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December 06, 2012

For South African Blacks, Kwaito Music = Fun

by Emilie Iob

Kwaito music emerged in South Africa at the same time as democracy did in the country. Born in the township of Soweto almost 20 years ago, the upbeat music is deeply linked to the history of the country and is trying to reinvent itself.

Released in 1995, the song "Kaffir" was one of the first hits of a new genre of South African music called kwaito, which means "angry" in Afrikaans language. The music is a mix of dance rhythm with lyrics in South African languages.

Its author, Arthur Mafokate, was born and raised in the township of Soweto, just south of Johannesburg. The title of the song is a derogatory term that white people used to call black people under the white-minority rule.

Kwaito singer Mandoza says he got instantly hooked to kwaito because it talked about the real life experienced by black South Africans at the time.

"The first thing that I like about kwaito music is to express our way of living in the ghetto. We are not adopting styles, lifestyles from the states saying we are living like this.  We are living like that. Kwaito music represents our ghetto," he said.

Kwaito is, indeed, about life in the ghetto, but its singers claim it is not political.  They say it is positive music for partying and dancing like there is no tomorrow... and no yesterday. Kwaito music was born in the mid-90s, as Nelson Mandela became president.

Mandoza says this is no coincidence. After years of struggle, youngsters craved for a way to enjoy the freedom. Kwaito provides just that.

"Yes, we talk about history, but like, most of it is about fun. Fun in the ghetto. I mean, our struggle days are over, so now we're talking about fun," Mandoza explained. "Encouraging the upcoming youth to say 'Now, we are free.  We can do whatever we want." That was the first music that represent our freedom, as blacks."

Kwaito quickly became very big in South Africa and in neighboring countries. Cheap to produce, it did not require any formal knowledge of music and each kid in Soweto could make that music and hope to achieve success.

But because racist prejudices remained, kwaito singers had to build their own industry from scratch. Stapura, a DJ who specialized in kwaito on the youth South African radio station YFM, says the music empowered a whole generation of black South Africans.

"The movement, the music, is bigger than just the music. This industry was able to build a lot of household names, kids who come from townships, kids who couldn't even speak English," Stapura said. "Suddenly there were entrepreneurs, Suddenly there was positivity. You know there was records labels.  It created a whole economy by itself. Whereby so many black people were employed, and they could do something."

But, almost 20 years after its birth, kwaito is now in the process of reinventing itself to keep up with other genres.

"Now, it has become more competitive. Before, all we had was kwaito. Hip hop wasn't as big.  You didn't have your dubstep.  You didn't have your MTVs.  It wasn't that big," Stapura explained. "Now people are exposed to a lot more.  We have a lot more access to everything in the world.  And, the music did struggle with keeping up with the trends, worldwide."

A new generation of artists is remodeling the genre, mixing its dance beat with samples of jazz or soul. Kwaito is becoming more sophisticated, but with always the very same idea in mind : enjoy the freedom and spread the fun.