Born to Kwaito

Born to Kwaito

by Sihle Mthembu

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Born To Kwaito considers the meaning of kwaito music now. ‘Now' not only as in ‘after 1994' or the Truth Commission but as a place in the psyche of black people in post-apartheid South Africa.This collection of essays tackles the changing meaning of the genre after its decline and its ever-contested relevance. Through rigorous historical analysis as well as threads of narrative journalism Born To Kwaito interrogates issues of artistic autonomy, the politics of language in the music, and whether the music is part of a strand within the larger feminist movement in South Africa.Candid and insightful interviews from the genre's foremost innovators and torchbearers, such as Mandla Spikiri, Arthur Mafokate, Robbie Malinga and Lance Stehr, provide unique historical context to kwaito music's greatest highs, most captivating hits and most devastating lows. Born To Kwaito offers up a history of the genre from below by having conversations not only with musicians but with fans, engineers, photographers and filmmakers who bore witness to a revolution.Living in a place between criticism and biography Born To Kwaito merges academic theories and rigorous journalism to offer a new understanding into how the genre influenced other art forms such as fashion, TV and film. The book also reflects on how some of the music's best hits have found new life through the mouths of local hip-hop's current kingmakers and opened kwaito up to a new generation.The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive history of the genre but rather a present-active analysis of that history as it settles and finds its meaning.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781928337782
Publisher: Jacana Media
Publication date: 01/08/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Sihle Mthembu is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker born in Mooi River in the Natal Midlands. In 2009 Mthembu enrolled at the Durban University of Technology where he graduated with a B-tech in journalism. He has worked as an art critic, a business journalist and a churner of various types of online banter. His work has appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone SA, Vice magazine, Mail & Guardian, City Press and Sunday Independent. For his next trick he is directing a documentary called Calling Down Fire about the life, work and meaning of Busi Mhlongo.

Read an Excerpt


Politicising Kwaito

Esinako Ndabeni

To be black is to be burdened with the automatic, relentless work of saving other black people. A black person can't simply tell a story out of their love for stories – that story must carry with it some 'conscious' message, preferably political. At the very least, it is expected of black art that it should have the potential to offer solutions to the problems that we face. Of course, one can understand why these assumptions are often taken as given – black communities everywhere are beset with problems that need solving.

It's not surprising then that this same burden of responsibility was immediately imposed upon the kwaito generation; creating the oft-repeated narrative around the apparent 'meaninglessness' of kwaito. Former President Thabo Mbeki once famously referred to the genre as a 'distraction from real issues', echoing sentiments that were common among the political 'class' and older generations in South Africa's black communities.

It was to be expected that officialdom at that time would have frowned at black youths becoming apathetic or lackadaisical about issues of social reform in South Africa. The political rights that were attained post-1994 had not automatically ushered in socioeconomic freedoms for the black majority who had borne the brunt of apartheid.

But this animosity towards kwaito; the insistence that it was a disengagement from the political, also revealed shortcomings in how the political was being re-imagined.

Dr Gibson Boloka's three-pronged definition of kwaito as: disengaging with socio-political discourse, breaking from previous traditions in black South African music, and a reflection of post-apartheid society, is not completely accurate. While kwaito clearly was a break from tradition and did reflect new cultural frames that emerged post-apartheid, I think it is important not to simply dismiss kwaito as apolitical. Perhaps kwaito would be better understood as having been driven in a sense by its own unique political nuances.

I intend to highlight the ways in which kwaito was not apolitical, and why it matters that we view the music as political text, but I also find it curious that black youths choosing to take a breather and seek pleasure through music is something that should have been perceived as so reactionary. It almost seems as if the youthful kwaito generation were begrudged their moment to be carefree; to live a little in the euphoria of the post-liberation relief that followed from apartheid's demise.

