Long before Alade’s pop emergence though, there was Angélique Kidjo, and even Miriam Makeba, whose music was as popular as her activism and whose individuality drew the canonizing Mama Africa identity. And rightfully so. Because of this, there are expectations that Alade’s music should do more than what it’s currently doing
Before the release of her 2013 smash hit Johnny, Yemi Alade had been hovering in a small bubble of pop fame. She was more-than-decent enough to be called a singer, and joined a slow, progressive league of female artistes actively asserting themselves across a pop milieu dominated by their male counterparts. On television interviews, she had the sharp, off-the-cuff spontaneity that would later be recycled into her quest for continental dominion. NET’s Osagie Alonge, in a 2013 interview with Alade, described her as “full of energy” and made reference to her post-Peak Talent Show transition from being tomboy to embracing her femininity, to which a 23-year-old Alade laughs and says, “They say if you have it, flaunt it, but on a more serious note, I’m still the tomboy till now.”
By all indications, Alade’s brand of mainstream poppish femininity has a potent African strain, which makes her an avatar of a bygone era, carbon-dated to Muma Gee and her 2006 seminal, African-flavoured video for Kade. Though Muma Gee had earned the Queen of African Music moniker through her affinity for African aesthetics, her roots still had a firm, traceable compass. Her Nigerian-ness wasn’t subsumed by an aspirational African-ness. It was, even more importantly, artistically uncomplicated by a compulsive pan-Africanism. Alade’s Johnny, produced by Selebobo, was a pop litmus test that worked, in part because Alade satirized her past relationship experience and showcased herself through a refreshing creative prism. Before the success of Johnny waned, Alade made a French version which initially seemed like a one-off effort. But it turned out that this wasn’t the case, as the deluxe edition of her debut album King of Queens had French versions of songs originally performed in English. It was pulled out from Alade’s playbook: cultivate a fanbase in francophone African countries, and why not the rest of Africa?
“In a continent rich with numerous national and regional music scenes,” writes Alex MacPherson for The Faber, “the key to Alade’s success has been her ability to find connections between cultures through music. On her fantastic 2016 album Mama Africa, she draws from Ghanaian highlife, Ivorian dance music style coupé-decalé, as well as American hip-hop and pop, in a sharpening of sounds she calls “afropolitan.”
On her part, Alade’s “Mama Africa” moniker wasn’t exactly intentional. In her Mama Africa Lagos press conference and album listening in March last year, Alade explained that the title of her second album came from her friends and felt conveniently apt because she was frequently travelling to African countries. It was a label, I suppose, that felt true to her at the time. But the moniker gathered enough momentum and pace, so much so that it seeped into her subsequent project, the Mama Afrique EP. Alade also looked the part: her hair took on a bulbous puff, sometimes tightly plaited and left to aim skyward. And on the Mama Africa album cover art, she had on intricate neck hoops and a mesh, a garbed mimicry that pandered to East African culture.
Long before Alade’s pop emergence though, there was Angélique Kidjo, and even Miriam Makeba, whose music was as popular as her activism and whose individuality drew the canonizing Mama Africa identity. And rightfully so. Because of this, there are expectations that Alade’s music should do more than what it’s currently doing: to be plugged into social and cultural realities about Africa and perhaps take a political, philosophical beat. And there’s a sense that Alade is viscerally aware of these, but hopes to remain blissfully contained in the razzle dazzle of being called “Mama Africa.” Even when she does try to lean politically though, one can’t help but feel that it’s almost not altruistic.
Last month, in an interview on Sahara Reporters’ TV platform, Togolese activist Farida Nabourema criticized Alade for endorsing the dictatorship of the still-incumbent president Faure Gnassingbé. The Togolese people have been protesting the reign of Gnassingbé who has been in power since 2005, and Nabourema tweeted out a video that clearly showed Alade campaigning for him. It has to be said that it’s never wrong for artistes to show support or affiliations for a political figure. After all, massive pop stars like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry openly supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign run to be president of the U.S., and even in Nigeria, Dbanj galvanized young people in 2015 for Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election. Given Alade’s knack for cross-cultural exploits, her brief affair with Togolese politics pivots into a larger, broader scheme that involves driving her career forward.
Now 28, Alade’s third studio album Black Magic will be released this month. Knack Am, a dense, catchy single released off the album in August, goes for the same calibrated pop schtick as with most Alade songs: gaudy African percussions, spunky, frenetic choruses, and a slice of sex. Though Black Magic’s tracklist is still unknown, I’m almost sure the album will be another exercise in hollow, performative pan-Africanism with a heavy gloss. Very likely, she will go on tours for the album in a fresh, irresistible musk, drawing foreign media houses and their propensity to fetishize the souped-up appeal of her African aesthetic. Or she can forge her own path, simple and linear and uncomplicated. Unburden herself from the weight of expectations and responsibilities on her shoulders. It’s not too late.