Eight centuries ago Mali was the center of the vast Mande Empire of the warrior king Sundiata Keita. Today, in terms of dollars, this northwestern African country is one of the poorest in the Motherland. But in culture and music, Mali is a superpower.

Since the late 1970’s, the music scene has been led by men: the singer–songwriter Salif Keita (who is claimed to be a Sundiata descendant), the blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure and the kora master Toumani Diabate. But in 1989, Oumou Sangare set off a sociocultural revolution with her solo debut that shifted the country away from its traditional male-centric point of view.

“I wanted to speak for women in Mali,” says Sangare, a beautiful singer–songwriter–bandleader with a feminist agenda. “To speak about their pain, their lives, their condition.” Born in 1968 in Bamako, the country’s capital, Sangare witnessed her mother and other women suffer under the accepted practice of polygamy, and she was determined not to be dictated to by men.

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Nurtured in the female vocal tradition of the Wassoulou region—ancient male hunting songs with ecstatic dancing—Sangare first appeared onstage at age 6 with her mother’s blessing. In her teens she was recruited by the National Ensemble of Mali, a performing-arts troupe, but left at age 18 to be the lead vocalist of the big band Djoliba Percussions during its global tour. The experience gave her the confidence to form her own band. At 21 she released her first solo work, Moussolou, which means “women,” to critical and commercial success in Europe.

Foreigners listening to her music find it primal, so pure that it transcends language, gender and ethnic barriers. Back in Mali, Sangare’s lyrical challenges to arranged marriages and misogyny have made her a cause célèbre. “I was expecting criticism,” she says, “not the support from women, especially the young girls. It was the right moment; all the women needed that.”

But the success of Sangare’s projects is secondary to her music’s message: “I want to denounce everything that is not normal for women in Mali,” she says. “From today until tomorrow, I will continue to fight as long as I can.” Her double-CD anthology, Oumou, will be released this March.