Can South African music sustain its influence on the global stage?

Can South African music sustain its influence on the global stage?
As amapiano continues to soundtrack summers around the world, a new book by Lior Phillips provides some much needed context for South Africa’s rich musical legacy.

If you Google ‘Drake’ and ‘amapiano’ – the South African house music sub-genre, distinctive by its deep house, jazz and soul overtones – you’ll find a flurry of African websites lauding him for frequently shouting out the genre to a massive international audience. It’s not the first time global superstars have infused their love of South Africa into their own bodies of work. Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack contribution “My Power” is African by design; poet Busiswa sings in native languages Zulu and Xhosa.

Of course, South Africa isn’t the only African country making international waves. Nigeria is notable – think Tems, Wizkid and Burna Boy, commercial and critical sensations who were notably central to the explosion of African music on social media in 2019. This trend hasn’t let up, as records that have previously evaded African artists continue to be broken. On 3rd June, Nigerian superstar Burna Boy made history by becoming the first African to headline and sell out a UK stadium, while his 2022 album Love, Damini became the highest charting Nigerian album in history.

Journalist Lior Phillips’ new book South African Popular Music attempts to put this recent success in context. Though homegrown artists inevitably found insulated success in their respective markets, the fact that they had infiltrated the international mainstream market was curious, and prompted many of the questions Phillips attempted to answer in her book. Among them: what’s even meant by pop music?

As the latest in 33/3rd’s Genre series, the book brings light to the rich, mistold and forgotten musical histories of the country – from its first record label Gallo and the mbube genre that soundtracked the 1940s, to the protest singers and international pop stars that would push the country’s culture, for better or worse, to the global psyche. You can assume too that the book details the complicated political and racial history, which is inextricable from its art and culture. Over 11 chapters – an ode to this country's 11 official languages – Phillips paints a vivid picture of a complex country through its musical foundations.

“There was an urgency I felt when writing the book”, says Phillips. “Researching it online, I found so many inaccuracies – names spelled wrong, places and dates of birth. It felt lazy.” This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Even out of the African context, the history of house music has been treated incredibly negligently. Many people know that the genre was born and bred by Black, brown and queer communities in America’s inner cities, but many don’t. Blame cultural appropriation, or the functionality of the white gaze to limit and decontextualise art and take over its narrative.

Course-correction was strenuous work. COVID meant that Phillips couldn’t travel, and some key musicians were in hard to reach places, while some conversations had to be funnelled through translators. But in listening to the country’s music – from mbaqanga and South African Jazz to kwaito and amapiano – she felt the obligation, especially as a white South African writer, to detail it properly and sensitively. Many of the most influential artists had passed away at the beginning of the century and reliable information on them was hard to come by. It wasn’t just the misspelt names and dates of birth that were issues, but primary and secondary source material – whether that was in the form of interviews, documentaries and books dedicated to telling their stories – was lacking.

"I just want to keep shining a light on music and stories of people that often don't get the time of day."

Lior Phillips, author of 'South African Popular Music'

It’s maybe one reason you’d be hard pressed to find western millennials who know about Miriam Makeba, South Africa’s first genuine international pop star who captured America with her chart-topping single “Pata Pata” and would later receive a Grammy on a collaboration with Harry Belafonte. Or Johnny Clegg, the white crooner who’d have done well to earn the title of The South African Elvis, given his authentic interest in Black South African music helmed under the tutelage of its practitioners. Or the white-hot life of Brenda Fassie, whose songs crossed racial and language barriers. As a queer woman whose life was marred by addiction, Fassie was also tabloid fodder. In 1995 she was found in a drug den with her female lover dead in her arms, and after over 30 visits to rehab would meet the same sad fate in 2004 at the age of 39. Posthumously, it was reported that she had contracted HIV. If you want an idea of just how huge she was, Nelson Mandela visited her at her deathbed.

