Kwaito's Promise: Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa

Kwaito's Promise: Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa

by Gavin Steingo

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Kwaito's Promise: Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo

In mid-1990s South Africa, apartheid ended, Nelson Mandela was elected president, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of electronic music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. In this book, Gavin Steingo examines kwaito as it has developed alongside the democratization of South Africa over the past two decades. Tracking the fall of South African hope into the disenchantment that often characterizes the outlook of its youth today—who face high unemployment, extreme inequality, and widespread crime—Steingo looks to kwaito as a powerful tool that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.
Politicians and cultural critics have long criticized kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction. As Steingo shows, however, these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Interacting with kwaito artists and fans, he shows that youth aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito but rather using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that “music is always political,” Steingo elucidates a music that thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226362687
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Gavin Steingo is assistant professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh.    

Read an Excerpt

Kwaito's Promise

Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa

By Gavin Steingo

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36268-7


The Struggle of Freedom

As I write, kwaito is booming all around me in the office, blasting through the walls and out of our souls. Everything about my surroundings seems to give you the jitters, as if it's society's worst nightmare. George Hill, "The Kwaito Revolution"

In 2008 I returned home to Johannesburg, South Africa, after seven years of studying in the United States. The first thing I saw when exiting the plane at Oliver Tambo International Airport was a newspaper headline, accompanied by a photograph of the city center, that read: "Welcome to Hell." In the weeks and months that followed, I would lose friends to AIDS, gun violence, and poisoning. I would experience a place, a time, and a people reeling under the weight of poverty and joblessness, anguished by political corruption, and deeply traumatized by a wave of xenophobic attacks against Africans from northern lands. Recurrent power outages and rolling blackouts resulted in dark and eerie urban nights, and the sheer frequency of motor vehicle accidents rendered the very word "accident" meaningless. Cultural critics Sarah Nuttall and Liz McGregor (2007, 12) summarize the situation as follows: "[t]o live in South Africa is to be subliminally primed for major loss, the most common causes being traffic accidents, crime or HIV/AIDS."

Fourteen years earlier, South Africans had witnessed the formal demise of apartheid. On April 27, 1994, people of all races went to the ballot box in the country's first ever democratic election. In the spirit of reconciliation, my family's longtime domestic worker, Johanna (who is black), accompanied my mother (who is white) to the voting station. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president a few weeks later, and for a moment people of all backgrounds bathed in the glow of our nascent democracy. For just a moment, anything seemed possible.

At this critical historical juncture, and in unison with the democratic transition, the urban black youth developed kwaito, a form of electronic music commonly understood as the expression of freedom in the post-apartheid period. Songs like Boom Shaka's "It's About Time" and Trompies' "Celebrate" clearly marked the beginning of a new, democratic society — a "Rainbow Nation," as it came to be known. In an early article about kwaito, the ethnomusicologist Angela Impey (2001, 45) wrote: "No longer restrained by the need to comment on racial injustice and political freedom, it expressed a new set of dreams."

But by 2008 the thrill was gone. Johannesburg, I was told upon arrival, was hell. What had happened to freedom? According to activist and kwaito musician Zola 7: "As much as the children of the '70s and '80s had to be violent to make a point, the generation of the '90s had to deal with freedom and that is hard. Whoever says the struggle continues didn't tell us how. Kwaito came out of that" (Neate 2004, 142).

Dealing with freedom is hard: if music during apartheid expressed the struggle for freedom, then kwaito expresses the struggle of freedom. How does one struggle, not for freedom, but with freedom, in freedom, or perhaps against freedom? How does one struggle freely? And if such a struggle is indeed possible, then what are the vicissitudes and parameters of freedom in the first place? Most importantly, how did kwaito "come out" of this struggle? And how, in this context, might we understand musical expression and the role of the sonorous more generally?

I have spent the past ten years researching kwaito in an attempt to answer these impossible questions. Between 2008 and 2009 I spent a year living in Soweto, South Africa's largest township, a key site of anti-apartheid activism and the birthplace of kwaito. Since then I have returned frequently to Soweto and other parts of South Africa, including the northern suburbs of Johannesburg where I grew up. Taking a cue from Zola 7, I have long considered kwaito a suitable medium through which to understand the calculus of political freedom in a country ravaged by record levels of inequality, crime, and AIDS. As Zola suggests, in post-apartheid South Africa people struggle precisely because they are free.

In order to understand how things came to be this way, it is necessary to return to the moment of South Africa's democratic transition. With the failure of "actually existing" Socialism in the late 1980s, intellectuals and activists around the world recognized the need to rethink radically the concepts of freedom and emancipation. Although the triumph of neoliberalism has clearly not brought emancipation for most of the world's population, the search for alternatives has been strikingly unsuccessful. When criticized for abandoning its initial Leftist project, the African National Congress responds with the Thatcherite slogan: "TINA!" — There Is No Alternative. Against this assertion, the response from the Left has been mostly unimaginative. In the place of TINA, activists such as Patrick Bond (1992) have suggested THEMBA, There Must Be an Alternative. In Zulu, the word themba means "hope," but this leaves us with the questions "what political forms might this hope take?" and "what kind of economic and political reconfiguration can we expect in the 'postrevolutionary' era?"

