As Americans, we tend to live in our own little culture bubble of top 40 radio, while around the world famous musicians we've never heard of thrive in their home markets. Yet the best things about music are universal, and even if foreign language songs rarely dominate American markets, there are a lot of incredible pop music Americans never hear. That should change.
Here are nine famous musicians who, despite not having name recognition stateside, are some of the biggest stars in the world. They're as catchy as the best American pop. Take a listen:
Indonesia native Agnes Monica, aka Agnez Mo, is just as famous in her home country for being a pop singer as she is for being an actress, according to Billboard. She released her debut album in 2003 and won an acting award the same year. According to Australia's Daily Life, Mo "has spent the past decade working her way to a position of total domination in the Indonesian industry; she has won so many awards that her paperweight collection has its own Wikipedia entry."
Her 2014 collaboration with Timbaland and T.I. on "Coke Bottle" was hailed as a quiet revolution; Mo wanted to prove to those who doubted an Asian musician could make it on an international stage. "I wanted to show them that yes, I'm from Indonesia," she told Dope Magazine. "I never said that it's going to be easy, but once you set your goal, you kind of just have to believe and try to make it happen." She's well on her way, even though she's still a ways from well-known stateside.
Belgian superstar Stromae is a huge success story in Europe, but he's yet to reach the same level of fame in the U.S. His single "Alors On Danse" was "the most-played French-language single of 2010," according to Vulture, and his 2013 album reached No. 1 in an astounding 16 countries. The young singer styles his music as smart dance.
When Vulture asked Stromae, "Do you think it's possible for non-French speakers to fully appreciate your music?" he replied, "Yes, I think it's possible. The proof is that we do exactly the same all the time in Europe. We don't understand any words of English music, but it's not a problem to understand the feeling, and to love it." All the same, Stromae's recent attempts to break into the U.S. scene have yet to catapult him to the top of the charts, even in spite of a Kanye West cosign.
The Kardashians aren't the only famous Armenians. Pop star Sirusho won her first award for singing at the tender age of 9, and has since piled up award after award for her contributions to Armenian music and the traditional culture there. In 2008, she was the first woman to represent Armenia at the Eurovision Song Contest.
"I have grown up in front of [Armenians'] eyes," Sirusho told Eurovision before the 2008 contest. "They have seen me since I was very little. They have followed my career from the first time I entered the stage, they have given me my awards. Now that I entered the Eurovision Song Contest stage, I have seen that I have relatives not only among Armenians, but also among Europeans, who share the same feelings and the same passion for my song. I will just sing for all of them, and I love them the way they are!"
Mexican rock band Mana are largely considered the U2 of Latin America. The band formed in 1986, and have since become one of the most influential and successful Latin American bands of all time. In February, Mana teamed up with Shakira to release the single "Mi Verdad," which helped the band become the first with three No. 1 debuts in the 28-year history of the Hot Latin Songs chart.
"The cool thing is that we think it's important to share our culture, that's why we're still doing it in Spanish," Mana drummer Alex Gonzalez told CNN. "I mean Mana could've done an English album years ago, but it's not about marketing or sales or anything like that. It's more about sharing your culture, sharing your philosophy, your ideals, your music."
The Brazilian singer, who's been a local legend for nearly two decades, pioneered a genre of music called "Tecno Brega," which translates to "cheesy techno." Her surge in popularity, according to the Los Angeles Times, owes much to Brazil's recent economic boom. "The cultural industry in this traditionally unequal country has slowly been changing too," the Los Angeles Times wrote, "and Brazil is more open to embracing home-grown cultural movements."
"Brazil is changing, it's opening its mind, it's getting to know its own cultures," Amarantos, aka "Brazilian Beyoncé," told Los Angeles Times. "Brega is being real. It's being happy. It's not caring. It's being free."
The Indian musician is probably best known in the U.S. as the man behind the music of Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won two Oscars. But Rahman is arguably the most popular Indian artist alive today, who, according to Time, "enjoys the godlike devotion of India's youth." In 2009, Time magazine named him one of their Time 100 for his life-spanning work in the music industry.
"To learn a different style, you have to respect the culture," Rahman told Variety about his work that incorporates influences from all over the world. "You have to start by loving the people, the way of life, and then ultimately the music comes by itself as a part of that respect. It's not something you can just pick up and use like a sample."
Nigerian pop mogul D'Banj is a megastar in his home country. According to the Guardian, he's "the biggest name in entertainment in Nigeria and has the potential to become the first-ever artist from Africa to compete on equal terms with any acts in the western pop firmament." He has yet to break through to American audiences, but it's not for lack of grit.
"Yes, we have MTV, yes, we sell millions of records and have endorsement deals, but we've never felt as if we're part of the same music industry as the rest of the world — the Kanye Wests, the Adeles and Tinie Tempahs," D'Banj told the Guardian. "I see what I'm doing now as the bridge that we've been looking for from Africa to the mainstream world. I want others to see the potential in my country, other than our oil and natural resources. That's what's making me move. I feel like a new artist."
French electro-pop band Yelle are a household name in France and have been making music for a decade, but they haven't made it in the U.S. yet. That could still change, as the trio signed with mega producer Dr. Luke in 2014 for their latest record. "Like the K-pop superstars of today or the '90s swinging pop of Pizzicato Five," Paste wrote. "You don't need to be bilingual to enjoy the hell out of Yelle." Though their music is in French, its danceable appeal is universal.
"It's maybe exotic for English speaking people to listen French songs," Yelle told Virgin Airlines' magazine. "But yes, the music is very important and if the people are curious they'll try to find the translation of the songs. It's not a barrier, we have this particularity and it's cool!"
South Korean pop star/rapper CL is nothing short of a sensation in her home country. Before she was a solo performer, she was (and remains) part of K-pop girl group 2NE1, a group that, according to Time, "broke Billboard records as one of the most successful K-pop acts around." CL is a great live performer, and she's shattering stereotypes about what it means to be a female Asian musician on the international scene.
"Though nothing from across the Pacific has been able to match the ubiquity of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' in the U.S." Time wrote, "CL could be the artist to show America that K-pop is much more than a viral phenomenon when she strikes out on her own."
June 16, 2015, 10:41 a.m.: This story has been updated.