Africa is not short of celebrities in pop cultures. Some of them, like Fela Kuti, have been more than just celebrities in their countries, but champions of change.
Among the list of the most powerful celebrities In Africa includes actors, cerebral authors, musicians, movie producers, supermodels, TV personalities and athletes, drawn from all across Africa and traverses the generational divide.
Here are 17 of Africa’s most powerful personalities in pop culture.
This is an updated version of a list published on November 4, 2013
Chinua wrote the famous novel “Things Fall Apart,” translated into more than 50 different languages. The book has sold more than 10 million copies around the world. American hip hop artist Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) asked to use the title “Things Fall Apart” for a movie, offering Achebe $1 million for his permission. The writer turned him down.
On top of being a striker for England’s Chelsea Football Club and captain of the Côte d’Ivoire national team, Drogba is a political activist, having helped establish peace for Côte d’Ivoire after five years of civil war. He did this in a dramatic, televised gesture when, in the middle of the World cup in Germany, he dropped to his knees and begged the warring factions to give up their arms. They agreed.
When the Senegalese-American hip-hop artist released his single “Locked Up” in 2004, he came to be regarded as one of the top acts in the U.S. as well as Africa. Since then, the artist has released three albums, each selling millions of copies internationally. Akon also owns the record label Kon Live, which helped kick off Lady Gaga’s and T-Pain’s careers, as well as the Konvict clothing line.
Keita is not only the founder of the Mali Empire but he is also considered one of the pioneers of Afro-pop, an unpredictable title for him when he broke tradition with his wealthy family and set out to become a musician. At age 18, Keita was banished from his village because the villagers feared albinos brought bad luck. But from there, Keita went on to play for Les Ambassadeurs—a Malian music group—and released several independent albums that have been wildly successful. His most recent album, “La Différence,” was written to raise awareness of the stigmatization of albinos around the world.
Sangare made Wassoulou—a popular Malian genre of music named for a region—beloved around the world. She is one of the top musical icons in Malian culture. Wassoulou is traditionally performed by all women and accompanied by traditional instruments such as the djembe drum and the kora (a traditional African harp). Lyrics tend to be about women’s right and feminism—perfect for Sangare, a U.N. Goodwill ambassador who has long been an advocate for the disintegration of polygamy. Sangare is also an ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Gebrselassie is the top long-distance runner in the world and a four-time winner of the Berlin Marathon. The Ethiopian idol also holds two Olympic gold medals and won the Great Manchester run in England. Gebrselassie lives to run, and proved that when he announced his retirement several years ago, only to take back his announcement a few days later when he decided to run in the 2012 London Olympics.
Eto’o became the highest-earning athlete, not only in soccer but, in all sports, when he accepted a $29-million salary from the Russian club, Anzhi Makhachkala. Eto’o also receives generous endorsements from brands like Ford and Puma.
After fleeing the turbulent political climate in Sudan, Wek walked into the spotlight on the American catwalk. At the age of 18, she was already a featured model in Tina Turner’s and Janet Jackson’s music videos and today she can be seen in ads for Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret and Christian Lacroix. Wek is also a member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees Advisory Council, and an ambassador for Doctors Without Borders.
Kebede became internationally famous in 2000 after Gucci offered her an exclusive contract for its fall-winter 2000 fashion show. Since then, Kebede has done shows for Victoria’s Secret, Tommy Hilfiger, Escada, Louis Vuitton and Estee Lauder. Kebede is also a goodwill ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and has her own foundation which funds initiatives that promote simple, low-cost strategies to save the lives of mothers and children.
Held in the same regard as Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and other high-profile Hollywood stars, Nnaji has been acting since the age of 8, when she had a supporting role on a Nigerian TV series. Today, she is considered the face of Nollywood and one of Africa’s most recognizable faces.
A towering presence in the international music scene, Kidjo won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2008, and has been nominated for numerous other awards. She collaborated with Dave Matthews, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, and Bono, among others. National Public Radio has called her “Africa’s greatest living diva.” She has also been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002, and is a peace activist.
Here is a man with many hats. Senegal’s own Youssou N’Dour is at the forefront of the popular West African music genre mbalax, which combines sabar — traditional drumming and dance from Senegal — with Western influences like jazz, soul, and rock. The son of a Wolof mother and a Serer father, N’Dour is also known in the political arena. In 2012, he ran for the presidency of Senegal, but was disqualified based upon supposedly illegitimate campaigning tactics. However, he was named the tourism and culture minister to Senegal’s cabinet.
Sources: en.wikipedia.org, therichest.com
Born in Nigeria to a Yoruba family, Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. The Nobel Prize committee said he was “one who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.” His plays and novels are considered some of the finest neo-colonial literature in the world. Blowback from Soyinka’s politics and criticism of African dictatorships caused him to flee the country for a period after Gen. Sani Abacha put a bounty on his head. He has been a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Loyola Marymount University.
Sources: en.wikipedia.org, forbes.com
She won an Academy Award for her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster,” a performance the late movie critic Roger Ebert described as one of the best in the history of the cinema. Born on a farm in Benoni, South Africa, Theron moved at age 19 to Los Angeles to try out modeling, and maybe some acting. The results have been unparalleled. Box offices hits all over the place, the face of multiple makeup lines, and her HIV/AIDS activism for Africa make her one of the most powerful celebrities in the world.
Up for an Oscar for her portrayal as Patsey in the film, “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o made her silver screen debut year to thunderous acclaim. Born in Mexico and raised in Nairobi, Nyong’o starred first in the hit Kenyan TV series “Shuga,” and later enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Yale. She was cast by director Steve McQueen after numerous audition rounds in the role of Patsey, and now her career has been cemented. She’s on her way.
“Fela!” Shout it with reverence, or actually see the Broadway production with the same title based upon the life, times and music of this fierce Nigerian. The man who arguably put the Afrobeat genre on the international map, Kuti led a rocky but extraordinary life. He died in 1997. Through his recordings he highlighted the brutal tactics of the Nigerian government and police. His commune, the Kalakuta Republic, was attacked often, and he was jailed in the 80s by the Buhari government. His rousing music still reigns as Afrobeat royalty today. His son Femi is a famous musician too.
Leader. Warrior. Activist. Freedom fighter. International icon. President. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa, and died on Dec. 5, 2013, at Houghton Estate. He was, and remains, the definition of a worldwide celebrity, beloved for his actions and accomplishments. What else is there to say about this man? Rest in peace, Madiba.
*Correction: The original published version of this slideshow failed to recognize author Chinua Achebe’s passing.