“It's taken 12 years to be able to write about South African artists, because every single pitch I ever sent was rejected,” says Phillips. “Either the artist wasn’t big enough or noteworthy enough, or there was an American journalist who could kind of write within a tone that was more digestible.”

Fair to say, amapiano is digestible. It’s become the soundtrack to summers across the world, thanks in part to shoutouts from artists like Rick Ross, Kelly Rowland and, most recently, Dave and Central Cee on "Sprinter." This kind of attention has brought sister duo TxC to London’s Boiler Room for an amapiano showcase, while amapiano artists embark on worldwide tours and tracks regularly go viral on TikTok in western countries.

It gives you pause for caution. It’s not the first time that westerners have pillaged Africa, taken the bits that they like with little remuneration and have left what they don't. For example Phillips spends the first chapter of the book outlining the song “Mbube” by Solomon Linda, which most are likely to know as “The Lion Speaks Tonight” – a track that’s become a battleground of African music equity.

Successful artists regularly repackage non-western styles of music for western audiences to massive success – often being lauded for ‘putting artists on the map’ in the process. But while their appreciation might be genuine, interest often burns brightly but fades away fast. This is where arguments for appropriation might come into play. In 2013 David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop issued a compilation of Nigerian artist William Onyeabor, and for years reams of column inches were dedicated to his mysterious, exotic story. In doing so he managed to capture the audience of the white, middle-class literati. Vice even produced a documentary on him featuring Blur front man and founder of Africa Express Damon Albarn. Though interest in Onyeabor felt genuine, his influence didn't seem to engender more sustained interest in African music.

But the feverish discussion on cultural appropriation is often treated too simply. Take Graceland, Paul Simon’s best selling album, which integrated South African music and introduced LadySmith Black Mambazo to the world. “If you speak to most session musicians that worked on the album at the time, they will never ever tell you that it was racist,” says Phillips. “You would never speak badly about it, because it gave you work.”

Despite well-considered reservations, playlists titled (some would say lazily) ‘afro-pop’ or ‘afro-fusion’ and co-signs from big stars can change the trajectory of these artists' careers. It’s a privilege to only have to consider the theoretical harm of appropriation while we live in the west amongst all of its spoils. “Do I think South African artists have been given the right platform? No,” says Phillips, adding: “Will they tell you that they are thrilled to be given that platform? Absolutely.”

Phillips is also keen to note just how remote the South African music industry is, and how little access and knowledge there is. “Who is rubbing shoulders with the editor of Rolling Stone in Bloemfontein?” she asks, noting how many prominent South Africans have had to move to the UK and US. Miriam Makeba spent significant time in England and America and was exiled from South Africa when her music became overtly political and anti-apartheid. Today, alternative artists like Petite Noir or Nakhane are based in the UK, with the latter signed to the British indie label Domino – home to Arctic Monkeys. Here they can rub shoulders, as Nakhane does, with Madonna.

It’s worth considering that maybe western artists aren’t leeches. That they like African music and want to share it like most ordinary music lovers do. Historically, there has been mutual trade off between the continents. Amapiano itself is an off-shoot of an American genre. “Black artists in America were often taking influence from African traditions and in turn influencing African artists,” Phillips explains.

The discussion about whose responsibility it is to make sure appreciation of African music supersedes appropriation can become very convoluted, and is rightfully being deconstructed. But beyond the big industry machines controlled by straight white men, Phillips turns the question on its head. “What is the responsibility of the listener? We have so much information at our fingertips to be able to do our own research and understand how, in whatever little way, we can pay this forward.”

At the end of the day, the music won’t die just because your favourite western pop star stopped being interested. Makeba, Fassie and amapiano all gained an audience because the music is brilliant and soulful. The goal is to avoid tokenism, and have sustained interest in the music that comes out of the continent. “I just want to keep shining a light on music and stories of people that often don't get the time of day,” says Phillips.

All through her Renaissance tour, