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100 Most Influential Africans (2012): Arts & Culture

100 Most Influential Africans (2012): Arts & Culture
  • PublishedDecember 26, 2012

Youssou N’Dour, Senegal. 2012 has been quite the turnaround for the Senegalese multi-talented, multi-faceted singer, actor, businessman and politician. Having been disqualified from contesting the country’s presidential election in February over a technicality, N’Dour was swiftly installed as the minister of tourism and culture in the new administration.

This position is not so much a reward for his lifetime’s work in promoting Senegal’s culture across the globe, as it is a result of his political capabilities. The 53-year-old has been a member of both the World Future Council and the Fondation Chirac’s honour committee, as well as owning an influential media group in his home country. He still remains one of Africa’s best-known singers.

“Maybe I haven’t got the same diplomas as them, but I know the world, and I understand how things work.”


Wole Soyinka, Nigeria

The years do not diminish Nigeria’s favourite playwright. A key participant in African politics, Soyinka is as much known for his civil activism as he is for his literary prowess. In a country cowed into submission by the deadly Islamic sect, Boko Haram, the 78-year-old remains one of its most outspoken critics despite reports of death threats. He has also in the past taken umbrage with Sudan, the Commonwealth and more recently, religion. His indefatigable curiosity leads him to unusual terrains and sometimes it seems as if he is on a one-man crusade to rid Africa of all its ills, but he still finds time for his first true love, writing, and has recently published a bold new book, Of Africa.

“If religion was to be taken away from the world completely, including the one I grew up with, I’d be one of the happiest people in the world.”


Zahara, South Africa

Even the BBC has showered her with high praise: “The rise to fame of South African songwriter, poet and singer Zahara has been something to behold.” 2012, has indeed been the year for the singer whom even the great Nelson Mandela invited to sing for him in his own home. Zahara’s debut album Loliwe sold out within 72 hours of its release and went double platinum within 17 days, selling more than 100,000 copies in South Africa alone. In May this year, the 23-year-old was the star at the highly regarded 2012 South African Music Awards (Samas) – scooping eight gongs including Female Artist of the Year and Best Album. Zahara is now reported to be the artist with the best selling record in the history of African music. The star of this self-taught girl from humble beginnings is set to shine for a long time.

“If a young girl from a village like me can make it, every girl can. Don’t let go of your dreams, everyone’s time surely comes.”


Charlize Theron, South Africa

The South African actress holds the honour of being the only African to win an Academy Award for best actress. The 36-year-old, born in Benoni, Transvaal Province, won the award for her performance in the 2003 film ‘Monster’. She has appeared in over 30 feature films and is one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars, commanding upwards of $10m per movie, which is supplemented by a lucrative endorsement contract with Dior. Furthermore, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, established by the thespian in 2007, continues to assist in the fight against HIV/Aids and sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to her humanitarian and political activism, she is one of a select few to be invited to the exclusive White House Correspondent’s Dinner. She moves in powerful circles.

“In Zulu, there’s a word, ‘Ubuntu’, which translated means, ‘I am because we are’. It’s the idea that to be human is to be interconnected with one another. Together, standing in solidarity with those on the front lines in Africa, we can make a difference.” 


Chinua Achebe, Nigeria

Much fanfare surrounded the release of Chinua Achebe’s memoirs this year. The long-awaited chronicles detail the veteran novelist’s journey through his war-ravaged country – a period so painful and traumatic to the author that he had refused to discuss it for over 40 years. There Was A Country is a sobering reflection into Nigeria’s past and in examining the reckless and chaotic nature of previous military regimes, it reveals the complex dynamics and precarious fault lines handicapping Africa’s largest country today. Whilst it won’t go down as one of the 81-year-old’s greatest works, it is an important book discussing important issues which, despite its heavy burden, lives up to the hyperbole.  

“The great challenge for Nigeria is how to convince 150 million people to put aside competing interests.”


