#AuxSons is a collaborative, militant and solidary web media
Fati Niger
fati-niger-musicinafrica - Music In Africa

Women in Northern Nigerian music

This article was ori­gi­nal­ly writ­ten for  Music In Afri­ca and sha­red with #Aux­Sons as part of a media part­ner­ship agreement.

This article pro­vides an over­view of the role and sta­tus of women in Nor­thern Nige­rian music, contri­bu­ting both a his­to­ri­cal pers­pec­tive and a dis­cus­sion of recent trends.

His­to­ri­cal overview

The musi­cal tra­di­tions of Nor­thern Nige­ria pre­date both the age of Sha­ria law and Bri­tish colo­nial conquest. Although the his­to­ry of music in the region is domi­na­ted by male figures, there are ins­tances where women played a signi­fi­cant role in the com­po­si­tion and archi­ving of music, espe­cial­ly during times of war. Pro­minent lea­ders of the Gobir King­dom, Ibra­him Baba­ri (1742–1770), Dan Gude (1770–1776) and Bawa Jang­war­zo (1776- 1794), had songs com­po­sed for them and publi­cly per­for­med by women such as Yashe Tsohuwa.

Tra­di­tio­nal­ly, female musi­cians of the region have been invol­ved in the com­po­si­tion of songs and dance forms that can loo­se­ly be cate­go­ri­sed as ‘folk’, inclu­ding lul­la­bies and music for chil­dren (wako­kin reno), songs for deco­ra­ting a new house or a room for a bride (wako­kin dabe), work songs (wako­kin nika) and devo­tio­nal songs (wako­kin bege). This musi­cal heri­tage has been inter­pre­ted as a means for women to gain agen­cy, and to insist on lives that incor­po­rate crea­tive acti­vi­ties into the demands of their pri­vate, domes­tic roles.

Begin­ning in the ear­ly 1980s, when Bol­ly­wood films began to be intro­du­ced to the region, and then later trans­la­ted and remade in the Hau­sa lan­guage, a new genre of music (wako­kin fina-finai) was born. As the Nor­thern Nige­rian film indus­try, known local­ly as Kan­ny­wood, deve­lo­ped in the late 1990s, this style of music (also cal­led nanaye) became wides­pread throu­ghout the Nor­thern Nige­rian enter­tain­ment indus­try. Nanaye songs, which to a large extent car­ry the nar­ra­tive of Kan­ny­wood films, rely on a call-and-res­ponse struc­ture invol­ving both male and female voca­lists,  thus crea­ting oppor­tu­ni­ties for female musi­cians in the sphere of popu­lar music. These musi­cians would lar­ge­ly have learnt their trade as mem­bers of reli­gious reci­tal groups.

The ear­ly 1980s also saw some Nor­thern Nige­rian women emerge as popu­lar musi­cians. Most famous of these was Fun­mi Adams, who per­for­med songs in Hau­sa fea­tu­ring contem­po­ra­ry forms and modern instruments.


Pro­minent female musi­cians in Nor­thern Nigeria

Pro­minent female musi­cians who move bet­ween the spheres of reli­gious music and film music include Maryam A Baba, Bin­ta Laba­ran (popu­lar­ly known as Fati Niger), Mur­ja Baba, Maryam Ami­nu Baba, Maryam Fan­ti­mo­ti, Zai­nab Baba and Zuwai­ra Ismail.

Maryam A Baba has com­po­sed more than 5 000 songs, inclu­ding wor­ship songs and com­po­si­tions for the Kan­ny­wood film indus­try. Her single San­gan­dale is regar­ded as an influen­tial release in the gro­wing invol­ve­ment of women in the Nor­thern Nige­rian film industry.

Ano­ther renow­ned Nor­thern Nige­rian musi­cian, Maryam Fan­ti­mo­ti, began sin­ging at the age of eight as a mem­ber of an Isla­mic reli­gious choir, and later a man­di­ri group. Over the course of her career, she has also grown to be a pro­minent figure in the wider Nor­thern Nige­rian enter­tain­ment industry.


Contem­po­ra­ry music and women in Nor­thern Nigeria 

The region of Nor­thern Nige­ria, which was pla­ced under Sha­ria law in 1999, remains conser­va­tive, with various cultu­ral and social res­tric­tions in place. Howe­ver, des­pite these chal­lenges of equa­li­ty, the voices of women can be increa­sin­gly heard in almost all spheres of enter­tain­ment life in Nor­thern Nigeria.

There are women enter­tai­ners and pro­fes­sio­nal sin­gers at wed­dings and naming cere­mo­nies, poli­ti­cal ral­lies, tra­di­tio­nal sal­lah fes­ti­vi­ties, reli­gious events (where incan­ta­tions and music are played), govern­ment pro­grams and other social events orga­ni­sed by cor­po­rate enti­ties and ins­ti­tu­tions. In the era of glo­ba­li­sa­tion, the prac­tice of kulle (or pur­dah) – the seclu­sion of women from men and stran­gers – has been somew­hat relaxed in some cases, giving rise to musi­cal inter­ac­tion across gen­der lines. Moder­ni­ty has also influen­ced the content of women’s music in Nor­thern Nige­ria, seen in the use of topi­cal lyrics and non-tra­di­tio­nal ins­tru­ments and dances.

At the 2016 Are­wa Music and Movie Awards in Kano – an annual event orga­ni­sed by an umbrel­la body of musi­cians, film­ma­kers, dan­cers and other popu­lar enter­tai­ners from Nor­thern Nige­ria – a new award was ins­ti­tu­ted and given out for best R&B female musi­cian. Mufi­da Adnan, popu­lar­ly known as Moo­fy, was the win­ner for her song Don’t Stop the Music, a track that is remi­nis­cent of her idol Rihan­na in its lyrics and themes. Simi­lar­ly, rap­per Hadi­za Yau – who goes by the stage name of Had­dy Rap­pia – is also gai­ning popu­la­ri­ty in the tra­di­tio­nal­ly conser­va­tive and devout­ly Mus­lim region of Nor­thern Nigeria.

Des­pite these suc­cesses, female musi­cians still do not regu­lar­ly get the atten­tion of event orga­ni­sers and other influen­cers within the enter­tain­ment indus­try. In their quest to find spaces and plat­forms to deve­lop their craft, women in Nor­thern Nige­ria are often met with discrimination.


This article is part of the Music In Afri­ca Connects pro­ject, a mul­ti­fa­ce­ted deve­lop­ment ini­tia­tive aiming to sup­port the music sec­tors of Afri­can coun­tries affec­ted by conflict. To find out more about Music In Afri­ca Connects, click here.

#Aux­Sons has trans­la­ted this article into French as part of a media part­ner­ship agreement.



Ibrahim Malumfashi

Ibrahim Malumfashi is an music lecturer and poet fom Kaduna, Nigeria.

Please choose how you want to receive news from our online media platform #AuxSons by Zone Franche
You can use the unsubscribe link included in the newsletter at any time. Learn more about managing your data and your rights.