Yemi Alade, also known as ‘Mama Africa’ among her fans, is a remarkable artist who exudes both regal and down-to-earth qualities. Despite her global success, she has never lost touch with her roots, and remains accessible to her loyal audience, defying all industry norms. With an undying love for Africa and its people, she pours her heart and soul into her art, driven by an unwavering passion to create meaningful and impactful music. As she speaks about her journey, it becomes clear that Yemi Alade is not just a music icon, but a true ambassador of African culture and values.
At the gallery where we are shooting the inaugural cover story for Marie Claire Nigeria, there is a sense of quiet awe when our cover star, Yemi Alade, enters the room. She is accompanied by her brother and entourage, who are respectful but reverent as they chaperone her through the photoshoot and interview. Their reverence is earned; Yemi Alade, who is fondly referred to by her fans as ‘Mama Africa’, is at once regal yet grounded, a global superstar who has managed, against all conventional wisdom, to remain accessible to her core audience. Understanding how she came to bear this honorific, once bestowed on the grand dame, Mariam Makeba, was our way to understand the woman Yemi Alade.
“Mama Africa ” is not just a nickname but also the title of one of my favourite albums. I travelled around Africa a lot at that point in my career, and one day one of my friends hit me up and asked, ‘Mama Africa, where are you today?’.”
That conversation was the start of a movement for Yemi. It felt right, but she knew that she needed to find her purpose to earn the honour of being called ‘Mama Africa’. It became clear to her that her purpose as a performing artist was to share her experience of Africa and tell its stories through her music.
Pursuing that purpose has made Yemi Alade an icon in the music industry, not just in Nigeria but across the African continent and beyond. She is known for her vibrant and energetic performances, as well as her powerful voice and her ability to sing in several African languages, including Yoruba, French, and Swahili. Her music is a fusion of traditional African rhythms and modern pop sounds, with themes of empowerment, self-love, and celebrating African culture. It has taken 14 years and an incredible amount of ambition and consistency to reach these heights of fame.
Languages have become the barrier that we need to tear down.
But Yemi isn’t any ordinary pop star. She speaks about her love for the beauty and wonder that defines our cultures across Africa and her commitment to promoting it through her music. Despite her incredible success in the 12 years she has been active as a recording artist, she has never received any support from a major music label. She remains independent, signed to Effyzie Music Group. Of course, it helps that she is a polyglot, proficient in several languages, including Igbo, Yoruba, French, Portuguese, Spanish and English, with medium proficiency in others. Languages feature prominently in her music and have helped her music cross over into Francophone, Lusophone Africa, and Europe.
“I really love languages. My mom as well is very gifted with languages. She speaks about six or seven; I think it’s a DNA thing. Before I started travelling the world, I realised that I used to think that Africans didn’t speak French or didn’t speak Portuguese. But the more I travelled, language was a bigger barrier than geography. A fellow Nigerian cannot go to Cameroon and have a good time because he can’t speak French. Languages have become the barrier that we need to tear down. “
Yemi started incorporating different African languages into her music to break down the language barriers between Africans and unite the continent through music. This commitment to African unity and cultural diversity is also evident in Yemi Alade’s collaborations with other African artists. Having worked with artists such as Jah Prayzah, Harmonize, Mafikizolo, Awilo Logomba, Bomba Estéreo, Beyonce, Angélique Kidjo, Rick Ross, and Dadju, to name a few. It is a diverse list, tied together by one cardinal rule; “It’s a well-known fact that for me to be on a song with anyone, I must first be a fan because it makes it possible for the music to be genuine”. She also chooses to work with artists whose catalogues are sung in either their country’s lingua franca or indigenous language. “Because I travel a lot, the best way to leave a lasting impression with my music would be to collaborate with musicians who call these countries home.”
She tells us that an added benefit to collaborating intentionally is that she gets to experience other parts of Africa like a local, chaperoned by these artists who are beloved in their home countries and patriotic about promoting their true complexities. Living in these African countries as the locals do elevates the interactions. It has allowed Yemi to experience the continent’s most beautiful aspects: the people, their wonderful cultures and their national identities. It has also enriched her live performances, which are electrifying and brimming with contagious energy.
I’ve been called ‘international Garri Seller’. But I always say, garri no dey do advert, but e dey sell pass for market.