Ozwald Boateng, Ghana

Although known for his perfectly tailored suits loved by the rich and famous worldwide and making his name as the youngest and first black tailor to open a store on London’s upper-class Savile Row, Boateng’s name hit the headlines in the past few months as the unlikely champion of Africa’s infrastructure development – a passion that is very close to his heart. When he got on board the African Development Bank (AfDB) infrastructure bonds floatation campaign, the people who matter, stopped and listened to his idea of an African “Marshall Plan” through infrastructure development. He is set to take his campaign further.

“Infrastructure development is key to unlocking Africa’s potential. Lack of infrastructure is one of the major obstacles that has been holding us back.”


Jonathan Shapiro, South Africa

Witty and relevant, Africa’s best-known cartoonist has built up a large following around the continent for his satirical take on modern African politics. Known by millions as Zapiro, the former Fullbright scholar mastered his trade at the world-renowned School of Visual Arts in New York before returning to Cape Town where he began his long, successful and often polemic career as editorial cartoonist for the Mail & Guardian. His work has appeared in numerous exhibitions globally, including New York, Amsterdam and Frankfurt and he was the first ever cartoonist to win a prize at the CNN African Journalist of the Year Awards in 2001.

“Dissident views are essential for real change. Irreverence toward leaders who take themselves too seriously is a vital part of democracy.”


D’Banj, Nigeria

2012 is turning into quite the year for Nigerian singer-songwriter Dapo Daniel Oyebanjo, popularly known as D’Banj. With his ubiquitous summer breakout hit, Oliver Twist, the 32-year-old former MTV Africa Artist of the Year, finally crossed over from African superstar to global sensation. Recently signed to Kanye West’s record label, G.O.O.D. Music, D’Banj is one of Nigeria’s best selling artists and, along with his producer, Don Jazzy, is ushering in a new generation of high-octane African musicians.

“I see what I’m doing now as the bridge that we’ve been looking for from Africa to the mainstream world. I want others to see the potential in my country, other than our oil and natural resources. That’s what’s making me move. I feel like a new artist.”


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria

Like the colour of her Half of a Yellow Sun, everything Adichie touches appears to turn to gold. Her three books, all bestsellers, continue to rack up awards and accolades – quite a feat for an author yet to reach her 35th birthday. Filming for the eagerly awaited adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun has just finished in Nigeria, and the movie, starring Hollywood and Nollywood titans Thandie Newton, Chiweel Ejiofor and Genevieve Nnaji, will thrust the Yale, Princeton and Harvard alumni into the limelight once more. Whatever will she touch next?

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” 


Precious Moloi-Motsepe, South Africa

With fashion being a billion-dollar industry globally, Africa can no longer be seen just as a source of inspiration for international, big money-making fashion brands. That’s one notion Dr Precious (as she is affectionately known) is ably changing. To celebrate her work, one has to go beyond the conventional use of the word “fashion”. A medical doctor by profession, she is the formidable force behind African Fashion International (AFI), the powerhouse that curates all of Africa’s leading fashion shows, including the recently inaugurated prestigious Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Africa. Through AFI, Dr Precious aims to make local talent globally relevant and ensure market access for local designers and their products.

“I’m committed to contributing towards a vibrant fashion industry that will sustain the businesses of designers and contribute towards creating more jobs for our people. Through AFI, African designers gain more exposure and visibility.”


Ayi Kwei Armah, Ghana

He is by far Ghana’s best male novelist (and of late, historian and Egyptologist). As one of Africa’s literary icons, of the rank of the Achebes and Soyinkas, his books have brought immense joy to readers who look for deeper analysis of the African condition. His novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and his latest book, The Eloquence of The Scribes, are some of his best works. His concern to pass on writing skills to future generations influenced his decision to set up a specialised writing school in Senegal, where he lives, to train young African writers.

“There is something so terrible in watching a black man trying at all points to be the dark ghost of a European… The black man who has spent his life fleeing from himself into whiteness has no power if the white master gives him none.”


