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Kwaito: The Urban Heartbeat of South Africa

Kwaito, a music genre born in the townships of Soweto, South Africa in the early 1990s, expresses the lifestyle of South Africa’s young black population like no other. Where exactly the term Kwaito came from, nobody knows. It is supposed to be derived from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which literally translates into “angry” or “strict”, but is also used as a slang word for “cool” or “hip.”

To describe the musical style of Kwaito is not easy, regarding its variety of different influences. It is best described as local music with global influences. Kwaito developed from what inspired the young urban people of South Africa at the time it came into being. When DJs in the clubs of the townships slowed down western house music and added an African twist, such as traditional African instruments, elements from African Jazz and a certain beat, Kwaito was born. Its style evolved over time and incorporated other kinds of music, such as Hip Hop, R&B, Dancehall and Disco. Those various influences are all blended into a very unique style of music that can best be explored by listening to it. There is more to Kwaito than just music though. Its history, culture and lifestyle tell a lot about present-day South Africa.

Kwaito and Post-Apartheid South Africa

The history of Kwaito is closely connected to the modern history of South Africa itself. When Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and Apartheid was abolished, an era ended that had deprived the non-white population of basic freedoms, exposed them to bad living conditions and considered their culture as inferior. After decades of oppression, all citizens of South Africa now enjoyed equal rights and freedoms regardless of race. Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa and all the changes that came with it also gave the non–white population a new self-confidence. In this energized and optimistic atmosphere, a desire for new forms of expression arose. Kwaito provided just that.

Kwaito is still closely connected to its roots, which lie in the townships of Soweto near Johannesburg.  Before and during the days of Apartheid many non-whites were forced to move to the townships, due to racial segregation. These areas were often underdeveloped, overcrowded and poor. Under these conditions crime and violence quickly became a problem. The new music evolved almost naturally in the townships, as a voice for the young generation growing up in these areas. They were raised under the impression of a changing country and its new possibilities, but also its still present problems.

The musical style of early Kwaito clearly reflects the environment it was created in. Being a musical genre that did not require tons of equipment or special musical training, it could easily be made with the little that was available in the townships. The start was not easy though: even after Apartheid was officially abolished, racism and the perception of black culture as inferior were still widespread. Many early Kwaito artists could not get a foot in the door of the music industry, which was dominated by white people. The only solution for them was to set up their own musical infrastructure. A whole independent, mostly black music industry soon evolved around these first trailblazing record companies.

The first real Kwaito hit illustrates how the path to its success was paved by new freedoms and possibilities: “(Don’t call me a) Kaffir” by Arthur Mafokate. Taking a derogative term commonly used for black people by the white population and rejecting it as offensive in the lyrics, would have never been possible under the strict ruling of Apartheid.

The story of Kwaito is a story of success that has been going on for over 20 years now. That is not surprising considering the fact that the group that made it famous is still influential in present-day South Africa. Quite a lot has been done since the end of Apartheid and the official segregation of Black and White, but townships still remain almost exclusively areas for the non-white population. Development programs have improved conditions in many parts of them, but with new people flocking to the big cities every day, they continue expanding and there are still the underdeveloped and poor areas. The population of Soweto’s townships alone is estimated to be somewhere around 1.3m. Additionally South Africa’s population is very young with almost half of it being under 21. It has been the support of this young urban generation that drove Kwaito to success.

From sub culture to mainstream

Soon after it came into being, the new music appealed to young blacks all over South Africa and in other African countries such as Namibia. Since its appearance in the clubs of Soweto, Kwaito has developed into one of the most popular musical genres in South Africa. It has become a powerful business, which can be illustrated by the stories of success it has promoted. Johannesburg-based radio station Yfm for example, one of the first stations to play Kwaito, still dedicates a huge share of its airtime to it and attracts around 1.7m listeners a week. That is an enormous sphere of influence, considering the fact that it is not broadcasting nationwide. Additionally, Kwaito is featured in a variety of magazines, web pages and various advertising campaigns.

