless approach to sound and vision. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Woledto is out this week – congratulations! How are you feeling about it?

I'm excited – it feels so cool! I really took my time with this one, because I was able to figure out this new layer of myself and was able to connect with my roots more than ever. 

I know that not everyone's gonna get it right away, and I believe that when you want to create art that feels timeless, you have to make sure that you don't rush it. It's fine if it takes its time. I just wanted to create something that felt outside of the world, and had its own feeling and world. 

Can you expand a bit about pouring your whole self into this album? You mentioned your feelings, your identity, and you have such an interesting, multinational identity as a Palestinian-Chilean woman who now lives in Los Angeles. How did you incorporate all of that – and other aspects of yourself – into Woledto?

I come from two different backgrounds, and it's always very natural for me to put those together; I was born and raised in Nazareth, Palestine, and I am also part Chilean, so this is my world. I love to dig deeper into culture, and find more inspirations — there's so many hidden gems in my cultures, and I feel like it's time for the world to see it and to hear about it. 

I took inspiration from my grandfather — he’s the only featured performer on this album. I saw this video of him singing in a wedding; he was a singer and a poet, and he was doing a freestyle in Arabic. I sampled that video in a song called "Sad in Pali" — me and my brother were in Palestine for a visit after a few years away, and we felt very disconnected from everything there. This album has a lot of intentional inspirations that I want people to find.

Your music videos feed into that goal, too — they’re very arty, the imagery is so distinctive. The song that leaps to mind first is "Gheneni", which opens with a male vocal — I thought maybe it was a call to worship — and then channels Rihanna in your vocal, while the visuals are a hybrid of belly dance and you and your girls all hanging out in the desert. How do you weave all of those things together into a song that means "Drive Me Crazy"?

So my studio is at home in the living room, super humble, and it’s always full of friends and family sitting around while me and my brother [Feras] are working there. 

One day my dad was watching a very dramatic Arabic show, and my brother heard this music in the back that felt so powerful, so spiritual. So my brother took that and sampled it, and that’s the vocal that opens the song. Then he made a beat that feels like tribal fusion to follow. I always say "Gheneni" is spiritual, and also reminds me of "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee, because it’s got so much swag. I’m rapping and just doing my thing on it, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions and very sassy. I love it. 

You look so free in that video, and I noticed that in most of your videos, there’s at least a few big moments of you being surrounded by other women. It’s really memorable in "Mama Eh," too. Tell me a little bit about the aesthetic and approach you use when you’re making these videos?

I really love to collab with people — I try my best, always, to be open to ideas. Usually how it starts is with my brother, we make the music and take care of the visual creativity of it. He’s my creative director, so we always keep sharing ideas together, brainstorming, and we save it all in this little folder to use whenever the time’s right. I love to always come in ready for my videos, live performances, but I never want to forget to be natural, and I don't want to be too ready, sometimes I want to be free. Sometimes all you need is just to be you, singing on camera, and that's enough. 

I love having a lot of female empowerment around me, too. I was raised that way — my mom is a very strong woman, my grandma is a very strong woman, my sister is a very strong woman, and I find so much power, if I'm feeling down, to talk to my sister and to talk to my girlfriends. So especially as an Arab woman, I want to make sure that I lift this female energy up for all the girls out there, and all the girls in the Middle East to feel that they can dream big, and they don't have to be always so soft. 

That’s really who I am, sometimes aggressive, very passionate and on fire. I feel like every human, we have a little bit of both, and I don't want to hide any of them. I want to be real and honest.

It seems like another throughline in your music is its cinematic quality. Woledto’s title track is also the album opener, and it sounds like it could as easily have been something you wrote for a film. If you could pick any film scene for your music to play over, what would it be?

I'm such a movie nerd! Right now, the film that felt so much like the world that I create in my music is Dune, Part Two or The Black Swan. There's so many scenes that I love, but it makes so much sense from what we were just talking about the different, changing parts of our personalities that I feel like the last performance where Natalie Portman had to perform as both the white swan and the black swan would be perfect for the outros of "Kon Nafsak" or "Sad in Pali." 

I understand you had a really special experience meeting Lana del Rey on one of your music videos. It makes sense that you’d love her, her work is so cinematic and she has such a recognizable style. 

Yes! Lana’s sister Chuck is an amazing director, and she shot one of my videos, for "La Vie en Rose." It’s a cover of the Edith Piaf song, and Chuck has such a beautiful vision. 

