From Beyonce’s ‘My Power’ to ‘Black Panther,’ New Book Explores How the Sounds of South Africa Reached the Global Pop Stage

There’s no formula to emerging from the seemingly endless sea of available music in the past twenty or so years — and yet from kwaito on, South African electronic music has done just that, both directly and indirectly. In the past five to ten years, two offshoots of house music have dominated South African airwaves: gqom and amapiano. The former, pronounced by replacing the “gq” with a Zulu tongue click, was born in the clubs of Durban and embraces a darkness buried in house music’s repetition. The name itself translates to something akin to “bang,” but the Zulu pronunciation demonstrates the more direct, aggressive tone.

One of the foremost proprietors is DJ Lag, a producer from Clermont township who blends Zulu chants with eerie, slow-burning synth patches, hard-hitting bass, and rough-hewn rhythms. Tracks like “Ice Drop” (2017) and the 2021 single “Raptor” are still clearly designed to get crowds moving at the club, but there’s a wide-eyed intensity and weight there as well.

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When Beyoncé put together her companion soundtrack album, “The Lion King: The Gift,” she selected a DJ Lag instrumental to support a powerful group of female vocalists, including herself, Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack, South African artists Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly, and Nigerian Afro-pop star Yemi Alade. The resulting “My Power” is a perfect example of the way gqom has intersected with global pop music, the burning darkness infiltrating and providing a counterpoint for purer vocals — lending a new shade that artists like Beyoncé hadn’t previously reached. Moonchild Sanelly has a few hits of her own, the self-described practitioner of “future ghetto punk” recently reaching a wider audience thanks to her single “Demon” making the soundtrack of the massively popular soccer video game FIFA22.

In an article for Red Bull Music Academy, Vivian Host compares the South African city of Durban to Miami, and qgom to Miami’s brand of dance music. “As Miami bass or crunk rap is to South Florida, gqom is the sound of Durban’s parties and, quite literally, its streets — due to the South African phenomenon of giving the latest tunes to taxi drivers as a means of promotion,” she writes.2 Kwaito artists had long employed taxi distribution years prior, but continuing it even as the internet became the go-to file sharing method elsewhere in the world is telling. Gqom artists have also taken to sharing tracks via groups on the chat app WhatsApp as a next digital step.

Director Ryan Coogler’s Marvel film, “Black Panther,” centers on a fictional African state called Wakanda, and in telling that story, Coogler wanted to fuse real African traditions with science fiction technology. For the score, composer Ludwig Göransson followed suit, blending a Xhosa choir with a classical orchestra and burnished synths. As an added step, the team worked with Kendrick Lamar for a companion album that included several South African artists — including the “first lady of gqom,” Babes Wodumo, whose 2016 single “Wololo” became an instant classic for the genre. The track’s percussion feels like sharp jabs to the chest, Wodumo’s multitracked vocals chased by a ghostly echo.

Beyond high-profile collaborations, gqom has spread internationally thanks to dedicated fans who found their way onto text groups or YouTube channels. Groups like Boiler Room have highlighted gqom artists, London label Goon Club Allstars signed DJ Lag and Rudeboyz to their label, and Rome-based Francesco “Nan Kolè” Cucchi even launched a label entirely dedicated to the genre called Gqom Oh!

Gqom beats have also produced fertile ground for South African rappers. The Durban trio of Mampintsha, R Mashesha, and Danger, collectively known as Big Nuz, add a further level of experimentation to their vocals, rather than retaining the traditional house style. “They’re making these creative vocal choices like whistling and trills,” says Gavin Steingo. “The sonic world they create is really beautiful.”

One of the biggest rappers in South Africa, Cassper Nyovest, began his career as a teenager in the early 2000s but has evolved considerably in the intervening years, including incorporating gqom tracks into his repertoire. Also known as “the Black Cinderella,” rapper Sho Madjozi brings an unrivaled energy to gqom-indebted beats. Madjozi grew up in South Africa before moving to Tanzania, Senegal, and the United States, eventually relocating home. That global perspective allows Madjozi to rapidly shift among a variety of languages and styles. Perhaps her biggest hit, “John Cena” jumps from Tsonga to Swahili to English among a whistle- driven deep bass beat. The frenetic track spawned a viral dance challenge on social media — which even the titular professional wrestler attempted on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in the United States. And when Madjozi performed the song on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” Cena surprised her mid-performance. The hype around the track was massive, but U.S. label Epic saw through to the unique charismatic star at its center and signed Madjozi to a deal in 2020.

In some sense, the bright, smooth alternative to gqom’s rough-edged darkness, amapiano has similarly spread from niche South African electronic sound to world-beating subgenre. Much the way some kwaito artists slowed house structures down, early amapiano artists like Maero and Force Reloaded (together known as MFR Souls) often operate at a lower BPM, utilizing resonant keyboard riffs and wobbling bass to drive home the rhythm. Tracks like their mesmeric “Amanikiniki,” Mr JazziQ’s inescapable “Woza,” and Josiah De Disciple’s soulful “Mama” rely on either live or sampled traditional percussion and often employ powerful female vocals.

Much like kwaito’s taxi networks and gqom’s WhatsApp threads, amapiano rose through DIY methods. “DJ Stokie, who is hailed as being one of the DJs to popularize the genre, used to travel between townships collecting to buy music directly from producers,” Madzadza Miya writes for Beatportal.3 In addition to dropping the songs into his club performances, Stokie would have mix CDs ready for eager fans. With little more than word of mouth at the start, songs like DJ Karri’s “Trigger” have garnered more than a million views on YouTube, taking artists that may not even be known in their township and propelling them skyward.

Another key driver that the rise of both amapiano and gqom have in common is their connection to dance and social media — dancers launching “challenges” based around specific songs, which then go viral as viewers repeatedly hear the same snippet over and over. While they’re musical mediums first and foremost, the visual element feels almost inextricable from the audio.

“South African Popular Music” is published by Bloomsbury as part of the GENRES 33 ⅓ series. It is available in stores now.

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