As someone born after the advent of kwaito, a 'born free' as we are often called, it's difficult for me to make older people understand why kwaito is so important to me. The older generations, who dismiss the genre even though they grooved to it when I was but a toddler, have clearly outgrown that phase. They now dismiss kwaito as the frivolous soundtrack of their youthful partying; little more than the background noise to which they socialised in the heady days of a newly liberated country. The enduring narrative seems to be that it was a genre by and for 'amavuilpop' (dirty hooligans). Nostalgia for kwaito's bygone appeal is often accompanied by an element of disdain.

But kwaito for me is the most important music genre and subculture that post-apartheid South Africa has birthed, and to see it leaving the collective memory, as it seems to be, without having witnessed a shift in how it is perceived, is disheartening. Even with the benefit of hindsight, kwaito is still branded as not having had any socio-political message to offer.

Lance Stehr, Managing Director of Ghetto Ruff, speaks passionately about this, highlighting what he believes to be the differences between, for example, pioneering South African hip hop outfit Prophets of da City's lyrical activism and the perceived indifference of kwaito music to 'real' issues. These are the insights Mr Stehr offers as we drive to Midrand from the Ghetto Ruff headquarters in Emmarentia:

The reason why we only got into kwaito accidentally as a label was because we were into hip-hop before that. Now, with Prophets of da City for example, the point of doing music was to put out a political message because we were fighting against the government of the time. And kwaito, for me, was just a distraction. It didn't have a message at all. So, after the first democratic elections, all of a sudden nobody was interested in any socially conscious message. They were just into, 'Yeah, yeah let's party!' and we were like, 'What the fuck?' These songs had, like, two words the whole fucking song.

Engaging Mr Stehr, I try to get him to think about it from a different angle. 'Kwaito artists such as Oskido have said that it was a celebration of freedom,' I point out, but Mr Stehr sticks to his guns. 'Well, look where that freedom got us', he scoffs. However, later on that same day, Mandla 'Spikiri' Mofokeng dismisses the idea that kwaito had no message.

'The problem with South Africans is that we don't believe in ourselves. We don't believe in our music. If Beyoncé can copy our dance moves then who are you to say that our home-grown kwaito has no meaning?' For Spikiri, kwaito is about identity; the expression of oneself and one's experiences through art forms such as fashion, dance and music.

I'm inclined to agree with Spikiri. It would be short-sighted of anyone not to understand that in a country where black expression had been severely policed, this unburdened expression of self was itself political.

That being said, there were some early kwaito acts whose lyrics explicitly verbalised their politics through the music. As freedom was dawning, acts such as Boom Shaka and Arthur Mafokate did not shy away from making overtly political music. With his song Kaffir, Mafokate openly challenged the derogatory terms and ideas that the descendants of the Dutch had attached to blackness ('Don't call me kaffir').

What interests me more, however, is Boom Shaka's rendition of the (then) black national anthem. For their album It's Our Game (No Need To Claim), Boom Shaka chose to sing the national anthem over a house beat produced by DJ Christos. This rendition, with its unexpected synthesis of solemn lyrics with a danceable beat, encapsulated the nature of the kwaito generation's partying. It was partying, yes, but it was political. There was an awareness that did not necessarily need to be stated. Perhaps, to echo Gavin Steingo, the problem with our idea of the expressed politic is that we are more inclined to embrace politics that are explicitly stated. But politics are meant to be lived too, not just spoken.

Reading into the words unsaid

Bhekizizwe Peterson (citing Frith, 1996), cautions us against imagining that meaning is only made in lyrical content. Thinking deeply about Mshoza's use of the exclamation 'eish!' (oh!) in the song Kortes, Peterson goes on to show how even seemingly meaningless words have meaning. 'Eish!' in this instance speaks to how speechless Mshoza's crush made her when she saw him for the third time. What is not said past that point is all the things that we can imagine from her intonation of this seemingly empty word.

Of course, it's easy to arrive at this conclusion because we have the context of the lyrics before that point, which leads us to this understanding. Had the song merely said 'eish!' over a kwaito beat, I'm not quite sure it would have been as easy for Mr Peterson to make his argument. The point then is not that we ought to scramble to find deep meaning even when, for example, M'du Masilela says, 'Tsiki tsiki yho'; merely that it would help us to broaden how we understand expressions in their acquired contexts where kwaito is concerned.

