The Cultural Legacy of Yoruba

Even if you’ve never heard of the Yoruba, it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to their culture. Whether it was the hypnotic white body paint in Beyoncé’s “Sorry” video or Paul Simon’s incorporation of Santeria symbolism in his Broadway musical, The Capeman, this rich culture has fascinated countless artists throughout the years. And though outsiders may never understand the full scope of Yoruba, we can explore the roots of its pervasive influence on the mainstream.

The Basics

To start with, “Yoruba” is a pretty broad term. It refers to a West African ethnic group, as well as their language and religious philosophy. Yorubaland, the historic area the group inhabited, stretched across the southwest area of Nigeria and small parts of Benin and Togo. Today, people of Yoruba descent make up one of the largest populations in not just modern-day Nigeria, but the African continent as a whole. 

Historic Yorubaland. Image credit: CommonRollebon,  CC BY-SA 3.0 .

Historic Yorubaland. Image credit: CommonRollebon, CC BY-SA 3.0.

What’s even more interesting is how deep these roots go. Despite the fact that the Yoruba had no written language until 1852, their strong tradition of oral history tells us that they were present in West Africa as early as the 7th century.  And, by the 11th century, the Yoruba had become the dominant cultural force in what is now Nigeria.

Living for the City

Contrary to what many may imagine about medieval Africa, the Yoruba were largely an urbanized people, with an intricate, bureaucratic government.  

However, cities weren’t just the seat of political power—they also played an important role in cultural development. Because cities were densely populated, guilds of craftsmen and artists formed easily. Working closely together, these artisans developed skills that left the Yoruba unmatched artistically in that region for generations.

Above all else, the Yoruba were best known for a naturalistic sculpting style—terra cotta and brass sculptures were among the most enduring pieces of the time.

Bronze Head from Ife  (c. 14th century). Image credit:  I, Sailko,  CC BY-SA 3.0 , 

Bronze Head from Ife (c. 14th century). Image credit:  I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0

But their influence certainly didn’t end with visual art. Today, the Yoruba religion is one of the most celebrated aspects of the culture.

An Evolution of Gods

The Yoruba religion has been described as a folk philosophy, a system of belief developed to give meaning to the physical and spiritual worlds. It includes a divine creator, which is represented by a trinity. But, since the Yoruba believe that the human mind can’t quite fathom an all-powerful god, they also look to lesser deities—know as Orishas—which represent facets and qualities of the divine. 

While many cultures without a written language have been lost to time, the tight-knit communities, oral tradition, and veneration of ancestors and elders that define the Yoruba have enabled their beliefs to survive in the face of much persecution. Indeed, these practices were so deeply ingrained in the Yoruba people that, even through the brutal transatlantic slave trade, the traditions never died—they merely transformed. For example, slaves under Spanish colonial rule in Cuba were forbidden from openly worshipping Orishas by their Catholic slave owners. But they discovered a clever way around that problem.

After noticing similarities between their deities and the pantheon of Christian saints, the displaced Yoruba realized they could honor Orishas on days of celebration for their Catholic counterparts. This allowed them to practice their religion in plain sight, without fear of retribution. 

“Lucumí” was the name given to this new faith by its practitioners. But the Spanish settlers mocked this so-called “worship of saints” with a title that may be more familiar to those outside the religion: Santería.

Santería traveled the world, arriving wherever its adherents settled. It’s still practiced in Cuba and across Central America and the Caribbean, as well as the United States. New York City, for example, has a large Afro-Cuban population, which has allowed Santería to grow there. 

Still, since those who’ve practiced the religion have long been persecuted and mocked, many of Santería’s secrets remain closely guarded. And though it’s technically possible to convert, actually doing so is a long, sometimes expensive, and deeply spiritual process. Under the tutelage of a “godparent”—an experienced priest or priestess—an initiant learns rituals deliberately guarded from outsiders. 

But, despite the hard work involved, many people in younger generations are seeking to reconnect with their heritage by consulting with these priests and priestesses (known as santeros and santeras, respectively). And these conversations are starting to show up more frequently in popular culture.

Yoruba in the 21st Century

The French-Cuban musical duo, Ibeyi. Image credit: Maya Dagnino.  CC BY-SA 4.0 .

The French-Cuban musical duo, Ibeyi. Image credit: Maya Dagnino. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Though Santería was conceived as a discreet way to keep Yoruba traditions alive, today, it’s being talked about a bit more openly.

In 2017, the popular New York City-based rapper Princess Nokia released a single called “Brujas,” (caution: contains strong language, which may be objectionable to some) which details her relationship with ancestral magic. The song’s music video integrates symbolism and rituals from Santería. 

Depictions of Santería are also showing up on TV. On Spike Lee’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, there’s a recurring character named Lulu (played by real-life santera Santana Caress Benitez), who performs pared down, but still authentic rituals for the main character DeWanda. 

Of course, it’s not just Santería that keeps the Yoruba culturally relevant. In recent years, more and more artists have included references to Orishas—as well as other aspects of Yoruba culture—in their work. One prominent example is Ibeyi, a musical duo comprised of French-Cuban twin sisters Lisa and Naomi Diaz, and named for the Orisha depicted by a pair of twins. (Fun fact: not only do the Yoruba instill spiritual significance in pairs of twins, they also have one of the highest rates of twin birth of any ethnic group.)

And then there’s Beyoncé. 

In Bey’s recent works, we’ve seen some high profile references to Oshun, the Orisha of fresh water, fertility, love, and sexuality—most notably, in the visual album that accompanies the singer’s 2016 LP, Lemonade. The video for “Sorry” includes the body painting work of Laolu Sanbanjo, while “Hold Up” shows the singer unleashing the floodgates of her wrath while decked in a color traditionally associated with Oshun: golden yellow. 

This motif continued in an underwater maternity shoot with Daniela Vesco, where marigold and maroon fabric encircled Beyonce’s round belly—which, interestingly, contained twins. But the most explicit homage to Oshun has to be her 2017 Grammy Awards performance. Dressed head to toe in gold attire and noticeably pregnant, Beyonce embodied an impressive depiction of the sacred Orisha.

On the surface, it may seem surprising that a widely displaced culture—one with very little written history—is having such a big impact on the mainstream in the 2010s. But it makes sense. More than a millennium later, the continued influence of the Yoruba is a testament not only to the power of their ideas, but to the resilience of the people themselves.