The beginning of kwaito in South Africa followed a similar trajectory. The genre comprised the sounds of South African township youth: bold, assertive, and irreverent, it represented a joyous cry of freedom and release at the euphoric dawn of South African political independence in 1994. Just as punk had signaled a sonic ground zero, so too kwaito took a page from revolutionary Soweto youth of 1976. Its main scenesters seemed in too much haste to cast a studious gaze backwards; they simply wanted everything “now now,” as they say in South Africa.
Shunned by established record labels, kwaito’s proponents adopted a DIY ethic to make their voices heard. Eventually, they were heard and subsequently accepted until they ultimately ran out of steam and ideas.
And then, out comes amapiano from the same perennially marginalized townships of Johannesburg (Alexandra, Soweto, and Vosloorus) and Pretoria (Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Ga-Rankuwa, and Soshanguve). Fed on a steady diet of raunchy beats, youthful braggadocio, soulful house grooves, and the omniscient log drum, with sprinklings of Mamelodi Bacardi (a subgenre of house music), amapiano sprouted on the fallow ground of an increasingly tired music scene.
Undoubtedly, the international explosion of amapiano has been fueled more than anything else by social media. Instant fame equals instant celebrity. Interestingly, many of the current amapiano stars don’t even have full albums to their credit, most of their popularity stemming from being featured on other artists’ cuts. Some don’t even have record deals but are major players in many other ways.
There are clubs and small platforms devoted to amapiano in London, and the form is also making inroads in other areas of the world, especially in Southern Africa and countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria. The music now has its own annual awards ceremony to honor artists who have made important contributions, and it has been recognized as a valid genre by the South African Music Awards.
After its initial buoyancy, South African hip-hop reached what appeared to be a creative impasse. Perhaps its most obvious and persistent crisis is that it shamelessly mimics the US version, which is also at a dead end after its capture by a rapacious corporate culture. Moreover, once South African hip-hop attained mainstream visibility, it simply became too comfortable to sustain its creative hunger.
Amapiano, no longer an underground phenomenon, is presently drumming relentlessly on global ears. But there is the nagging feeling that, once it achieves considerable global prominence, it will be sapped of its life force, motivation, and inventiveness. Unfortunately, this is what usually happens when an underground genre transitions into the mainstream.
One of the main strengths of amapiano is an undiluted love of the groove, the roll of good times, and physical dissolution in the transports of rhythm. This trait was common to all Black music until the alarming turn contemporary hip-hop took. Breakdancing, or b-boying, which used to be an integral part of hip-hop culture, has been transformed, since its inevitable corporatization, into an international competitive sport. Suddenly, after the entrenchment of gangsta rap, it no longer seemed cool to know how to dance or dispense feel-good vibes.
US inner cities, decimated by the crack epidemic, gang wars, and mass incarceration, were rapidly losing their soul, and perhaps also their creative distinctiveness. Life seemed cheap, meaningless, and disposable, ensnared in cycles of violence and poverty. Of course, music had to reflect and embody this bleak outlook, hence the emergence of trap as a hip-hop subgenre. Contemporary South African hip-hop heads have also embraced this counterproductive attitude, which seems forced and inauthentic because, ordinarily, South Africans love to party. The nigga this, bitch that trip just isn’t cutting it. Thus, a wide cultural expanse currently exists between hip-hop and amapiano.
If trap is an expression of societal fragmentation, amapiano gallantly announces the myriad possibilities of jazz, soul, house, and kwaito. Its adherents, in turn, believe in the catharsis, purification, and redemption proffered by the power of the groove. This kind of psychic and physical manifestation is nothing new. Some of it in fact dates back to the killing fields of American slavery that birthed spirituals, gospel, and eventually soul. Or even much earlier, when Africans found forms of release through a hallucinatory ascent into trance and communal rites meant to foster psychic renewal and social cohesion.
One hopes that fans of amapiano would not quickly get bored with the genre as they did with kwaito, Bacardi (another house music subgenre popular in the Pretoria townships of Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, and Soshanguve in the mid-2000s), and, lately, gqom, a frenetic Durban-spawned house subgenre. Any genre, in order to survive, requires considerable reserves of patience and fortitude in the face of overwhelming opposition. For now, amapiano appears to be winning. If it atrophies and becomes extinct, the fault would probably be with its own ranks.