So Lana was there for the whole shoot, and she picked my dresses, and gifted them to me! She was an angel, just the coolest, and she did not disappoint. I've been listening to Lana since I was 10, and was obsessed with her. She was literally on my phone case. Meeting her and working with her and fully trusting what she says — I cried at the end, it was amazing

How great to have an experience that disproves the advice never to meet your heroes. In your cover, do you sing in French, English, or Arabic? 

It’s in Arabic, the title for my version is "Al Kawn Janni Maak." I actually co-wrote that translation with my mom and my brother; I’d always wanted to hear it in Arabic. 

That's really cool. It sounds like your work is very rooted in your family, not just having them with you at home or on tour, but they’re a big part of your music itself, too. 

It was always this way, even when I was little — I was 7 years old, 10 years old, and just dreaming of being an artist. My brother is the one who discovered my talent — he’s a pianist, and he would sit next to me for hours while I'm singing with a big mic, saying "Yo, you can do this note better." 

My mom writes my music with me, and it’s very powerful and so interesting. My sister Tali is part of it, too; she’s always been very good with fashion and is my stylist. We’d always be doing fashion shoots in our backyard, where my sister would dress me and my brother would take the pictures. I don't think anything’s changed since then, it’s just on another level, a bigger scale. We complete each other. 

Let’s talk about your influences and how you find your way to them. You’ve got this great playlist on Spotify that includes such a diverse group of artists, including ones that were delightful surprises: Pink Floyd, Nancy Sinatra, Chris Isaac, and Sadé. How do you discover artists who have a long history but are new to you?

I grew up listening to and singing jazz, I used to be obsessed with it. And it was very rare in Nazareth, but I must have found videos on YouTube. Etta James’ songs feel so real and timeless. There’s a lot of live instruments, it’s very detailed and very raw. It’s so beautiful! The lyrics, the production, even the fashion —it’s a world that I just really, really love.

I am very open when it comes to music. The best thing is to have conversations with people and meet new people, they bring you so much knowledge that you can bring into your own world. 

Speaking of sharing worlds, you did that on a massive scale by playing at Coachella last year. You’re the first Arab artist to perform in Arabic at that festival, and it’s kind of shocking that it took so long for that milestone to happen. What does that experience mean to you?

I like to look at the bigger picture; you know, it was very exciting, and it's not only for me, it's for our culture, for our people. It was an honor singing at an iconic festival, and I do not want to be the last person that performs there in Arabic. 

It was a moment that I feel like we needed for our culture, and I was surprised by how many people saw that performance — I didn’t expect it, so many people were there from completely different cultures, probably not knowing what I was saying, but they still loved it. 

That mirrors your interest in and embrace of always experiencing and looking for something new, giving that to the audience, too. 

Exactly. It was new to me, too, because Coachella was really my first real performance. I'm there thinking that's a lot of responsibility on me now, so I have to make it work, to make it the best I can. I was able to bring the belly dancing, the tribal fusion dancing, all these elements that we have in our culture, like the coins on my hips — it means a lot to me that people took it in like that. 

Empress Of Is Here 'For Your Consideration': How Heartbreak, Horniness & Self-Acceptance Led To An Actualized Album

A collage photo of African women rappers (Clockwise from top-left): Femi One, Deto Black, Nadfiav Nakai, Candy Bleakz, Rosa Ree, Sho Madjozi
(Clockwise from top-left): Femi One, Deto Black, Nadfiav Nakai, Candy Bleakz, Rosa Ree, Sho Madjozi

Photos: Kaka Empire Music Label; Dave Benett/Getty Images for Dion Lee x htown; Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images; Slevin Salau; Asam Visuals; Harold Feng/Getty Images

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10 Women In African Hip-Hop You Should Know: SGaWD, Nadai Nakai, Sho Madjozi & More

Women have been a part of African hip-hop since its onset, contributing to the genre’s foundation and evolution. These 10 female African rappers bring unique perspectives to hip-hop coming from Nigeria, Ghana and across the continent.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:26 pm

African music has become increasingly mainstream, with Afrobeats gaining global popularity in recent years. As Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid, and Tems have become household names, and the Recording Academy presented the inaugural Best African Music Performance award in 2024, all eyes are on Africa.

Hip-hop is a crucial thread running through Afrobeats, which also mixes traditional African rhythms with pop and dancehall. Hip-hop landed in Africa between the 1980s and 1990s, first in Senegal in 1985 and in South Africa the following decade. Over time, African hip-hop advanced from imitating American styles, to a focus on artists incorporating their own cultural experiences, languages, and social commentary.

The result was a distinctly African sound, present across the continent from West to East Africa. In Nigeria, the rap scene is almost mainstream with artists like Olamide earning a GRAMMY nomination for Best African Music Performance for his hit song with Asake; Tanzania has gained enormous respect on the international rap scene for its own "Bongo Flava." 

