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Africa’s Iconic Pop Culture Moments of 2023

Africa’s Iconic Pop Culture Moments of 2023

Africa’s Iconic Pop Culture Moments of 2023 (1)

As the year comes to an end, and in eagerness for what is to come in 2024, we collectively relive this year’s landmark events: African artistes dominating global charts and selling out the world’s biggest arenas, new strides in art and culture, and appreciable cultural moments. 

By Emmanuel Okoro, Helena Olori, and Sybil Fekurumoh

Despite the quirks and murkiness of popular culture, 2023 has remarkably recorded many high moments in the African entertainment scene, much to our delight. As the year comes to an end, and in eagerness for what is to come in 2024, we collectively relive this year’s landmark events: African artistes dominating global charts and selling out the world’s biggest arenas, new strides in art and culture, and appreciable cultural moments. 

The year was remarkable for celebrating the vitality of Africa’s young talent, with awards spotlighting young achievers aplenty. The Big Brother franchise, arguably the most engaged reality television show in Africa, debuted its Big Brother Titans edition, featuring housemates from South Africa and Nigeria, with South Africa’s Khosi emerging as the winner. And a few months later, Ilebaye, the self-acclaimed “Gen-Z Baddie”, emerged as the winner of the BBNaija All Stars version, exclusively for Nigerian contestants. However, certain wins stirred up controversy, as seen when Zimbabwe crowned its first white Miss Universe, the first of its kind for a predominantly black nation, ultimately triggering debates on colourism and colonialism. 

The year welcomed several record-breaking moments that have the potential to change the landscape of African entertainment. In film, for instance, we witnessed the experimental leanings of filmmakers to acclamatory effect, as seen in the success of films like CJ Obasi’s folkloric Mami Wata, (beginning its winning streak by becoming the film homegrown Nigerian film to premiere and win an award at Sundance), and Babatunde Apalowo’s All the Colours in the World are Between Black and White, the first Nigerian queer film at Berlinale, shining a light on queer art and narratives. Belgian-Congolese filmmaker, Baloji, made history too, as his feature film, Augure (Omen), became the first African film to represent Belgium at the Oscars. Mami Wata and Augure (Omen) joined a selection of African films which raced to the Oscars, including Namibia’s debut submission, Under the Hanging Tree, which explored the country’s colonial history. But as not all can emerge winners in races, only the documentaries, Tunisia’s Four Daughters and Morocco’s The Mother of All Lies have succeeded on to the next round of voting for the award. While these aforementioned graced toured film festivals circuits, on streaming platforms, films like Nigerian Editi Effiong’s The Black Book, which peaked on Netflix, entering the platform’s Top 10 chart in over 69 countries – a first for a Nollywood production – and Jade Osiberu’s Gangs of Lagos, Prime Video’s debut African original movie, were also to much critical acclaim. 

Across the arts, sports and culture, we gasped, cooed, and applauded as the continent’s finest minds treated us to iconic moments over the year. One such milestone is the feat accomplished by Black Coffee, who made history as the first South African DJ to Headline Madison Square Garden, U.S.

Black Coffee - Africa's Iconic Pop Culture Moments of 2023 - Afrocritik
Black Coffee. @RealBlackCoffee | X (Twitter)

The New Faces of R&B in Africa

The radiance of Kenya’s R&B/Soul artiste, Xenia Manasseh, cannot go unnoticed. Having collaborated with talented artistes such as Tay Iwar, Mr Eazi, Big Sean, Teyana Taylor, Gloria Estefan, and fellow countrymen, Sauti Sol, Manasseh stepped confidently into her own spotlight this year. Her debut album, Love/Hate Pt.1, delved into the intricacies and complexities of romantic relationships, resonating strongly with audiences. The album’s warm reception and her unique sound solidified Manasseh’s status as a standout artiste to watch in the coming year.

