South African Amapiano: birth, rise and direction

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This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling stoneAnnual Hot List, in the July-August issue of the magazine.

At the 2019 Afropunk New Years Eve festival in South Africa, DJ Moma was scheduled to perform a 45-minute set following headliner Solange Knowles. He knew exactly what to do. The DJ, born Mohamed Hamad in Sudan and raised between Paris and Queens, had traveled frequently to South Africa, immersing himself in the country’s music scene. About 20,000 fans were gathered at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, formerly the site of a detention center that held Nelson and Winnie Mandela. “I started to play trap. They loved it. I went to a few Afrobeats, they loved it, ”says Moma. “And then I just said, ‘Do my Yanos in the building?’ “

Moma released “Labantwana Ama Uber,” by Soweto’s Semi Tee, a hit in the burgeoning Amapiano subgenre of South African house. “Yanos” is slang for the people who make it up and enjoy it – which that night looked like everyone else. Moma watched an ocean of fans dance, throwing soft fists in the air as they spun, making the cat leap. “I have never felt anything like this,” he says. “It was amazing.”

Even during the pandemic, amapiano, a bright and jazzy dance music drawn from local house flavors and global R&B, has persisted as the most popular genre in the country, according to prominent South African artists and DJs. “I think this is the first time that one of our genres has dominated our own broadcast more than international songs,” says Busiswa, a South African house superstar who has worked with Beyoncé and whose discography spans sub. -genres gqom, kwaito and recently, amapiano. While amapiano is huge in South Africa, it also transcends borders. On TikTok, the hashtag #amapiano has more than 570 million views. Global stream shares on AmaPianoGrooves playlist on Spotify have grown 116% globally over the past year; the increase in the United States is 75 percent.

Although in South Africa, like the rest of the African diaspora, the Afrobeats of West Africa have reigned musically for years, the nation has a rich history of house music that other African artists, including Afrobeats stars, have recently operated.

South Africa’s distinct house music derives from New York’s house soul movement, says DJ Moma. “It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but they basically took all the elements of New York house – jazzy chord progressions, afro percussion, soulful vocals – and just made it better. Especially on the drums lineup, because it just has that African sound. In the mid-1990s, kwaito emerged, a subgenre born as the country celebrated the end of apartheid. It’s a fusion of African melodies, hip-hop, reggae and American house, slowed down to around 105 bpm. While explicitly cheerful folk music like Congolese soukous and Côte d’Ivoire cut-out rose to the north and northwest, South African house retained a cautious edge. “The only thing that did [South African house] specifically South African was melancholy, ”says Moma. “These are people who have been through things that no one can understand. “

From kwaito came Afro house, the most popular in the 2000s, and in the early 2010s came gqom. It’s a dark, fast and intense electronic sound from Durban, typical of Beyonce’s “My Power”, with South African artists Busiswa, Moonchild Sanelly and DJ Lag alongside Nigerian Yemi Alade and Americans Tierra Whack and Nija. The sound reached its cultural peak around 2018, and while it continued to make waves in the years that followed, by early 2019 amapiano had taken over South African radio and clubs. Faster than kwaito but slower than gqom, amapiano enhances the basslines of 90s kwaito and the militaristic percussion of the South African house sound bacardi. “It’s almost like it’s the heartbeat of young people right now,” Busiswa, 32, says of Amapiano.

Amapiano began to gain traction in South African townships – historically racially segregated residential areas – in 2016. It has spread rapidly and organically via WhatsApp and carpooling, spawning its own evolution and subgenres. . “There’s jazzy piano where it’s just an instrumental,” says DJ Maphorisa, the South African producer partly responsible for Drake’s “One Dance” smash. “We have a soulful Amapiano with vocals. And there is the one we call the technical piano, like techno, with claps and snaps.

Most amapianos are not sung in English, which Maphorisa says can be a barrier to global penetration into Western hegemony. He says South Africans, about 17% of whom speak English outside of their homes, may be put off by English in local music; it seems sacred. With his views beyond South Africa, Maphorisa is strategizing to incorporate a little more English into his music: says.