Women have been a part of African hip-hop since its onset, contributing to the genre’s foundation. Nazizi Hirji is known as the "First Lady of Kenyan Rap" for becoming the first successful female artist in her country at age 16. Mariam of the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam created a distinctive sound by fusing elements of hip-hop and traditional Malian music. 

Africa's hip-hop community is ever-evolving, and women are at the forefront. The following 10 African women rappers are bringing their unique voices, experiences and sounds to the scene.

Explore The Sounds Of Africa

SGaWD

After leaving her career as a lawyer to pursue music, the Nigerian rapper SGaWD is beginning to make her mark on the scene. Fusing elements of hip-hop and Nigerian alté, SGaWD creates a sound without restrictions. 

She released her debut EP, Savage Bitch Juice, in 2021 and collaborated with fellow Nigerian artist Somadina on flirty lead single "Pop S—." In the second single "Rude," SGaWD detailed the nuances of her romantic and sexual experiences with men. She followed this with a slew of singles, including "INTERMISSION " and "Dump All Your Worries On The Dance Floor."

Her summer anthem "Boy Toy" is a sexy and melodic blend of rap and R&B. Her comfort with sexuality goes beyond lyricism; the music video for "Boy Toy" shows her comfort and embrace of sexuality via wardrobe choices and choreography.

But it's not all sex; SGaWD is dedicated to organizing her community. In December 2023, she organized The Aquarium, a sonic experience that included performances from herself and other female rappers.

Lifesize Teddy

Mavins Records is known for producing back-to-back breakout stars — from Rema to Arya Starr — and fans now expect a new artist from them annually. When Lifesize Teddy was introduced to the scene, rapping as her alter ego PoisonBaby, she got deep. Her intro video dissected her relationship with her inner child and explored her roots in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. 

After spending three years of artist development in the Mavin Records Academy, she started her music career, by releasing two EPs in the span of four months in 2023. Her self-titled debut EP was led by the single "Hypnotic," a flirty song of sexual freedom that merges hip-hop and Afrobeats. Her second EP, POISN, featured five songs with one featuring her fellow Mavins Records artist, Magixx.

She ended last year headlining different shows in Lagos’ Detty December and is a special guest on Ayra Starr World Tour. 

Eno Barony

Ghanaian rapper Eno Barony's name reflects her aura and essence: "Eno" is Twi for mother, and quite fittingly she is referred to as "The Mother of Rap" in Ghana. Raised by missionary parents, she uses her music to spread the message that women should not be silenced. 

She has been releasing music for over a decade, with singles "Tonga," "Megye Wo Boy", "The Best," "Touch the Body," and "Do Something" gaining mainstream attention on the continent. Eno Barony released her first album in 2020 and, the following year became the first female rapper to win Best Rapper at the Ghana Music Awards. 

Her most recent album, Ladies First, captures the nuances and complexity of being a woman in Ghana and serves as a form of resistance to patriarchy. Opening track "God Is a Woman," featuring Ghanaian singer/songwriter Efya, establishes the tone: Eno is "entering every lane" even though "it’s a man’s world and she entered without a passport". 

Eno Barony continually pours vulnerability into her music. On these lead singles; "Heavy Load" and  "Don’t Judge Me" she raps about accepting her body image and addresses the culture of unconstructive criticism in the music industry, respectively. Last month, she released a new single "Good Enough," a romantic and reflective tune.

Nadai Nakai

Hailing from both Zimbabwe and South Africa, Nadai Nakai has been a fixture in the African rap scene for over a decade. She was the first female rapper to win the Mixtape 101 competition on the hip-hop show, "Shiz Niz."   

A mentee of pioneering Kenyan hip-hop artist Nazizi, Nakai released her first single "Like Me" under Sid Records in September 2013. The rightfully braggadocious song detailed her many talents and skills, wrapped in clever lyricism. She continued to release a slew of singles, including "Naaa Meaan" (a collaboration with Casper Nyovest, a South African male rapper), which garnered over 1 million views. Her debut album, Nadai Naked, was an ode to women making liberating choices. 

Her hip-hop and R&B-inspired songs highlight her values of female free expression and strength. Her most recent single, "Back In," announced Nakai's return to the industry after grieving the death of her boyfriend, AKA. She plans to release a tribute EP dedicated to AKA.

Deela

Deela saw a hole in the Nigerian music industry that needed to be filled. Where were the women who talked and behaved like her, with brazen confidence and an unfiltered sense of expression? 