Xenia Manasseh - Afrocritik
Xenia Manasseh

Undoubtedly, one of the names that commands recognition is South Africa’s breakout sensation, Tyla, whose music draws inspiration from R&B, Amapiano, Afrobeats, Kwaito, and House. While she initially navigated the music scene under the radar since her 2019 debut single, “Getting Late”, her fortunes took a remarkable turn this year with the release of her hit single, “Water”. The track, which bubbled as a TikTok sensation, gradually captivated a global audience. “Water” soared to the number 1 spot on the Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart. It also peaked at an impressive 10th position on the prestigious Hot 100, making her the highest-charting African female soloist ever on the Hot 100 chart. Her talents have also been showcased on international platforms, including The Bianca Show in Sweden, Vevo’s DSCVR, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Tyla’s exceptional year is further underscored by her well-deserved Grammy and MOBO nominations for Best African Music Performance and Best African Music Act, respectively.

Tyla - South African Musician - Afrocritik
Tyla. @Tyllaaaaaaa | X (Twitter)

In addition to the stellar achievements of Tyla, the R&B landscape in 2023 witnessed the emergence of several other remarkable artistes who made their mark. From Kenya’s IkeN and M. Rumbi, contributing to the genre’s vibrant scene, Nigeria’s Afro-Pop and R&B singer, Bloody Civilian, who burst into the scene with her dynamic sound, to South Africa’s Scumie who added a unique flavour to the mix.

Alternative R&B and Afrobeats singer Temilade Openiyi (Tems), stands out as a trailblazer in the continent’s R&B spacs, setting unprecedented cultural milestones. Starting the year as the first Nigerian artiste to secure an Oscar nomination for her contribution to “Lift Me Up” on Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever album, Tems’ triumph signalled a shift in the global acknowledgement of African talents. But the year was just getting started for the “Crazy Tings” singer who went on to win her first Grammy Award for Best Melodic Rap Performance with “Wait For U” alongside Future and Drake, making history as the first female Nigerian act to win the prestigious Academy Award.

Tems’ acclaim at the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards, where she and WizKid, received the Top R&B/Hip-Hop & Rap Song of the Year accolade for “Essence”, the NAACP Awards, where she clinched the Outstanding International Song category for her rendition of “No Woman, No Cry”, and the Songwriter of the Year award at the 2023 BMI R&B/Hip-Hop Awards, is hard proof of her unparalleled lyricism and the universal appeal of her soulful R&B sound. Her Trailblazer award at the ELLE Style Awards is yet another “first” as the only Nigerian on the winners’ list this year. Tems’ inclusion in the 2023 Time100 Next list, alongside other emerging leaders globally, also places her in a league of influential figures “who have achieved peak influence in their fields”.

Tems wins trailblazer awards on 2023 ELLE Style Awards Afrocritik
Tems

(Read also: Nigeria’s “Peak Foolery” and Quirky Pop Culture Moments of 2023)

Afrobeats to the World

Rooted in Nigeria, Afrobeats and its diverse sub-genres have become the darling of music enthusiasts, prestigious awards ceremonies, streaming platforms, and international filmmakers who have recognised its universal appeal. Earlier this year, Spotify launched “Afrobeats: Journey of a Billion Streams”, a dedicated space tracking all things Afrobeats, a move, which, according to the streaming platform, was a nod to the genre’s status as one of the hottest global sounds, with massive following in the US and the UK, and a rapidly growing influence in countries like France, the Netherlands, and Mexico.

The genre’s influence reached new heights this year with the creation of four groundbreaking Afrobeats categories – at the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards, and the MTV Video Music Awards – as a testament to the undeniable impact of Afrobeats in the global music industry. 

At the forefront of this global emergence of Afrobeats is Grammy award-winning artiste, Burna Boy, who became the first Nigerian artiste to headline at the Citi Field stadium, selling out its 41,800 seats. But that pales in comparison to his record-breaking concert in the UK which drew a staggering 80,000 fans to the London Stadium. Other Afrobeats superstars, including Rema and Asake, also achieved sold-out shows in iconic venues such as the O2 Arena and Barclays Centre. Historic moments for Afrobeats took place at the 2023 NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Burna Boy, Tems, and Rema delivered the first-ever Afrobeats-themed halftime performance.  Rema would go on to perform at the Ballon d’Or Awards in the last quarter of the year. 