The impact of Kwaito is not limited to Africa. Stars of the scene such as Boom Shaka and Bongo Maffin were able to gain the attention of the audience in Europe and the US and played several concerts there. Additionally there are various collaborations between western musicians and Kwaito artists.

One of the superstars of today’s Kwaito scene is Zola. Already widely known in South Africa, he came to international prominence with the Academy Award-winning movie Tsotsi for whose soundtrack he had contributed several songs. Nicknamed after the notorious township of Soweto he grew up in, Zola wants to make music with a message. One of the songs featured on the Tsotsi soundtrack for example, Mdlwembe meaning “problem child,” deals with the problem of youth crime in South African townships. Other songs cover the AIDS/HIV problematic or the issue of domestic violence.

Zola is a South African icon and winner of several South African Music Awards and he has his own clothing line and TV show. Additionally his career illustrates an important characteristic of Kwaito: it honors its township roots and takes pride in them. Like many other Kwaito artists Zola uses a lot of tsotsi expressions in his lyrics. Tsotsi, a slang mainly spoken in the townships of the Gauteng province, builds a bridge between him and the origins of his music. He also engages in several charities to support the people that made his career possible and pays tribute to his background.

There is more to Kwaito than just music though. It is a whole lifestyle and culture in itself. When it made its way from subculture to mainstream, it also extended its sphere of influence. Now there are fashion labels such as Loxion and Kulca, which try to embed the urban young feeling of Kwaito into their clothing lines. There is Kwaito literature as well: books written by black authors that deal with the problems, but also with the changing urban culture in post-Apartheid South Africa. Welcome to our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe or Thirteen Cents by K. Sello Duiler would not have been possible without the new possibilities the end of Apartheid offered to non-whites in the country.

Because of its cultural impact and some of its other characteristics Kwaito has often been compared to American Hip Hop. Even though there might be a lot of parallels, such as their origin in deprived urban areas and their role as a voice for its young residents, they are certainly not the same. South Africa has an actual Hip Hop scene that is not identical to Kwaito, even though they overlap and inspire each other. Kwaito’s distinguish characteristic is that it has incorporated influences throughout its history, but has always managed to remain a distinct musical genre.

The political significance of Kwaito

One of the ongoing controversies about Kwaito is the question of whether it has a political message. Emerging during a period of significant political change, Kwaito and its lyrics are often said to lack political meaning.  This accusation stems from the fact that Kwaito is dance music and many of its lyrics are simply about having fun. To coin it apolitical totally ignores some important facts though.

Many of the early Kwaito songs reflect decades of oppression and some even use old Anti-Apartheid chants in their lyrics. Additionally, it has to be remembered that the generation that drove Kwaito to success grew up in a country that was changing but still faced various problems. Focusing on the fun aspects of life and being optimistic might be just a natural reaction to the political uncertainties and an attempt to leave the challenging years of the struggle for equality behind. Besides, many successful Kwaito stars such as Zola see it as their job to bring a message and deal with current issues of South Africa’s society. Even though there might be variations in the degree of seriousness and political meaning, Kwaito, like most art forms, does reflect the society it is created in. Calling it apolitical is a way too narrow-minded view.

Is Kwaito dead?

There seems to be no end in sight to Kwaito’s story of success. It has a huge fan base in South Africa and beyond, which is expanding every day. On the other hand Kwaito has been exposed to a variety of accusations, since it came into existence. Recently among them is the one that almost all popular music genres had to face over time: Kwaito is said to have lost its substance due to ongoing commercialization and adaption to the western mainstream and has moved too far from its roots.

What these critics tend to forget is that Kwaito has always taken inspirations from various styles of music and will continue to do so. Like with every other musical genre, it is not easy to draw a clear line around it. In the end it is music like the rainbow nation South Africa itself: diverse, colorful and ever-changing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.