Barack Obama Reveals Favorite Tunes of 2021: African Artists Shine

The world has never cared much about the music taste of its world leaders. We rarely question whether people like Emmanuel Macron or Recep Tayyip Erdogan love Adele or The Weeknd, and if they dared venture an opinion it would be dismissed as an embarrassing attempt to keep in touch with an ever fickle audience.

With former US President Barack Obama, however, things are a bit different. The traditional year-end lists of his favorite books, music and movies have more than a touch of authenticity. “Art always supports and nourishes the soul,” he writes in a note accompanying a list of 27 songs released in 2021. “Hope you find a new artist or song to add to your own playlist.”

The seeming improbability of a 60-year-old man successfully keeping in touch with current musical trends has led some commentators to suggest that the playlist was put together by an intern or his Gen Z daughters. But the themes running through the songs—human rights, triumph over adversity, and the healing power of music—surely feel like those are close to Obama’s heart.

The songs on the playlist of African artists are among the best. gold chains by Genesis Owusu, a Ghanaian-Australian singer whose debut album Smiling without teeth critically acclaimed upon its release in March, it is built around dark, brooding beats and encompassing, soulful vocals.

Mdou Moctar, a talented guitarist well established in his native Niger, had his first international release this year, and Obama now has a very bright spotlight on his urgent, hypnotic Tala Tannam. Moctar’s political themes are shared by Ethiopian songwriter Teddy Afro, whose armash uses mournful brass and wah-wah guitar to express his dream of unity in diversity.

At the other end of the spectrum is white indie rock, represented by Baltimore’s brilliant Wye Oak, Parquet Courts’ Walking at the pace of the inner city, and I don’t live here anymore from The War On Drugs, with particularly powerful echoes of 1980s stadium rock such as Bruce Springsteen and Simple Minds.

A slightly retro vibe can be heard throughout the playlist; witchoo by Durand Jones & The Indications pays a glorious tribute to early 80s jazz funk, Jon Batiste’s Freedom has its roots in the soul of the 60s, and there are more than a few echoes of Marvin Gaye’s What is going on at Little Simz’s Female, taken from her recent and critically acclaimed album Sometimes I may be introverted.

A few artists will have been shocked and elated by their inclusions, and delighted with the boost at the end of another difficult year for musicians. Dominican-Italian singer-songwriter Yendry tweeted: “This year I released a song called YA…unfortunately I have not received any support so far.” She thanked Obama with a suggestion, “Maybe you can join the next label strategy meeting!”

In the meantime, Notice by Tammy Lakkis, a rising star in Detroit’s underground music scene, was quietly released this year on a small label through the independent music platform Bandcamp. The smooth electro sound with captivating vocals on top of that has apparently been overlooked a lot; needless to say, all vinyl copies are now sold out.

Amid the ever-changing genres on the playlist — reggaeton, rap, and Jamaican dancehall — there’s a confessional that’s both touching and moving. Canadian folk singer Allison Russell released an album this year exploring her recovery from the trauma of abuse and her song night flyer is one of the highlights.

Yebba, from Arkansas, who also works in and around folk music, has an incredible voice that she uses to advocate for mental health awareness. Obama’s propensity to highlight songs that in turn highlight important causes and push people to unite in their support is perhaps best seen in Yotuel’s Homeland and life, which has been strongly associated with the protests in Cuba against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some may dismiss his playlist as just a list of songs, or an undisguised attempt to stay relevant, but it actually serves as a welcome reminder that music can be extraordinarily beautiful and also have the power to effect change.

Updated: December 18, 2021, 2:11 PM

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