Rema’s triumphs this year also deserve special attention, as each stride seemingly surpassed the last, etching his name in the annals of African music history with finesse. His single, “Calm Down Remix”, featuring Selena Gomez, not only secured the title of Africa’s biggest chart-topping single of all time – reaching the third position on the Billboard Hot 100 charts – but also achieved the historic milestone of a billion streams on Spotify, the first African song to do so. The song also claimed the Best Afrobeats Award and Top Afrobeats Song in the Afrobeats categories at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards. Notably, Rema’s debut album, Rave and Roses, also became the first African project to surpass one 1 billion streams on Spotify. 

But perhaps the most iconic moment that captured Afrobeats artistes on global stages in 2023 was Tiwa Savage’s performance at the coronation ceremony of King Charles III in May – which came on the back of the first African national to sing an opera solo at a British coronation, South Africa’s soprano singer Pretty Yende. While her decision to take centre at the coronation was not without criticism (not least due to the complicated political history of Britain in relation to Nigeria), she thrilled an audience comprising global leaders and titans of influence at the royal coronation ceremony. 

Meanwhile, WizKid, who has been a trailblazer for the genre on the international front, etched his name in history as the first African singer to receive the Brit Billion Award, celebrating a musical milestone for having over one billion streams in the United Kingdom. 

(Read also: Afrocritik’s 2023 Top 25 African Music Projects)

A Record-Breaking Year for Africans

Away from the music scene, Africa’s pop culture scene also witnessed several spectacular moments that will linger in our memories. In the East-African front, Ethiopian-American artist, Julie Mehretu, set a record at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in the art industry. Her work, Untitled (2001), sold for $9.32 million, marking the highest amount ever paid for a piece by an African-born artist. This surpassed South African artist, Marlene Dumas’ 2008 piece, The Visitor (1995), which sold for $6.33 million at Sotheby’s London. Weeks after setting the record, Mehretu surpassed her record with another groundbreaking sale in New York. Her piece, Walkers With the Dawn and Morning, fetched a staggering $10.7 million. Mehretu’s record-breaking sales follow her steady rise in the art scene and spotlight the growing market and broader appreciation for contemporary African art.

Walkers With the Dawn and Morning by Julie Mehretu - Afrocritik
Walkers With the Dawn and Morning by Julie Mehretu | artnet

Topping the list, among several Guinness World Records (GWR) set by Nigerians this year, is celebrity chef, Hilda Baci, who broke the record  for the longest cooking marathon by an individual, clocking an impressive time of 93 hours and 11 minutes. Her audacious “cook-a-thon” will not be forgotten in a hurry, especially for the GWR, whose website crashed for two days due to overwhelming traffic from Baci’s legion of loyal fans from across Africa. Baci’s goal was to spotlight Nigerian cuisine and inspire young African women. Her spectacular achievement sparked a surge in the number of young people aspiring to break records. Hilda Baci was later named the Young Person of the Year at the 17th Future Awards Africa for her exceptional accomplishments and influence on young Africans in 2023.

Chef Hilda Baci
Chef Hilda Baci

Notable Winners in Sports

In the realm of sports, some Africans excelled brilliantly across the continent and around the world. Ethiopian middle and long-distance runner, Gudaf Tsegay Desta,  set a world record in the 5000m with a time of 14:00.21, at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, adding to her previous victory at the World Athletics Championships in 5000m in 2022. Tsegay also clinched the gold medal for the 10,000m at the 2023 Budapest World Athletics Championships. As of September 2023, she was ranked as the world’s 10th fastest woman in the indoor 800m, first in the 5000m, and fourth in the 10,000m. 