The significance of language; the weight of words, is not something I want to argue against. In fact I remember a time when I disliked fine art because it did not come with verbal cues pointing to the meaning/s. It seemed to me that subtitles would make some works so much easier to appreciate/understand. Indeed, explicitly stated messages seem to have more impact upon first glance.

But over time I've grown to develop a sense that what is not explicitly stated, what is left unsaid, is often of great importance. Underlining this growing sense of the unreliability of words, we now have increased societal awareness that what is said is not always an accurate reflection of the artist and, perhaps then, even the art. We have reached the stage, at last, where we increasingly want the personal, the private, to be consistent with what the art and the artist espouse.

It is impossible for me now to listen to Brown Dash's Vum Vum without being conflicted by Brickz's verse on the song. Brickz tells the girl he's talking to in the song that, as imperfect as kwaito men are, he is not a 'skorobho' (a dirty person). I had always felt passionately about the song because on it Brown Dash, M'du and Brickz interrogate the respectability politics which tend to accompany responses to kwaito music.

This music emerged from the township. Kwaito artists prided themselves on the identity they'd formed from their township experiences, and I've always suspected that the sneering at kwaito betrays an implicit sneering at black youths from the township. On Vum Vum, M'du's verse challenges these ideas as he addresses kwaito's critics: 'Ningas'thathi kancane manis'bona sjampajampa emabheshen' emalok'shini' (Don't look down on us when you see us jumping around and dancing at bashes in the townships). Brickz follows along a similar vein as he reprimands a girl for 'judging a book by its cover'. Words, words, words. As I write this, Brickz has been convicted of raping his 16-year-old niece. It has become a struggle for me to reconcile his words with his actions. This is why it is important to disrupt the ways in which we think about political messaging; to realise that there is often more than meets the eye even when expression seems legit.

Of course, much of the kwaito generation did not take these projections to heart and burden themselves with the 'socially conscious' responsibilities that were being imposed upon them. They simply decided what they would and would not say and got on with it. This was itself a form of resistance, for to this day we live in a country where black expressions of self are often policed.

'Apartheid was over,' DJ Oskido says in the documentary After Robot. 'We just wanted to have fun as there would no longer be any need to protest.' How indeed could black youths not have shared in the excitement and grabbed at the chance to have a moment to breathe? After all, the very first black, democratically elected president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had just sworn to them that, 'Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land [would] again experience the oppression of one by another.' Merely 'having fun' really shouldn't have been seen as such a scandalous idea for the kwaito generation to embrace. However, I do believe it remains important for us to discuss just how politically relevant kwaito music was.

Kwaito as upward mobility

In particular, I would argue that the escape from material conditions of lack and the achieving of upward social mobility is a very understated aspect of the discourse around kwaito. This is probably because class positionality makes for an untidy account of the black South African experience. The fact that class is mostly determined by race in South Africa makes blackness the focal point of marginality in many ways. However, as we have witnessed more and more in post-apartheid South Africa, there are black folks who have formed an upper crust, and there is a real struggle around questions of how to engage with this emergent elite.

Kwaito is often understood in the context of poverty, which is fair. However, there has been little interrogation of how the music also became a tool for achieving upward social mobility, therefore positioning the genre as a means for many to escape poverty.

Even kwaito artists themselves grapple with this reality, at best, uncomfortably. This will become clearer in Sihle's chapter on Mandoza, where he talks about how Mandoza's music lost some of its resonance as his lyrical content became more removed from his 'real life' circumstances towards the end. As Sihle observes, Mandoza still imagined himself to be the underdog and could not quite fathom that he had 'made it'.

The reality is that, as much as life 'ekasi' (in the township) would always be a part of him, Mandoza's experience of and position in the world had changed; it was no longer only of the township and the material conditions of lack which accompanied this.

