South Africa's Post-Apartheid Party Sound
An underground South African sound in the 1990s, kwaito continues to mutate across genres and cross over into the mainstream -- most recently, or perhaps most visibly, expressed by the kwaito pantsula dancers in Beyonce's "Run The World (Girls)" music video. MTV Iggy's Marlon Bishop takes a quick look back at how the genre originiated, and where it's headed next.
In 1994, the people of South Africa voted freely for the first time in history, electing Nelson Mandela as president, ending 46 years under the oppressive apartheid system of white-only rule and enforced segregation. That very same year, the group Boom Shaka released their first album, introducing South Africa to the new pop music sound that would define the decade: kwaito.
It’s hardly a coincidence. In many ways, kwaito expressed what the new South Africa stood for. It was music made by and for black South Africans, without anybody else getting in the way and telling people what they had to listen to. “For the first time, black people are owning their own record companies and studios,” says Gavin Steingo, a South African music expert at Columbia University and the author of an upcoming book about Kwaito. “The musicians were black, the performers were black, and it was totally self-determined. Kwaito was about black empowerment.”
Free to create their own pop music, black South Africans didn’t look to the traditional music styles of the past. The kwaito sound that emerged was urban, modern, electronic and international in scope. Mainly, it was a local take on house music, slowed way down to a more mellow groove, with subtle dashes of R&B and rap.
House had come into the country in the 80s in the form of informally distributed bootlegs (a story we talk about in more detail in our article on Township Tech.) South African producers took those club sounds and added simple vocals often described as chanting – not quite singing and not quite rapping. The result made township party audiences go wild.
Boom Shaka – cleverly named after both the phrase “boom-shaka-laka” and the famed Zulu king – was the first kwaito group, but they didn’t exactly spring up out of nowhere. They were the creation of Oskido, Don Laka and Christos Katsaitis, three producers who founded a label called Kalawa, which would become one of the most important kwaito imprints. The Kalawa crew hand picked Boom Shaka’s members Junior Spear thrower, Lebo Mathosa, Theo Nhlengethwa and Thembi Seete and wrote their songs, starting with the single “It’s About Time” in 1993, which became a national hit.
Other artists and labels soon sprung up mostly in the townships surrounding Johannesburg, each with their own take on the kwaito sound. Trompies, one of the biggest groups in the genre, came out with their first album Sigiya Nengoma in 1994. Two powerful solo artists, Arthur Mafokate and M’du Masilela, battled for the title of “King of Kwaito.” Both artists exerted their influence by eventually starting their own records labels and nurturing even newer artists.
At first however, nobody in the South African music industry was paying kwaito much attention. Major labels and radio stations ignored the music, dismissing it as “ghetto music.” Artists like Arthur and M’du were selling records out of the car-trunks, and selling well. Eventually, record labels like CCP (the EMI subsidiary in South Africa) began to license and distribute their records, often selling over 100,000 units of a single release. Radio attention at last arrived when a youth-oriented station called YFM was founded in the Jo’burg area in 1997, reacting to the young government’s attempts to create strong quotas for local music. The station seized on the underground kwaito fad to become one of the biggest in the region.
By the 2000s, there was nothing underground about kwaito. Younger kwaito artists like Mzekezeke, Zola and Ntando began to regularly win the “Artist of the Year” prizes at the South African Music Awards. Bubblegum and R&B artists started collaborating with kwaito groups in hopes of a career boost of their own. The message was clear: kwaito is pop music now.
Starting around 2005 however, kwaito started to get faster and morph back into the House music it originally came from, leading some to claim that kwaito is now a genre of the past. Many of the same kwaito artists seamlessly transitioned into House artists, and for many, the terms are actually interchangeable.
Kwaito expert Gavin Steingo says that, whatever you choose to call it, the original kwaito vibe has its place and time. “I think in a way kwaito outlived its usefulness for that first phase of excitement and black empowerment and making your own music,” says Steingo. “South Africa is in a new phase now, and House music is an expression of that.”
Feature image: Lebo Mathosa of South African kwaito group, Boom Shaka. Photo: Getty