The first time that Star Feminine Band – a group of 7 girl musicians from the ages of 12 to 19 – played a show in their West African nation of Benin, many in the crowd broke out in both applause and tears.
While the country has seen its share of successful female musicians – singer Angélique Kidjo, for example, has won five Grammys – residents of Natitingou, a town in Benin’s conservative north had never seen musical female power in action.
“It was the first time [that girls in the community] saw women play instruments,” says Sandrine Ouei, the group’s 19-year-old drummer, recalling the event in 2016. “We’re showing the world that women have the capacity and the potential, that they can make music.”
That’s the ethos of Star Feminine Band. Since the group’s debut, self-titled album in 2020 – which blends rock and roll with traditional Western African and Beninese music – their music has captured listeners’ attention across the globe for pushing boundaries lyrically, linguistically and culturally. They’ve made a splash in their hometown, signed onto an international label and played shows in France and Switzerland — and in June they’re playing at Roskilde, a major music festival in Denmark.
“These girls, when they sing, you just feel the power,” says Abbey Wright, founder of the campaign Planet Resolution. Her project aims to get an artist from every country in the world to record a song about climate change. She commissioned the band’s latest single “Resolution Song,” released in April.
The lyrics go, “I’m here standing with you, here, standing with me, standing with the world on our shoulders.”
Rockin’ out to girls’ rights
In fact, many of the band’s songs – available to stream for free online – tackle social problems, especially girls‘ and women’s issues. So they’re kind of like The Linda Lindas, the all-girl teen punk sensation from Los Angeles — only from Benin.
The songs are written by André Balaguemon, a professional musician and a father of two of the girls in the band.
In “Femme Africaine,” for example, the singers declare: “You can become prime minister of the country. Get up, we have to do something. African women, be independent.” That’s an important message in a country where, as of February 2021, a little over 8% of seats in parliament were held by women, according to U.N. Women.
And in the song “L’excision,” they sing about female genital mutilation, which 9.2% of women between the ages of 15 to 49 have undergone in Benin, according to UNICEF. “Africa, my Africa, we must stop destroying our women,” they sing.
Star Feminine Band does all this in eight languages – English, French and the local languages Waama, Ditamari, Bariba, Fulfulde, Yoruba and Fon. “It’s to pass on our message to those who don’t understand French,” says 12-year-old drummer Angelique Balaguemon. Although it’s the country’s official language – used in school, politics and the media – not everyone speaks it.
“It’s not difficult to [sing about these topics] because we’re women ourselves,” says Dorcas M’po, a 14-year-old percussion player. And she knows women in town who have experienced these issues, too.
A father’s dream
Balaguemon started the band in 2016 hoping to inspire change among the treatment of women and girls in Benin.
He was inspired by a dark memory from his own childhood. On a walk home from school, he saw a man beating his wife. The visceral image stuck with him.
“My goal is to go to the ends of the earth to defend the rights of women and children,” he says.
To get the group started, Balaguemon would first need to teach girls how to play instruments. So he moved to Natitingou from the country’s capital Cotonou to offer free music lessons.
He specifically chose this town, he says, because it’s a place “where women’s rights are not respected,” he says.
To financially support this endeavor, he rented out two houses he built in central Benin. The mayor’s office got on board with the project, provided a practice space and helped advertise the lessons over the radio. Soon, girls started trickling in.
And so Star Feminine Band was born. He put his daughters Angélique on the drum kit and 14-year-old Grâce Marina on the keyboards. Anne Sayi, 15, joined as the guitarist; Julienne Sayi, 17, as the bassist; and Urrice Borikapei, 17, Dorcas and Ouei as drummers.
A conservative town reacts
At first, people in Natitingou “didn’t understand the project,” says Balaguemon. Critics told him that “girls shouldn’t play music.” But after that first concert on the town square, “everyone started liking Star Feminine Band.”
Many girls and women in the area love the band’s message – including former child brides, says Dorcas. “They support us [for singing about them].”
The music helps them question why child marriage “continues to happen,” she adds.
In one song, “The Forced Marriage,” for example, the girls sing: “Why impose a man on your daughter? African parents, think of us and our future.”
That the music is resonating among local girls this way “shows that people who are closer to this scourge are better placed to talk about [these issues],” says Beninese journalist and culture writer Eric Azanney. “It grabs attention.”
Girls aren’t the only fans. “There are boys who love the [gender equality] subjects” of their music too, says Dorcas – including classmates and members of the school administration and local government.
And some guys just like the band because they’re proud the girls are from their hometown, says Balaguemon.
Making it into the big time
Star Feminine Band’s big break onto the international stage came by chance. Jérémie Verdier, a trumpet player originally from Avignon, France, was taking time off from work to volunteer in Benin in 2018. He overheard the group practicing in what he calls a “a teeny tiny room” in a building behind Natitingou’s local museum.
At the mere mention of him being a musician, the girls invited him to play with their band in a concert later that week – before they even knew if he was any good, he jokes. On stage, he quickly fell in love with the band’s music.
The girls were still on his mind when he returned to Europe. In 2019, he hooked them up with the Parisian record label Born Bad, known for its off-the-beaten-path artists. It released Star Feminine Band’s first record.
Today, Verdier, now based in Germany, serves as the girls’ manager.
Since the band’s formation, the girls have played countless shows in Natitingou, made several music videos — and later this year, they’ll release their second album and tour Europe again.
For now, practice continues in Natitingou. The girls get together three times a week when school is in session and more during vacations. And every Sunday, they huddle around a computer screen to Zoom with Verdier. He’s teaching them English so they can communicate with fans when they go on international tours.
During one Sunday lesson, the girls perform an acapella version of an unreleased, English-language song from their upcoming album. They swing back and forth, swaying in unison.
“Women stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights,” they sing, nearly chanting. “Don’t underestimate her – because she can do what you do, too.”
Nick Roll is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.