The turbulent and at times euphoric transition of the mid1990s was undermined from the start. The democratic dispensation actually contained assurances that white South Africans would not have to give up their property, and as the important anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele (2001, 11) observed: "The outcome, brutally stated, is that white South Africans got away with murder."

In one of the most lucid analyses of the present conjuncture, Achille Mbembe (2011a, 10) affirms that since the end of apartheid, South Africa has been marked by the "apparent foreclosure of any form of radical politics" and, therefore, of any real transformation. Granted, one can easily point to political, social, and economic changes over the past two decades. In terms of official politics, Mandela's vision of a multiracial Rainbow Nation gave way, to some extent, to President Thabo Mbeki's continental view of an African Renaissance in 1999, which was replaced, in turn, by President Jacob Zuma's "populism" in 2009. But on closer inspection, the political scene has not changed in any fundamental respect since 1994. South Africa is stuck in a kind of deadlock: the major achievement of liberal democracy has been the suspension of revolution and the suspension of war. In this sense, the post-apartheid period is best characterized as a time of radical stasis.

Against and beneath this stasis, I will argue, kwaito continues to sound an alternative sensory reality. After the fall of apartheid, South Africans listen to the song "Celebrate" with hope and nostalgia, with nostalgia for hope — a hope that refuses to be fully muted. Over a steady electronic drum track and repeated four-chord sequence, we sing along with the group Trompies:

Let's celebrate

It's time to celebrate

Ifikile into yam' [My sweetheart has arrived

Ufikile ushushu baby! My sweetheart has arrived!

Sifikile esikhatisam' My time has arrived]

It's time to celebrate

Although the song will be over in five minutes, for its duration kwaito sounds the promise of freedom, a "long walk," a mirage, a secret.

But this promise comes at a price. Politicians and cultural watchdogs never tire of complaining that kwaito's musicians and fans ignore actual social conditions — that they are not socially responsible — and that, although South Africa has dozens of social ills, all they can do is party. South African journalists have described kwaito variously as "higgledy-piggledy music," "music with no meaning or purpose," "music that infects our youth with a sense of recklessness," and music that is analogous to "a piece of bubblegum that one chews for a bit and then throws away after it has lost its sweetness." Former president Mbeki famously called kwaito a "distraction" from real political issues, and echoing that sentiment, political commentator Joel Pollak asserted: "Kwaito music is particularly apolitical, celebrating the material and social aspirations of the post-apartheid era, while passing over the actual dismal material and social conditions of most of its listeners."

The most important theoretical implication of these various criticisms is that they replicate and reaffirm — albeit in different terms — the mainstream (ethno)musicological idea that no musician or listener can ever successfully evade his or her actual social conditions. Moreover, claiming that one's experience of music departs from actual social conditions is seen as an illusion and a form of ideological mystification.

What unites the so-called "New Musicology" with the discipline of ethnomusicology is a trenchant critique of aesthetic autonomy — that is, a critique of the notion that people can abstract themselves from the social. Since the 1990s the field of music studies has affirmed the inherent interconnectedness of music, culture, and politics by adopting a vigilantly critical stance against musical autonomy. The primary target of critique has not been popular music, of course, but rather "classical" music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with this music's human counterpart — namely, the aesthete who believes that he or she has the ability to appreciate beauty disinterestedly and without recourse to a particular taste culture. In most cases, ethnomusicologists and "New" musicologists have drawn inspiration (whether directly or indirectly) from Pierre Bourdieu's (1984, 493) highly influential argument that "aesthetic distinction" — the notion that some people enjoy music for its own sake, outside of social and political interests — is in fact "a misrecognized form of social difference" (my emphasis). Following Bourdieu (again, either directly or indirectly), musicologists have joined ethnomusicologists in the task of demystifying claims of disinterested aesthetic judgment.

The most prominent scholar in this regard is Susan McClary, who in the early 1990s wrote forcefully about the "ideological basis of music's operations" that "allow[s] cultural activities to 'make sense'" whether or not people in that culture acknowledge it. For McClary, music is inherently social, and the analyst's job is to uncover music's social dimension — particularly when it is disavowed. Thus, in response to modernist male composers such as Roger Sessions, Arnold Schoenberg, and Milton Babbitt, who assert the inherent value of Western art music over and against any social value it may have, McClary (1989) detects a hidden motivation. She unmasks any claim for musical autonomy as a power play, as a strategy for accruing cultural capital and gaining prestige.

The critique of aesthetic autonomy has been extremely important and valuable for contemporary music studies, especially when one considers the often pernicious ways that aesthetics has been seized upon by Eurocentric ideologues and harnessed for political ends. The advent of modern aesthetics, after all, made possible Eduard Hanslick's assertion that contemplative listening should be properly contrasted with "pathological" forms of audition ascribed to women and "savages." It also played a part in the construction of an overwhelmingly white and male canon, which feminist music scholars continue to challenge.