To prepare for her shows, Yemi puts in a lot of effort and planning, working closely with her band and dancers to perfect her set. She also pays attention to her fashion choices, ensuring she looks and feels confident on stage because she absolutely has to “show up”.
Despite Yemi Alade’s commitment to her Pan-African values and the grace with which she has handled unprecedented fame, she has consistently dealt with negative feedback. Her love for African culture defines her music and informs her fashion choices. But only some appreciate her point of view. On the other hand, some have criticised her for being unapologetic in promoting African culture. The Afro-pop star has also faced bullying that targeted her appearance and politics.
“I have been called many names, both directly and indirectly, and most of it is because of how unapologetic I am about my commitment to wholeheartedly love and champion Africa. I have this favourite name that I’ve been called; ‘international Garri Seller’. But I always say, garri no dey do advert, but e dey sell pass for market. You know what I mean? So, yeah, having been called names, I have also been criticised for being young and portraying such an older persona. But that is because I am carrying generations before me and making the way clear for generations after me.”
As one of the first contemporary Nigerian pop stars to pivot away from Eurocentric beauty standards and showcase the diversity and authenticity of African beauty and culture, Yemi understands what is truly at stake. With each project, she has devoted more time and attention to extolling the virtues of Afrocentric features and pushing back against harmful beauty practices that reinforce Eurocentric beauty standards. She is just as adventurous with her fashion, embracing edgy and colourful trends that challenge conventions. Her stage costumes are a testament to her creativity, and she works closely with her team of designers and stylists to bring her ideas to life. Yemi is delighted to have contributed in her own way to this change and enjoys witnessing women from all walks of life embracing their natural features and cultural heritage.
I take every opportunity to put that kind of positive representation into the world.
“Representation is very fundamental in the world. I know how I feel when I arrive at international airports and see a model that looks like me, with my big broad forehead and beautiful melanin skin. I feel better about myself when I see these features being put up there, even for one or two seconds. So I take every opportunity to put that kind of positive representation into the world.”
This unique but shared continental perspective inspires a lot of Yemi’s storytelling. It motivates her to use her fame and influence to impact the lives of those she meets. She uses her music and voice to raise awareness of social justice and political activism, hoping to impact society positively. She strongly advocates for Pan-Africanism and has lent her star power to many philanthropic projects, including campaigns by the United Nations. She has donated proceeds from her critically acclaimed ‘Mama Africa’ album to the non-profit #FeedAChild, and physically visited Haiti after devastating floods to lend her support and visit with victims.
Over the past decade, Yemi Alade has evolved as an artist, both musically and personally. She has learnt to create clear boundaries between her work and personal life and enforce them, even at the risk of losing money. She has also taken an active interest in philanthropy, using her music to comment on societal issues that affect her and those around her. She has even opened herself up to musical experimentation, even though her core sound remains rooted in high life and dance hall, which are integral to her music and identity.
“As a musician, I have come to find that I can lend my voice not only through my music but just by showing up”.
Alade’s newest project is set to hit the stores, and it promises to be a bold and daring album that will surely captivate the hearts of her fans. Yemi tells us she felt liberated while recording this album, expressing her excitement at the prospect of doing something she had always wanted to do. She has been especially vulnerable in this project, expressing her views on important topics. She knows that not everyone may agree with her, but she remains unapologetic about her stance. She wants her fans to understand that while this album might be deeply personal, it is not autobiographical. Instead, the stories on this album revolve around themes that are universal truths, told in a very personal way. She hopes that the project provides answers for those who need them and comfort for those who feel alone and unheard. She is grateful she has the gift and that she can use her gift to give others the comfort, kinship and answers that making music has provided her.
“My new album has so many aspects that I’d like people to tap into and truly feel. But the one thing I want this album to communicate to my listeners is that rules sometimes only exist to ensure you do not get to your goals on time. So it’s important that now and then, you break some rules, break some legs. I’m not saying get violent; break some rules and try to make a way where there seems to be none. So every track in this album represents yet another layer of my personality, which I hope I can introduce you to through this new project.”
Indeed, Yemi Alade’s music is like an onion, layered and full of flavour, and this album promises to be a testament to her evolution as an artist. From the first note to the last, Yemi Alade’s fans will be drawn into her world and perhaps genuinely appreciate the brilliant and profoundly empathetic woman behind the larger-than-life moniker and the fairytale career. Yemi remains unapologetic about Africa, autonomy and body positivity.