Still on the track, Kenyan sprinter, Faith Kipyegon, shattered world records in the 1500m, 5000m, and the mile, at the Wanda Diamond League this year. Her ground-breaking achievements, including a new 1500m record time of 3:49.11 in Florence, Italy, a 5000m record of 14:05.20 in Paris, and a mile record of 4:07.64, marked her as the first athlete in Diamond League history to break a world record across multiple categories. At the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, she also became the first woman to complete a 1500-5000m golden double. In recognition of her stellar performances, Kipyegon was named the “World Athlete of the Year” at the annual World Athletics Awards in Monaco. Similarly, fellow countrywoman, Mary Moraa, outpaced Olympic champion, Athing Mu to win the 800m race at the World Championships in Budapest. 

23-year-old Ethiopian sprinter, Lamecha Girma, also showed her mettle at the Paris Diamond League this year, setting a new record of 7:52.11, to smash a previous record set by Qatar’s Saif Saaeed almost 20 years ago.  Other notable winners on the track include Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei who won the 10000m race, his countryman Victor Kiplangat who claimed the men’s marathon, Ethiopia’s Amane Beriso who won the women’s marathon, and Burkina Faso’s Hugues Fabrice Zango who became the first African to claim the triple jump gold. 

Stepping into the boxing ring, Cameroonian MMA powerhouse, Francis Zavier Ngannou, sent shockwaves through the sporting world with his bold venture, facing off against British boxer, Tyson Fury, in a thrilling “Battle of the Baddest” at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, back in October. Amid intense exchanges, there were moments of sheer brilliance where Ngannou appeared to seize the upper hand, particularly shining in the third round. Despite the closely contested nature of the match, the judges awarded Fury a narrow split-decision victory, with scores of 95-93, 95-94, and 94-95, allowing the undefeated champion to maintain his unblemished record. However, beyond the official verdict, it was Ngannou who emerged as the true people’s champion, capturing the hearts of fans around the globe with his fearless display and unwavering determination in the face of one of boxing’s best. The World Boxing Council (WBC) recognised Ngannou’s prowess, ranking him as the number 10 heavyweight boxer in the world. This acknowledgement solidifies Ngannou’s status as a force to be reckoned with in the professional boxing world – even as he made his debut in boxing.

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BK Arena - Rwanda - Afrocritik

Francis Ngannou - top moments in pop culture Africa 2023 - Afrocritik
Francis Ngannou. @francis_ngannou | X (Twitter)

On the football scene, Super Eagles forward, Victor Osimhen, was heavily instrumental in taking his club side, Napoli, to a Serie A title, making them the reigning champions of Italian football for the first time since 1990. Osimhen’s remarkable Serie A season, finishing as the top scorer with 26 goals in 32 league appearances, earned him the Italian Footballers’ Association (AIC) Player of the Year award for the 2022/2023 season. His remarkable achievements also earned him a coveted spot at number 8 in the 2023 Ballon d’Or rankings, making him the first Nigerian footballer to ever make the top 10 shortlist. Recently, the footballer bagged the Men’s Player of the Year at the 2023 CAF Awards, making him the only Nigerian who has clinched the prestigious award since Nwankwo Kanu did in 1999. 

Similarly, Asisat Oshoala, the Super Falcons attacker, secured her record sixth CAF “Women’s Player of the Year” award, propelled by her inspirational contributions to Barcelona’s Champions League victory. As the club’s top scorer with 27 goals across all competitions, Oshoala showcased her unwavering prowess on the field. Another Super Falcon, Chiamaka Nnadozie, received the “Women’s Goalkeeper of the Year” award in recognition of her stellar performance at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. 

South Africa also had something to smile about as the country’s national rugby team, the Springboks, defended their 2019 Rugby World Cup title with another win, securing their place in history as the first country to claim the cup four times, having previously won it in 1995 and 2007.

