The Beats That Move Post-Apartheid South Africa
THESE ARE THE DYNAMIC MUSIC GENRES REDEFINING THE RAINBOW NATION.
South Africa has some of the world’s oldest and richest indigenous musical traditions. But during apartheid, artists found themselves stunted. Musicians faced censorship on a significant scale, with black creators prevented from performing or acquiring formal employment in the arts and white musicians critical of apartheid threatened by government raids.
Artists bucked against this sullen reality by creating new styles, resulting in some of the last century’s most colorful sounds and unifying South Africans against oppression with an established national voice.
Here are the genres shaping the history of South Africa:
This wildly popular mix of colonial-Christian hymns and indigenous music spread through South Africa with the growth of the Zionist church in the 1900s. The songs fused hymnal song structures with traditional African devices like call-and-response choruses, Zulu and Xhosa lyrics and African rhythms.
During apartheid, black musicians were censored significantly. But in churches, where apartheid’s leaders were reluctant to censor, gospel choirs would perform songs about the hardships people were going through.
Groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo used clever wordplay and subtle lyricism in order to avoid breaking the law. They eventually gained worldwide recognition working with American producers like Paul Simon.
Gospel remains the most popular style of music in South Africa, according to a 2015 study. Ukhozi FM, South Africa’s biggest radio station, broadcasts gospels shows to millions every week and hosts regular gospel festivals.
Prison music, or freedom songs, was a sub-genre of gospel that also had a powerful effect on apartheid resistance. Black political prisoners would sing their own adaptations of work songs and hymns like “Give a Thought to Africa.” This provided a sense of rhythm and unity during painstaking forced labor.
Members of Robben Island Prison – where Nelson Mandela was detained for 18 years – were deeply involved in this practice. Inmates sung together to escape the prison’s dismal living conditions.
Some ex-prisoners are now using their freedom to perform prison songs. The Robben Island Singers is a group which still tours today, performing in traditional venues as well as speaking around the world.
Emerging out of Soweto at about the same time as Mandela took office, Kwaito is the mother of post-apartheid South African musical stylings.
With political and economic sanctions demolished, bubblegum pop, house music and rave culture flooded into South Africa. Black artists mixed the Western styles with Zulu mbaqanga and dancehall, beefing up the tracks with deep bass lines and percussive loops and creating new, homegrown rhythms.
Kwaito was the soundtrack of the generation that came of age after apartheid. “Kwaito is a way of life ... it's a voice from the streets that says, here we are, we need to speak now,” leading Kwaito musician Zola told NPR in a recent interview.
South African Hip-Hop
Over the years, hip-hop has developed its own unique essence in the Rainbow Nation. The genre found its following in townships, but unlike kwaito, it never tried to gloss over the realities of township life. Rather, rappers and lyricists delivered unabashed social commentary on issues such as political corruption, gang violence and HIV/AIDS.
The Capetonian hip-hop crew Prophets of Da City, for example, penned tracks like the mbaqanga-tinged “Stop the Violence” and “Ons Stem (Our Voice)" — censorship and racial barriers be damned. The group emerged as heroes of the South African music industry and performed at Mandela’s 1994 inauguration.
Even so, female hip-hop artists have had to hustle in hip-hop's masculine scene. It was only recently that Sho-Madjozi, Rogue and Yugen Blakrok surged into the charts. Rouge declared 2018 “the year of the female” during a hip-hop and street festival last year.
South African Afro-House
House music quickly fell into dialogue with the sound and feeling of the region when it arrived in South Africa in the early 90s. Afro-house's soulful reverberating vocals sung in regional languages and blended with local rhythms gracefully complimented the style's Chicago and Detroit origins.
The sound has since morphed and become a global export. DJ and producer Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo, better known as Black Coffee, is afro-house's global ambassador. Raised in Mandela's hometown of Umtata, he hits the international party circuit, from Coachella to Ibiza and Berlin’s Panorama Bar, with his jazz and pop-infused afro-house.
Gqom hails from the townships of Durban and is the latest iteration of South African electronic music. On first listen, gqom recalls early house for its deep repetition, raw and raucous sound — but also radio DJs' fears that the unrestrained beats of gqom tracks might blow out speakers.
Gqom melodies are sparse and, like kwaito, lack four-on-the-floor beat patterns to accommodate traditional, off-beat African grooves. The style is an onomatopoeia of the clicking consonants in the Zulu and Xhosa languages, translating tribal tradition into an urban soundscape. The genre has made international waves in just a few years' time, with wunderkind then-21-year old DJ LAG making it onto Mixmag’s Breakthrough DJ list 2017.
This South African electro subgenre mixes kwaito with the sounds of Tsonga, a small Bantu indigenous group native to parts of South Africa and southern Mozambique.
Borrowing from the dance-floor ready disco synths and female choirs of the Tsonga, BPMs shoot well into the 100s. Video game-like synths and colorful percussion drives these grooves and their simple melodies.
Vibrant skirts and xibelani dance only add to the style's breakneck speeds. “The faster the better,” says Richard "Nozinja" Mthethwa, the godfather of Shangaan electro. Nozinja pioneered synthesizing African instruments like the marimba to major success — he's released around 25 albums, highlighting the scene’s DIY-ethos.