In mid-April 2020, my mind was still reeling from the new realities of the global pandemic: ambulances passed my apartment in Queens every five minutes, day and night; friends and family were sick and fighting for their lives; everything that earned my income cancelled and economic depression was certain.
One night I opened YouTube and the first video I saw, from Igbo traditional ogene group Ejyk Nwa Mba, was a spirited appeal to God to explain this pandemic. I felt, in that moment, how this experience, different in every location, was nevertheless affecting us all. I was excited by this musical response and began digging through the regional abundance of YouTube for more responses to the pandemic from African and Afro-diasporic musicians. This playlist is playfully entitled “The Crown,” in reference to the corona of the virus and the undeniable genius of the artistic response.
There are plenty of humorous takes, which—depending on your mood—might be comic relief or overly lighthearted, given the horrendous global impact of this pandemic. In early March it was hard to imagine where we’re at now: upwards of 26 million cases and close to 900 thousand deaths at the time of this writing.
The first musical responses I saw were the DJ/VJ remixes of Cardi B’s Instagram response: the now classic trap version (I even heard this bumping on car stereos in March) and the Afrobeats response. I still love the energy of Dominican dembo artist Yofrangel’s video hit which depicts him rapping from an ambulance while nurses attempt to treat him for the virus.
In the followup “La Cuarentena,” the artist is stuck at home, eating whatever he can get his hands on and trying to stay sane. In a similar vein: Kenya’s Padi Wubonn, “Corona Greetings” on socially distant greetings; the live-stream voyeur’s anthem “Vibrate” from Konshens and Afro B; Dee 1’s “Corona Clap,” Tyga and Curtis Roach’s “Bored In the House,” and these two silly takes from Kenya’s Dogo Charlie with Munaisa.
These two dark soca bangers put me in mood to wine by myself: St. Vincent’s Dynamite advises the virus to skip the island, “we got bush fi dat,” and St. Lucia’s JayDa paints a spooky picture in “Lockdown.” There are many dance tunes from across the continent that use the pliant, three-syllable word “Corona” as the hook. Standouts include the South African Ama-piano anthem from Mapara a Jazz; a dance banger from Mali’s Calibre 27; this hard kuduro jam from Angola’s Sharon; and South Sudan’s "Check B."
As is to be expected, there are also many saccharine songs, often from prominent artists, but those tunes did not make the cut of this playlist. However, there are some songs that have truly uplifting energy, tunes that could be enduring classics beyond a throwaway jingle to remind people to wash their hands and get the artists some quick NGO money. An early favorite comes from New Orleans’ Shamaar Allen, “Quarantine and Chill,” which celebrates the beauty of the people and culture of New Orleans, who survive adversity through music and community; and Jamaica’s Koffee sharing a touching anthem, “Lockdown,” that twists the meaning of the word.
Many of the songs are made by younger artists in newer international pop styles, including a number of trap tunes (here’s a favorite from Malawi’s Born Chriss), but traditional pop styles also make a strong showing: Danny P's guitar-band gospel from Kenya; from DR Congo, Paradis des Stars with a slamming générique about the virus; an upbeat jam from Nana S Bibata from Burkina; Ghanaian singer Grace Osei’s highlife lament; DJ Mfundhisi’s upbeat Tsonga tune; and this multi-artist anthem from Ethiopia.
Of course, there are many that didn’t make this playlist, because I haven’t heard them yet! Tweet at me with your recommendations. But also, many artists have moved on, trying to figure out how to stay relevant and make an income without live performances. These topical songs might just be a moment in time, but there are a couple gems that might last beyond this year and hopefully bring us some joy in our recollections.