In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Popular Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Multimedia Collections
  • Web Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • (Auto)biography
  • Diaspora
  • Genre
  • Media and Technology
  • Movement and Dance

African Studies Popular Music
Andrew J. Eisenberg, Alex Perullo, Ryan Skinner, Gavin Steingo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0198


The word popular in the context of African studies refers broadly to the largely mass-mediated, frequently youth-driven trends cultivated in cities, within particular contexts of labor, politics, leisure, ritual, and consumer capitalism. African popular music emerged as a major area of scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences in the latter half of the 1980s, fostered by broad trends within Africanist anthropology and ethnomusicology, and driven to some degree by an increasing general-public interest in African popular music in the West. Africanist anthropologists like Karin Barber and Johannes Fabian (see Barber 1987 and Fabian 1998, both cited under Popular) set the stage for African popular music studies by developing and advocating for analytical approaches to popular culture writ large in urban African societies. At the same time, ethnomusicology, the discipline in which most research on African music has historically been undertaken, was primed for a turn toward the popular: influenced by poststructuralism and postcolonial critique, ethnomusicologists were beginning to take seriously the musical effects of urbanization and cultural hybridization, rather than seeing them only as symptoms of the tragic dissolution of traditional cultures. From the start, scholarship on African popular music has been heavily dominated by ethnographic work—though in recent years, Euro-American and African scholars from fields like history and comparative literature, which rely on archival and textual analysis, have also made significant contributions to the literature. Another significant feature of this scholarship is its emphasis on issues related to political economy. While this reflects the influence of African studies and Africanist anthropology on African popular music studies, it is also clearly a response to facts on the ground. On the African continent, popular culture—and popular music, in particular—very often provides spaces in which publics are constituted and mobilized, the symbolic girders of the state are reinforced or corroded, and globalization confronts the conceits of nationalism. This article outlines the most significant established and emerging themes of the scholarly literature on African popular music. Many of these themes, such as Nationalism and Postcolonialism, will be familiar to even nonmusical students and researchers of Africa; while a few, such as Genre, will be familiar to students and researchers of popular music anywhere in the world. For reasons of space, we limit our focus to works that deal with music on the African continent. Hence the old and expansive literature on African and African-derived musics in the diaspora is not covered here, though we do include works on diasporic connections in popular music on the African continent (see Diaspora).

General Overviews

Following the growth of a market for African popular music in the West in the mid-1980s, a number of African popular music primers and guides aimed at a general readership were published (Bender 1991, Collins 1992, Ewens 1991, Stapleton and May 1990; see also Graham 1988–1992, cited under Reference Works). Penned by academic researchers and journalists with intimate knowledge of the music and its contexts, these remain essential resources. Most are organized by region or what may be called “style area” (rumba region, griot region, etc.). Tenaille 2002, a more recent addition to the genre of African pop music overview, is organized as a series of brief case studies. Only Erlmann and Bareis 1991 is explicitly geared toward a music-literate, academic readership. For those who read German, this volume provides an excellent introduction to musico-analytical study of African popular music.

  • Bender, Wolfgang. Sweet Mother: Modern African Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    Originally published in German in 1985. Drawing on first-hand experience, this book discusses the sounds and sociopolitical contexts of contemporary popular music genres in over a dozen sub-Saharan African countries.

  • Collins, John. West African Pop Roots. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

    Introduces the sounds and contexts of late-20th-century West African popular music, based mostly on firsthand accounts by the author, a longtime participant in Ghanaian popular music. Flemming Harrev supplies the chapter on the francophone scene. Earlier version published in 1985 as African Pop Roots: The Inside Rhythms of Africa (London: W. Foulsham).

  • Erlmann, Veit, and Urban Bareis, eds. Populäre Musik in Afrika. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, 1991.

    Ten valuable chapters on the historical development and formal elements of various sub-Saharan popular music genres. Rich in transcriptions and illustrations, and includes two compact discs of audio examples. All chapters are in German, though about half of the authors are Anglophone scholars.

  • Ewens, Graeme. Africa O-Ye! A Celebration of African Music. Enfield, UK: Guinness, 1991.

    A pithy primer for a general readership, with hundreds of photos and illustrations. Its continent-wide purview and deftly written style-area surveys make it also a valuable reference for serious researchers and students.

  • Stapleton, Chris, and Chris May. African Rock: The Pop Music of a Continent. New York: Dutton, 1990.

    Originally published in 1987 as African All-Stars: The Pop Music of a Continent (London: Quartet). An in-depth overview of sub-Saharan popular music for a general readership. Includes profiles of numerous style areas, plus an introduction and notes on industrial contexts. The introductory chapter on music and urbanization in Africa is invaluable for undergraduate survey courses.

  • Tenaille, Frank. Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African Popular Music. Translated by Stephen Toussaint and Hope Sandrine. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2002.

    Originally published in 2000 in French, as Le swing du caméléon: Musiques et chansons africaines, 1950–2000 (Arles, France: Actes Sud). A history and survey of sub-Saharan popular music presented through thirty brief portraits of artists and genres. May be useful for undergraduate survey courses.

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