According to Busiswa, Maphorisa is often seen as pushing amapiano into the mainstream, but it has followed the path lit by pioneers like DJ Stokie, Junior Taurus, MFR Souls, Mr JazziQ and Josiah De Disciple, and Kabza De Small. Maphorisa credits Kabza, a 28-year-old DJ and producer from Pretoria, as one of the first bands to put their vocals on Amapiano rhythms. As a solo artist, Kabza has been the most streamed local musician on Spotify South Africa for the past two years. His 2020 solo album, I am the king of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust, was the most popular South African project in Apple Music history. For his part, Kabza is a fan of Maphorisa, and in 2019 the couple formed the duo Scorpion Kings, quickly releasing five EPs and studio albums, plus a live album, together since.

[Check out Kabza De Small’s amapiano playlist.]

While afro enthusiasts in the United States are familiar with amapiano, lockdowns from Covid-19 have likely hampered its spread here. “A lot of [amapiano] should be enjoyed like any musical art form, but much of it should be experienced on the dance floor, ”says DJ Moma. In 2019, Moma noticed revelers at his weekly residency at Bain, a chic rooftop bar in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, riding for the amapiano he would play. “It was like a de facto South African vibe every Wednesday,” he says of the party. Last July, after four months of enduring the pandemic in South Africa, Moma traveled to Zanzibar, Tanzania, where restrictions were lax. There he completed his own version of Amapiano, an EP titled MomaPiano, inspired by American R&B of the 90s and early years. He also found a new home in a beach club, where his Amapiano sets became a huge hit.

A promising sign of amapiano’s potential for global impact is its popularity in Africa, and in particular Nigeria, which is emerging as the fastest growing entertainment and media market in the world. Afrobeat still dominates the country, says Rema, a more recent Nigerian prodigy on the scene. But he’s incorporated South African house into two of his beloved tracks: 2020’s “Woman” uses amapiano, and this year’s “Bounce” looks at afro house and gqom. Both songs developed their South African sound organically, Rema says. “When I go to the studio, I have a producer with me, and we just create. I am not limited to any sound.

Rema has admired house music since 2015, when he first heard “The Sound,” a collaboration between Maphorisa’s Uhuru collective, Nigerian pop star Davido and DJ Buckz. “I love the rhythms, I love the emotion, I love the spirit that is there,” he says of South African house. “There is a lot of spirituality behind it. I can feel it in every bounce of the beat, in every beat, in every voice, in every ad-lib. I see him go up and up from here.

Artists like Busiswa, Maphorisa and Rema share a vision of musical Pan-Africanism, in which any artist from the continent can experience any sound. “It’s just better for everyone if we unite and move forward together,” says Busiswa. “It’s not very often that new sounds emerge in traditional dance culture, so when young people create [something] with the potential to take over the world, it is better for us to push it back, rather than say, “This is South Africa”. “

Rema says genres have been mixing for some time: South Africans use Afrobeats beats and vice versa. “It’s one Africa,” says Rema. “I have the impression that the mixture of elements makes [our] a stronger voice, in terms of preaching our culture to the rest of the world.

Maphorisa and Busiswa teamed up with musicians from across the continent who wanted South African sound. Maphorisa is part of Kabza’s sweet and contagious “Sponono”, alongside Nigerian Grammy winners Burna Boy and Wizkid, as well as Cassper Nyovest, one of South African rap’s greatest figures. Nigerian singer Naira Marley called on Busiswa for her outrageous dance single “Coming”; Beninese singer Shirazee called on her for her Amapiano song “Right Thang”.

Collaborations between South African artists and performers from other parts of the continent are occurring on a more recent and larger scale, Busiswa said, citing Master KG’s remix of “Jerusalem” with Burna Boy. A gospel house song originally released in November 2019, “Jerusalema” has been streamed over 552 million times in its various releases and remixes on Spotify alone, and has gained over a billion views on TikTok.

Amapiano can be perfect for a breezy afternoon at home or a hot, sweltering night at the club. It can roll like winding roads or jog and beat like driving on cobblestones. Amapiano slips smoothly into Afrobeat and R&B DJ sets. He can live anywhere. Yanos, like DJ Moma, continue to remix and innovate. “Things are going to reopen this summer, definitely, and Amapiano is going to be huge,” Moma said.


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