For all these reasons, the field of contemporary music studies (with notable exceptions) has been structured around two related assumptions. First, musical practice and experience are an exercise of, struggle for, or contestation over power. That is to say, engagements with music are always interested — there is no aesthetic judgment that is not simultaneously a social and cultural evaluation based on material interest. As David Graeber (2001, 29) quips, in much "critical" thought the "assumption is that 'objective' or 'scientific' analysis means trying to cut through to the level on which you can say people are being selfish, and that when one discovers this, one's job is done." The second assumption is that knowledge is only ever true or false: there is a true knowledge that is aware (and thus liberatory) and a false knowledge that ignores (and therefore oppresses). The task of the scholar is to access true knowledge by demystifying the claim that some people enjoy music for music's sake, when in reality those people are merely harnessing aesthetic distinction in order to elevate the status of their own music and thereby dominate those who exhibit only "vulgar" taste.

The central argument of this book is that these two assumptions (while important when addressing rampant Eurocentrism, racism, and sexism) are too simple, and in what follows I show that the study of kwaito calls for a fundamental reevaluation of music studies' basic axioms. Following Jacques Rancière (2006, 3), I argue that "there is not one knowledge but two, that each knowledge [savoir] is accompanied by a certain ignorance, and therefore that there is also a knowledge [savoir] which represses and an ignorance which liberates." On the basis of ethnographic evidence, this book shows that if kwaito musicians and listeners ignore actual social conditions, they do this intentionally in order to forge another body and another way of hearing. From this perspective, kwaito is not an illusion that hides reality; on the contrary, it doubles reality, which the critical tradition would like to retain as one (Rancière 2006, 6). The conceptual shift from illusion as hiding/masking to illusion as generating a new sensory reality is fundamental to my argument.

In this book I revive the notion of aesthetics so disdained by contemporary music studies, but only in order to reconfigure and reshape it. For one thing, my aim is not to advocate the superiority of European "classical" music. Furthermore, I do not understand aesthetics in terms of particular artistic practices or objects, and neither do I understand it as a theory of the beautiful or its judgment. Instead, as I detail at length below, aesthetics can describe a particular modality of sensory perception. I will argue, moreover, that it is the critical (ethno)musicologist — and not necessarily the "aesthetic" listener — who is liable to the accusation of elitism and social distinction. The aesthetic listener ignores or suspends normative ways of hearing, however "politically progressive" they may be deemed to be, in order to create for herself or himself another way of perceiving the world. The critical music scholar, by contrast, unmasks aesthetic attitudes in order to reveal some more fundamental truth about the nature of power and its relationship to musical experience. The critical scholar, in other words, believes that she or he knows the correct way to perceive sounds and rails against any deviation from that "proper" mode of perception. It is to this critical position that Rancière refers when he says that there is "knowledge which represses": in demystifying the aesthetic illusion, critical music scholars effectively assign to each social group a correct way of hearing and knowing, effectively allot to each group "the judgments of taste corresponding to their ethos" or habitus (Rancière 2006, 3).

Consider, for a moment, Trompies' "Celebrate," which exemplifies a number of kwaito's general characteristics. In that song, vocals in Zulu, English, and an urban vernacular known as tsotsitaal are repeatedly rapped or "chanted" over an electronic substrate closely resembling American house music, while everyday sounds and "noise" are layered over the musical texture in a way that challenges the distinction between music and nonmusic. As we have already seen, these musical characteristics have never ceased to provoke scandal. Kwaito musicians valorize the pleasures of the body (while ignoring the bodies of the poor and sick) and celebrate good times (while ignoring the fact that, for many, life is extremely difficult and painful). They draw on American and other "foreign" sources (precisely at a moment when, according to some, they should be developing explicitly South African music) and play with the distinction between local and nonlocal (until the listener cannot be certain whether she or he is hearing local or foreign music). They blur the boundaries between speech and music and between music and nonmusic (leaving the listener to wonder whether she is hearing music at all). Finally, they occasionally employ words that either do not exist or else have uncertain meaning. (When asked what the title of his song "La Porte" means, DJ Sox responded with obvious delight: "Nothing! It doesn't mean anything!")

The journalists and politicians are therefore correct, in a way: kwaito does pass over the actual dismal conditions of its listeners; kwaito is a distraction from real political issues. Contrary to the critics, however, I argue that these characteristics are precisely what make kwaito political. I contend that kwaito is political not because of the messages that it communicates or the emotions that it transmits. Nor is it political because it mirrors society's structures or represents the conflicts between social groups. On the contrary, kwaito is political by virtue of its disconnection and detachment from these functions. Rejecting what Pumla Gqola (2013, 13) calls "the bizarre South African obsession with 'art that has a message,'" kwaito suspends normative perception and establishes a domain of sensory reality at odds with the accepted ordering of society. Whether or how this suspension is effective at the level of listeners, dancers, makers, or music distributors lies at the center of this book.


Excerpted from Kwaito's Promise by Gavin Steingo. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Language
A Note on the Language of Race

1 The Struggle of Freedom
2 The Experience of the Outside
3 Platform, or The Miracle of the Ordinary
4 Immobility, Obduracy, and Experimentalism in Soweto
5 Acoustic Assemblages and Forms of Life
6 Black Diamonds
7 Times and Spaces of Listening


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