There is no formula for exiting the current sea of music that has seemed endless over the past two decades – and yet since Kwaito, South African electronic music has done just that, both directly and indirectly. In the last five to ten years, two branches of house music have dominated the South African airwaves: gqom and amapiano. The first, pronounced with the Zulu language clique instead of “gq,” was born in Durban clubs and embraces a darkness embedded in the repetition of house music. The name itself has a similar meaning to “bang”, but the Zulu pronunciation shows a more direct, aggressive tone.
One of the leading proprietors is DJ Lag, a producer from the county of Clermont who blends Zulu songs with spooky, slow-burning synth patches, hard bass and rough rhythms. Songs like “Ice Drop” (2017) and the 2021 single “Raptor” are still obviously designed to stir up crowds at the club, but there’s an eye-opening density and weight there too.
When Beyoncé put together the accompanying soundtrack album “The Lion King: The Gift”, she chose a DJ Lag instrumental to support a strong group of female vocalists, including herself, Philadelphia rapper World Shot, South African artists Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly, and Nigerian Afro-pop star Yemi Alade. The resulting “My Power” is a perfect example of how gqom intersects with global pop music, oozing burning darkness and providing a counterpoint to purer vocals – offering a new shade that artists like Beyoncé hadn’t reached before. Moonchild Sanelly has a few hits of her own, the self-described “ghetto punk of the future” cultivator reaching a wider audience thanks to her single “Demon”, which made the soundtrack to the recently very popular football video game FIFA22.
In an article she wrote for the Red Bull Music Academy, Vivian Host likens the South African city of Durban to Miami and qgom to Miami’s dance music brand. “Like Miami bass or crunk rap to South Florida, gqom is the sound of Durban’s parties and literally the streets – due to South Africa’s phenomenon of giving taxi drivers the latest tunes as a promotional tool,” he writes. .2 Kwaito artists used taxi delivery for a long time years ago, but continue to do so, despite the internet becoming the go-to file sharing method in other parts of the world. Gqom artists have also started sharing tracks via groups on the chat app WhatsApp as the next digital step.
Director Ryan Coogler’s Marvel movie “Black Panther” focuses on a fictional African state called Wakanda, and while telling this story, Coogler wanted to combine real African traditions with science fiction technology. Composer Ludwig Göransson did the same for the score, blending a Xhosa choir with a classical orchestra and polished synths. As an additional step, the team worked with Kendrick Lamar for a companion album featuring several South African artists – including Babes Wodumo, “first lady of gqom” whose 2016 single “Wololo” became an instant classic for the genre. The percussion of the piece sounds like punchy chest hits, with Wodumo’s multi-track vocals followed by a ghostly echo.
Beyond its high-profile collaborations, gqom has spread internationally thanks to dedicated fans who tap into text groups or YouTube channels. Groups like the Boiler Room brought gqom artists to the fore, London label Goon Club Allstars incorporated DJ Lag and Rudeboyz into their labels, and Rome-based Francesco “Nan Kolè” Cucchi was all about Gqom Oh!
Gqom beats also provided fertile ground for South African rappers. Known collectively as Big Nuz, the Durban trio of Mampintsha, R Mashesha and Danger add more experimentation to their vocals rather than keeping their traditional house style. “They make creative vocal choices like whistles and trills,” says Gavin Steingo. “The sound world they create is really beautiful.”
One of South Africa’s biggest rappers, Cassper Nyovest started his career as a teenager in the early 2000s, but has evolved significantly in the intervening years, including incorporating gqom tracks into his repertoire. Also known as “Black Cinderella,” rapper Sho Madjozi brings unrivaled energy to gqom-indebted hits. Madjozi grew up and eventually moved home in South Africa before moving to Tanzania, Senegal and the United States. This global perspective allows Madjozi to quickly switch between various languages and styles. Perhaps his biggest hit, “John Cena” jumps from Tsonga to Swahili to English amidst the whistle-blowing deep bass beat. The smash hit sparked a viral dance challenge on social media – even the headline pro wrestler tried it on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in the United States. And when Madjozi performed the song on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” Cena surprised her in the middle of her performance. The hype around the track was huge, but US record label Epic spotted the uniquely charismatic star at its center and signed a deal with Madjozi in 2020.
In a sense, a bright, smooth alternative to the rough-edged darkness of gqom, amapiano has sprung from the similarly niche South African electronic sound to the world-beating subgenre. Similar to how some kwaito artists slow down their home builds, early amapiano artists like Maero and Force Reloaded (together known as MFR Souls) often operate at a lower BPM, using resounding keyboard riffs and rocking bass to bring the beat home. Tracks like the enchanting “Amanikiniki”, Mr JazziQ’s inevitable “Woza” and Josiah De Disciple’s soulful “Mama” rely on live or sampled traditional percussion and often feature strong female vocals.
Like kwaito’s taxi networks and gqom’s WhatsApp threads, amapiano has risen in DIY ways. Madzadza Miya writes for Beatportal: “DJ Stokie, hailed as one of the DJs who popularized the genre, would travel between towns and buy music directly from producers.” Stokie used to make medley CDs for avid fans. Little more than initially word-of-mouth, songs like DJ Karri’s “Trigger” had more than a million views on YouTube, taking artists who were unknown in their hometowns and raising them to the skies.
Another major driver in the rise of both amapiano and gqom is their connection to dance and social media – dancers initiate “challenges” based on certain songs, which then go viral as viewers hear the same piece over and over. While they are primarily musical environments, the visual element is almost inseparable from the sound.
“South African Popular Music” is published by Bloomsbury as part of the GENREES 33⅓ series. available in stores now.