(Read also: Afrocritik’s 33 Remarkable African Short Stories in 2023)

A Political and Cultural Awakening

It can be said that African political ideologies are largely anchored on populist rhetoric that seems to keep the continent on a never-pausing treadmill. The outcome is usually devastating, as evidenced in the spate of civil unrest and coups that rocked parts of West and Central Africa, notably the Francophone region. Despite this unrest, it is fascinating, however, that these political upheavals are welcomed with jubilation by the masses. One such is the ousting of Gabon’s dynastic republic leader, Ali Bongo, by the military, and the celebration that followed after the upturn. Similarly, following the junta takeover of the Niger Republic in July, in which erstwhile civilian President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown, there were active mass protests against Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu’s led ECOWAS involvement. This exacerbated the friction between the leadership of West African states such as Mali, Burkina Faso and France, catalysing a bolder and more definitive alignment with the pro-Russian Wagner forces instead. Nigeria also witnessed a kind of political consciousness that has not been seen in recent times. The “Obidient” movement gained much impetus during the 2023 presidential elections held in February, in support of the opposition Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi. 

But no news could have spoken more about new fronts and narratives than the Kenyan President, William Ruto, announcing on its 60th Independence Day Anniversary that the country would become visa-free from January, 2024. By this action, Kenya becomes the fourth African nation to offer visa-free entry to all African citizens. 

South Africa has emerged with notable distinctions, showcasing impressive growth in tourism, with a remarkable 51.8% increase in tourist arrivals between January and November 2023. During this period, the country welcomed a total of 7.6 million international arrivals, underscoring its allure as a captivating destination on the global stage. Moreso, the South African government, in a move to promote inclusivity and the rights of citizens with disabilities, officially recognised sign language as the country’s 12th official language. Furthermore, the country continues to make strides in infrastructure, with Cape Town International Airport securing a third position among the world’s largest airports – according to data compiled from 194 major airports.

Rwanda also holds a special recognition on our list, emerging as the premier destination for a slew of high-profile international events. These noteworthy events include the 73rd FIFA Congress, the inaugural Trace Awards, the Giants of Africa Festival, the Basketball Africa League Finals, Diner En Blanc, Women Deliver, and the Time 100 Summit. This impressive roster of events not only highlights Rwanda’s capacity to attract and successfully execute major international gatherings but also serves as a testament to the nation’s advanced infrastructure and conducive policies. A key driving force behind this success is Rwanda’s Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) strategy, a comprehensive framework designed to enhance the country’s image and positioning as a global event host. These events, beyond serving as sources of immense national pride, set a laudable example for other African countries to follow.

Botswana was not left out of the mix, as the country hosted its inaugural International Film Festival, titled “Introductions: Capturing Our Narratives”. This cinematic celebration showcased Botswana’s artistry on the big screens, marking a historic moment for the country’s burgeoning film industry. A total of 182 films vied for consideration, with 83 selected to be part of the festival’s line-up. The festival attracted film experts from across the African continent, fostering a dynamic exchange of ideas and insights. Among the notable participants was Nollywood’s Accounts and Operations for FilmOne Distribution, Victoria Ogar, who advocated for collaboration between film industries across Africa, emphasising the potential for such partnerships to yield stronger and more impactful productions.

As the new year slowly unfolds, we can only anticipate groundbreaking accomplishments that further elevate the continent’s profile, inspire collaboration, and celebrate the richness of its cultural and artistic contributions on the global stage.

Emmanuel ‘Waziri’ Okoro is a content writer and journo with an insatiable knack for music and pop culture. When he’s not writing, you will find him arguing why Arsenal FC is the best football club in the multiverse. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram, and Threads: @BughiLorde

Helena Olori is a talented multimedia journalist; she enjoys staying abreast with latest happenings in the film industry and what makes the movie business tick. Connect with her on Instagram @heleena_olori or helena.olori@afrocritik.com

Sybil Fekurumoh is the Managing Editor and a culture writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber or email sybilf@afrocritik.com

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