Going back to our meeting with Spikiri, I was quite astounded to notice the way in which his humility seemed to trickle into his consumption habits as well. Simply clad in black jeans, a t-shirt and his signature All Star sneakers, he remarked that the people he hung around with were not wealthy people, and he hated the thought of seeming as though he was somehow 'better' than them. I was almost embarrassed to be recording him on my iPhone 8 while he sat there with a Samsung model that I couldn't even recognise. He was adamant that although he had left the township, he had not abandoned it.

When I asked why he'd left, he chuckled and said that 'one could get no peace' in the township. His response left me with a keen sense of the struggle kwaito artists face between wanting to leave the township for all its socio-economic ills and still wanting to cling to what they imagine to be what Professor Adam Haupt labels 'the tyranny of authenticity'. In his paper, Black masculinity and the tyranny of authenticity in South African popular culture, Professor Haupt makes his analysis of this phenomenon of authenticity through the gangster movie, Hijack Stories. Sox, one of the two leading characters, wants to land the role of a gangster named Bra Biza on a TV show. However, as his family has moved up and out to Rosebank, Sox does not have the authenticity of the township figure. Professor Haupt writes about the 'authentic' role of the gangster that emerged in popular culture: Papa Action of Yizo Yizo, Panic Mokgotlane of Mapantsula, Bra Zama of Hijack Stories. Through this analysis of Sox's positioning as a middle-class figure, we start to see how 'inauthenticity' can create what my friend Lisa termed 'displacement dysmorphia' one night as we had energy drinks and dissected my romanticism of my rural home since moving into suburbia.

I say all of this to say that there is a complexity to the performance of the identity of the kwaito artist and the black South African. Spikiri's humility is something that seems to be imaginable only through his constant ties with the township – which grant him an authenticity. One thing is clear: the trajectory of the more focused and fortunate kwaito stars was always upward and headed towards suburbia.

Maybe the real difficulty lies in our processing of this concept of authenticity itself. Clearly the formation of insider and outsider categories is not something that is exclusive to systematically powerful groups. Powerlessness/underdog status can also become a social currency. As I write this essay, the discourse around oppression has become fashionable again and made its way back into pop culture.

As a pushback against this trend many young black feminists, for example, can be heard championing the view that 'the revolution' should be led by poor, black, disabled transwomen … I would however argue that these 'intersectionalities' also lead to performances around positionality. In any case, this is how poverty and dispossession is still the lens through which kwaito is viewed; because a currency has been attached to that identity.

I certainly would not like to claim that success exists only in the ways that capitalism has shaped, but I would still like to think that blackness need not always be defined by poverty. We have to get out. We have to break out of the cycle of generational poverty one way or another. And if, at any point, there had been a realisation that highlighted the class shift which the kwaito genre made possible for black youths at its peak, I don't think that engagement with the music and its subculture would have remained as simplistic as seems to be the case. Which is not to say that I was always aware of the complexity of the issues at play.

In the initial stages of my research into kwaito, for instance, I would often worry about whether I was encroaching by writing about a township experience which I do not have, as one who has only really moved between the village and the suburb. In this way, this project has also been eye-opening for me as a young black woman; for me to understand and position my own experiences better.


Excerpted from "Born to Kwaito"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Esinako Ndabeni & Sihle Mthembu.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Publisher's note,
Politicising kwaito Esinako Ndabeni,
Not 'South Africa's hip hop' Esinako Ndabeni,
Mapaputsi makes it darker Sihle Mthembu,
Plagued by hypermasculinity Esinako Ndabeni,
Arthur Mafokate: Kwaito's most hideous man? Sihle Mthembu,
Kwaito women Esinako Ndabeni,
On kombuistaals and tsotsitaals Esinako Ndabeni,
I wear what I like: Fashion and kwaito Esinako Ndabeni,
TKZee: Amapantsul' ajabulile Sihle Mthembu,
Yizo Yizo: The poetry of dysfunction Sihle Mthembu,
The gangsta movie Esinako Ndabeni,
Durban kwaito's future, past and present Sihle Mthembu,
Mandoza: Postscript for is'gelekeqe es'focused Sihle Mthembu,
Producers paradise: A paean for the men on the boards Sihle Mthembu,
Looking back to the future Esinako Ndabeni,
About the authors,

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