Watching gorgeous women gyrate like boneless mermaids in the clubs of Cape Town, Pretoria, and Johannesburg is quite an experience. It is also pleasing to behold men lose themselves in captivating rhythms, the transformations wrought by the groove.
Apart from its expansive mellow grooves, infectious incantations and harmonies, and infallible log drum, what can be said of amapiano’s attributes? Something that readily comes to mind is the inexhaustible musicality of South African Indigenous languages, notably isiZulu, Setswana, Sesotho, S’pitori, Tsotsitaal, and a fluid assortment of urban lingo culled from gritty, crime-ridden streets. This specific aspect of the genre comes with its own innate inventiveness, and also distinguishes it from other house music subgenres.
House music, we should recall, was hatched in the fringe clubs of Detroit and Chicago in the early 1970s by pioneers such as Frankie Knuckles, Kevin Saunderson, and Ron Hardy, and was initially patronized by Black and LGBTQI+ communities. Hardy’s legendary drug-fueled sessions were characteristically off the chain, clearly forerunners to today’s raves. In the United States, house never managed to gain entry into mainstream culture. And then, almost miraculously, a marginal US genre was adopted in South Africa, where it went mainstream and was repackaged and reexported to the entire world. This says a lot about cultural appropriation, assimilation, and cross-fertilization. South African house has melded with the languages of the country’s tongue, heart, and soul. As such, it has clearly experienced a rebirth and transformation based on apparently fresh foundations. Consequently, if amapiano has roots in house, kwaito, gqom, and Bacardi, it is likely to sound exotic to expatriate ears, and hence its international crossover potential.
Beatmakers and producers are usually the superstars of the scene: Kabza de Small, DJ Maphorisa, De Mthuda, DBN Gogo, Musa Keys, Mellow and Sleazy, Busta 929, and many other up-and-coming figures. The rappers and singers are usually featured artists in the torrential productions of such groups as South Africa’s Samthing Soweto and Zimbabwe’s Sha Sha (a BET Award winner), and newer players such as Kamo Mphela, Focalistic, Lady Du, Bontle Smith, Boohle, Reece Madlisa and Zuma, Daliwonga, Sir Trill, Young Stunna, and others who have to compete with prolific gatekeeping beatmakers.
Maphorisa, a leading figure of the amapiano scene, points out that one of the strengths of the movement is actually its ethos of inclusivity — an expansive democracy that contrasts sharply with the fast-fading gqom genre, which operated liked a cloistered scene. Unsurprisingly, hip-hop artists and others outside the genre are hopping onto the amapiano bandwagon — most notably, Cassper Nyovest, Reason (now known by the amapiano-inspired moniker Sizwe Alakine), Alfa Kat, Heavy-K, Vusi Nova, Costa Titch, and others.
Without the meddling of the major labels, the scene remains a tad too fluid and amorphous for its own good. But perhaps this is precisely what fuels its rampant creativity. Artists, beatmakers and vocalists alike, form partnerships and coalitions to realize their mutual creative aims. At the moment, they don’t seem to have to contend with record execs who insist that “so and so needs to be dropped from the group because they don’t fit the look.” Such behind-the-scenes industry machinations, usually myopic, self-serving, and crassly materialistic, are of no good to any genre.
Amapiano is now at a critical crossroads, poised to transition into fully monetized international contexts where it could earn big bucks and endorsements, and probably also lose its creative essence in the process. Or it could fight fiercely to retain its hard-won independence and creative vision to the detriment of wider global traction. The first scenario is more likely to occur. Already Reece Madlisa and Zuma (collectively called Amaroto, township slang for huge ghetto rats) have signed on with Sony Music Africa.
To be sure, it has been exciting to watch a new genre spring from the deprived townships of the Gauteng Province and take its chances by leaping onto the global stage. The genre seeks to reconnect with the inclusive, cathartic, and liberatory heart of popular dance music, and it deserves to be savored by all those who cherish unfettered creativity not yet captured by visionless corporate interests.
Sanya Osha is the author of several books, including Postethnophilosophy(2011), a work of philosophy; two novels, Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011) and An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012); and an academic study, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition, 2021), among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Featured image: Moses Eaton Jr., Section of Stenciled Plaster Wall and Lating, year unknown. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Edith Gregor Halpert, licensed by CC0: public domain. Accessed October 14, 2022.