Angelique Kidjo, Benin

Angelique Kidjo is one of Africa’s most celebrated and internationally renowned musicians. A Grammy Award-winning artist, she is highly revered by her global contemporaries. When Kidjo, who was listed by the UK Guardian newspaper, as one of the most Inspirational Women in the World, is not recording or touring, she is busy travelling the world as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, engaging with local communities about the need for change and equality for all.

“It’s good that Africa today has two female presidents and that has played a big role in the way that people perceive African women. That said, it’s still not completely perfect because we still have a lot of work to do and the one thing that’s really hard to change is mentality.”


David Adjaye, Ghana

David Adjaye is as much artist as architect. His buildings are so beautifully conceptualised, his upward trajectory so steep, that he must sometimes wonder what he needs to do next in order to continually impress. Born in Tanzania, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Adajaye schooled at the prestigious Royal College of Art, graduating in 1993 and winning the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Bronze medal for his efforts. He has taken the world by storm ever since. The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the $500m National Museum of African American History and Culture, due to open in Washington DC, in 2015, reflect his standing in the architectural community.

“You’ve gotta be a showman. You can’t just do your work. You’ve got to put it out there.”


Tinie Tempah, Nigeria

Patrick Chukwuem Okogwu, the megastar music persona known as Tinie Tempah, is a global household name. His influence on the African youth has won him a sea of devoted fans. Despite being dubbed British, his country of residence, Tempah remains true and is proud of his Igbo roots. He openly shares his experience of overcoming difficulties to get where he is today as a way of inspiring his young fans. In an interview he gave our sister publication New African Woman, Tempah urges his youthful followers:

“Don’t change yourself because you feel you have to fit in. Be real! Be you!” “As an African, I see myself as a special person; there is something about me that makes me a little bit more unique and I feel very proud about my heritage.”


Ajuma Nasenyana, Kenya

Africa’s Model of the Year, Ajuma Nasenyana, is a former 400 metres Kenyan champion who turned her back on becoming one of the country’s biggest athletes, for a life of high fashion. Despite the fact that she grew up being told she was not beautiful and was “too black”, Nasenyana is today an African supermodel who has worked with some of the biggest names in prime fashion, including Vivienne Westwood, Ungaro, Victoria Secret, David Tlale and Thula Sindi. She is also a favourite at fashion week catwalks, both at home and abroad. She wants African girls to believe in themselves and know that African beauty comes in all shades and shapes.

“I think I am breaking stereotypes and putting dark-skinned girls, like me on the map. I represent all the dark little African girls lwho have low self-esteem and feel they have to be light-skinned to be accepted and beautiful.”


JM Coetzee, South Africa

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, JM Coetzee, the South African novelist, became only the fifth African to receive the prestigious literary honour. Starting out as a computer programmer for IBM in the 1960s, Coetzee published his first novel in 1974 at the age of 34. Two Booker Prize Awards (Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace), a James Tait Black Memorial Prize and an Order of Mapungubwe have since followed in what can only be described as an extraordinarily significant career. Though residing in Australia, the 72-year-old remains an African icon and his works offer a frighteningly lucid insight into post-apartheid’s fractured society.

“There is no longer a Left worth speaking of, and a language of the Left. The language of politics, with its new economistic bent, is even more repellent than it was 15 years ago.”


Emmanuel Jal, South Sudan

Over the last 10-years, the multi-talented South Sudanese artist has had a prolific career, releasing three music albums, starring in two international movies and publishing numerous poems; however, the 32-year-old’s real passion lies in his charity work and nowadays the former child soldier spends most of his time campaigning for various NGOs on the continent, as well as running his own charity, Gua Africa. This aims to assist individuals and families in both South Sudan and Kenya during times of war and poverty. Whether through his words or actions, Jal is a remarkable inspiration to his continent.

“You have to give your enemy security, for them to trust you. Because they’re insecure, they think you’ll take what they have.”

Written By
New African

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