The history between African music and the Grammy Awards goes way back, even further than many of us know. Being the highest form of accolade an artiste can receive for their work, a handful of Africans have been bestowed with this great honor. Today, we’ll delve into the rich history of African music in relation to the Grammy Awards, highlighting the artistes who have played significant roles in shaping this narrative.
1. Miriam Makeba (South Africa)
Starting from the very beginning, we commence with the first-ever African recipient of the Grammy Awards. Zenzile Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, was a South African singer, activist, and icon. She excelled in various music genres and passionately fought against apartheid. Her voice resonated globally, educating and entertaining, while she fearlessly advocated for justice and equality. Mama Africa’s legacy endures through her timeless music and unwavering commitment. She virtually began Africa’s known history with the Grammy Awards. In 1960, she released her debut eponymous album, and the year after, she earned multiple Grammy nominations: New Artist category, Female Vocal Performance for the album, and her debut album was nominated for a now-discontinued Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category. In the years following that, she received multiple nominations, mostly in the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category and Female Vocal Performance. In 1964, she only won once with a joint album with her close colleague and mentor Henry Belafonte, “An Evening with Makeba/Belafonte,” in the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category. Approximately, she had eight nominations and one win.
2. Babatunde Olatunji (Nigeria)
Babatunde Olatunji, the renowned Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artiste, was born in the village of Ajido, located near Badagry in southwestern Nigeria. He belonged to the Ogu community and was introduced to traditional African music from a young age. Initially, due to his father’s untimely passing, Olatunji was groomed to assume the role of a chief. However, at the age of 12, he had a change of heart. After coming across an article in Reader’s Digest about the Rotary International Foundation’s scholarship program, he decided to apply. His application was successful, leading to his journey to the United States in 1950.
After hearing Olatunji perform with the 66-piece Radio City Music Hall orchestra, Columbia Records signed Olatunji to the Columbia label in 1957. He earned his Grammy Award in 1991 for his contribution to Mickey Hart’s 1991 album “Planet Drum” in the category of Best World Music Album. This was the first year the award was given. Contrary to popular belief, he can be considered the first Nigerian recipient of the Grammy Awards, along with another Nigerian veteran drummer.
3. Sikiru Adepoju (Nigeria)
Just like Babatunde Olatunji, with whom they were friends, Sikiru Adepoju shares the record as one of the first Nigerian recipients of the Grammy Awards, for the same album. Sikiru Adepoju is a Nigerian percussionist and recording artiste, primarily in the genres of traditional African music and world music. He plays a variety of instruments and styles. In his career, he worked with several veterans like Mickey Hart and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and also led many groups, including The Honeymakers, Afrika Heartbeat, and Sikiru Adepoju & Heart Beat. He won the Grammy Awards in 2008 again for his contribution to the title album of Mickey Hart’s Global Drum Project.
4. Angélique Kidjo (Benin)
Angélique Kidjo is a Beninese-French singer-songwriter, actress, and activist noted for her diverse musical influences and creative music videos. Kidjo was born into a family of performing artistes. Her father was a musician, and her mother worked as a choreographer and theater director. She is regarded as one of Africa’s foremost musical artistes and boasts one of the highest Grammy accolades. She earned her first nomination at the Grammy Awards in 1995 for her song “Agolo” and a music video in the Best Music Video, Short Form category. Her first win was in 2008 for her “Djin Djin” album, winning the Best Contemporary World Music Album category. In total, she has five wins and 14 nominations.
5. Black Coffee (South Africa)
Black Coffee, whose real name is Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo, is a renowned South African DJ, record producer, and songwriter. He founded Soulistic Music, his record label, and introduced his debut self-titled album, “Black Coffee,” in 2005. This album seamlessly blended R&B and jazz influences into his unique musical style. He embarked on his career in approximately 1994, gaining recognition following his involvement in the 2004 Red Bull Music Academy. Since then, he has released nine studio albums and a live DVD. His Grammy Award came with his first nomination in 2022 for his album “Subconsciously” in the Best Dance/Electronic Music Album category, making him the first African to win that category.
7. Soweto Gospel Choir (South Africa)
In 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir was established in Soweto, South Africa, by David Mulovhedzi, Beverly Bryer, and producers Andrew Kay, David Vigo, and Cliff Hocking. This ensemble, consisting of over 30 members, skillfully combines African gospel, Negro spirituals, reggae, and elements of American popular music in their performances. They made their debut at the inaugural 46664 concert for Nelson Mandela and have subsequently embarked on multiple international tours. They earned their first nomination and win at the 49th Grammy Awards Ceremony in 2007 for their album “Blessed” in the Best Traditional World Music Album category. In total, they’ve had three wins and five nominations.
8. The Kutis (Made, Femi and Seun Kuti) (Nigeria)
One of the most influential families in Nigeria, they have birthed an array of ace artistes, all carrying on the legacy of the Godfather of Afrobeats, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The offspring, sons (Femi and Seun) and grandson (Made), have also had a hand in the Grammy Awards. In total, they have been nominated about six times but unfortunately have not emerged as winners.
9. Burna Boy (Nigeria)
African Giant or Odogwu, he goes by numerous names, loved by many and equally disliked by many. Whichever side of the divide you’re on, he has one of the most notable Grammy award-winning streaks by a Nigerian artiste in the modern era of Nigerian music. He had always had a goal to bring home the Grammy Awards, even mentioning in his 2019 single, “African Giant,” “…I know say one day e go better, I go carry Grammy…” The album with the same title earned him his first nomination in 2020. He later won the following year with “Twice As Tall,” the first and only Nigerian Grammy-winning project. In total, he has had one win and six nominations. Other notable new-school Nigerian acts with Grammy wins are Wizkid and Tems.
10. Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa)
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a South African male choral group singing in the local vocal styles of isicathamiya and mbube. They became known internationally after singing with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland.” Formed by Joseph Shabalala in 1960, Ladysmith Black Mambazo became one of South Africa’s most prolific recording artistes, with their releases receiving gold and platinum disc honors. The group became a mobile academy of South African cultural heritage through their African indigenous isicathamiya music. They are the most decorated Africans in the Grammy Awards ceremony with 17 nominations and five wins.
African music and the Grammys have a rich history, and these artistes, among others, have made major contributions.