She started making music during the pandemic lockdown, releasing singles such as the raging "Bitch Boi" and trap track "Rolling Stones." Both tracks later appeared on her debut album, Done Deel. Deela's most popular single, "Get A Grip," shows the rapper is demanding autonomy while owning her promiscuity and single life.

Deela's experimental sound includes ventures into trap, drill and more. Her 2023 album Is This On? showcased this range via UK rap-inspired "Trapstar" and straight-up hip-hop track "Take That Up" featuring Flo Milli.

She hit the ground running in 2024, releasing a collaboration with Somadina titled "Lagos" and a love-themed EP, Love Is Wicked

Deto Black

Lagos-based rapper Deto Black is an artistic polymath who dabbles in modeling, acting and photography. Her music spans hip-hop, Afrobeats, rap, pop and rock, and is becoming known in the alté scene following her collaboration with Odunsi the Engine, Amaarae and Gigi Atlantis on "Body Count." Deto’s verse on the 2020 track is  sex-positive, and encourages listeners to follow her example. 

Deto released her debut EP, Yung Everything, in 2021 and followed with singles "Nu Bag" and "Just Like Deto." At the start of 2024, she released "It’s A No From Me" featuring Chi; its music video was directed by notable alté artist Cruel Santino.

Rosa Ree

Tanzanian rapper Rosa Ree addresses the nuances of womanhood in male-dominated spaces. She entered the scene in 2016 with the goal of proving her naysayers wrong, releasing the aggressive "One Time" to dispel any notions that a woman couldn't exist in hip-hop.

In her 2022 single "I’m Not Sorry," Rosa Ree dismisses criticism and asserts that she won’t be sorry for showing her true image or voice. She also explores the unique bond between mother and child in 2023's "Mama Omollo," further showcasing the multifaceted identities of women in music.

Rosa Ree's 2024 single "In Too Deep" further showcased her introspective side by exploring themes of emotional hurt, betrayal and disappointment.

Candy Bleakz

Nigerian rapper Candy Bleakz fuses Afrobeats, amapiano and hip-hop, with heavy emphasis on street music. She started making music in 2019 and quickly began developing a community. Candy Bleakz collaborated with Zlatan and Naira Marley on "Owo Osu." 

Her resume now includes hits like "Baba Nla," "Kelegbe," "Virus", and "Kope." Her single "Won La" was even featured on the American TV series "Flatbush Misdemeanors." The most amazing thing about Candy Bleakz, though, is her courage to question the established quo and push for female representation in the infamously male-dominated street music scene.

She released her debut EP, Fire, in 2022 and raps proudly about her life and talent. On its breakout single, "Tikuku," she addresses her haters head-on. This song has garnered over 300,000 posts on TikTok going as far as eliciting a challenge in the Nigerian section of TikTok.

Candy Bleakz's second EP, Better Days, was released on March 22 and featured lead single "Para," a rap song featuring African drums, strings and chords. 

Femi One

At just 26 years old, Femi One is a renowned  Kenyan rapper and songwriter. Most of her songs are in Swahili and Sheng — a unique offering as many African rappers perform in a more universal language. 

Over the past five years, Femi One has released back-to-back singles, culminating in her 2019 debut EP XXV. " Two years later, her debut album, Greatness, further detailed her wild style and personality. Tracks like "Balance" are jam-packed with witty wordplay and hidden allusions. She also taps into her gospel roots on Greatness, thanking God for her career on "Adonai."

Her latest single, "B.A," is a pure Afrobeats song that invites listeners to lose themselves in the music and positive energy by throwing open the virtual club doors. 

Sho Madjozi

This South African rapper is known for her bold aesthetic, from her rainbow-coloured hair to her bright costumes. She released her first song, "Dumi Hi Phone," in 2017 and dropped her a genre-bending debut album the following year. Limpopo Champions League explores sounds from hip-hop to EDM.

Sho Madjozi has a quirky habit of writing songs about notable individuals. Her breakout single "John Cena," a tribute to the wrestler and actor, earned her the BET award for Best New International Act in 2019. She also collaborated with Sneakbo, Robot Boi and Matthew Otis on the hit amapiano song "Balotelli," which celebrated the renowned African soccer player. 

Sho Madjozi's music is entirely intertwined with her culture; she raps in the Bantu language Xitsonga and performs traditional dances such as xibelani wearing an adapted 

xibelani skirt. The xibelani (which translates to "hitting to the rhythm") dance is native to Tsonga women, and is performed by girls on special occasions as a celebration of their culture. Sho Madjozi's use of the dance and interpretation of its clothing helps shape her region’s cultural identity.

11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More