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Opinion: How the death of kwaito still affects South Africa’s urban music landscape

Urban music in South Africa (SA) has never been harder to figure out than it is today. Kwaito the homegrown music genre which started in the late 1980s and fell from relevancy in the mid-2000s still strongly influences the sound and culture of South Africa’s urban music landscape. Elements of the genre can still be heard in other SA music like House, Amapiano, Gqom and SA Hip-Hop.

The good thing about this is that Kwaito will clearly shape South Africa’s urban music future. Unfortunately, Kwaito’s fall from prominence as once the most dominant genre right next to gospel music is now a keepsake mostly used to crossover into the mainstream. The problem is a lot of musicians who would clearly be identified as kwaito artist in 1990s and early 2000s, today will never identify themselves with that label.

It comes down to popularity, ironically a mixture of 90s SA black culture, US Hip-Hop and House music gave rise to Kwaito Music, which later gave birth to what is Gqom and Amapiano today. But in the past decade, South African hip-hop branched out to solidify its popularity, profitability and influence among youth culture. This new popularity in Hip-Hop created tension as to what SA Hip-Hop should sound like.

Some believe SA Hip-Hop should sound more like kwaito or localised and should be represented that way overseas. While others believe that South Africa’s multilingual demographic prevents localised sounds from fully engaging with audiences whether in South Africa or Internationally. As a result, young up and coming SA rappers today tend to emulate American styled hip-hop believing that is the quickest route to acceptance and notoriety.

The American influenced SA Hip-Hop has also led to a push back from prominent musicians and industry insiders claiming that Hip-Hop right now doesn’t resonate with certain young people, mostly those living in the township areas of South Africa where kwaito was born and subsequently where both Amapiano and Gqom dominate.

This push back was made quite apparent this week with MTV Base’s Hottest MC list where the host and judges aimed to redefine exactly what SA Hip-Hop is. Maybe it was done to send a message to the current crop of rappers or maybe it was just legacy media looking for its own relevancy in a streaming saturated world. I don’t know why, but they need to force SA Hip-Hop into being more locally sounding only leads to future generations sounding more American.

Not only that, but this also alienates a large apart of the audience who don’t see their favourite hip-hop artist get recognition or maybe even not qualify to deserve it. What does this have to do with kwaito? Well the problem comes down to popularity, at this moment hip-hop is the music equivalent of cool and as a result, everyone wants to be associated with it. Add in the saturated nature of music today and the blending of sounds and now you have artists being called hip-hop out of popularity.

If Kwaito were still popular and relevant today, there would be no need for a push back against the Americanization of SA hip-hop. Being that Hip-hop originates from the US, American hip-hop and black American culture will always be the determining factor as to the direction of hip-hop on a global scale. Meaning this tension around sound and culture will always return even if SA hip-hop took the pedestal as the leading sound of hip-hop worldwide, we would then be debating cultural appropriation.

Hip-Hop is an American genre, SA Hip-Hop is an American genre done in South Africa and whatever is put in this genre is liable to be appropriated by anyone who does Hip-Hop. Whether they be South African, African, European and even Americans, what is put in will be taken, copied and claimed as authentic. The day South Africans recognise the importance of Kwaito outside of Hip-Hop as its own entity only then will they create ownership of their own urban culture and music.

Gqom and Amapiano are the children of kwaito, and as subgenres should be protected, promoted and pedestalized so that future generation of artists doesn’t feel the need to associate with hip-hop in order to be viewed as cool or popular. As a result, industry insiders will have no need to force a narrative on SA Hip-Hop that only serves to alienate and discourage those that associate more strongly with American influence and culture.

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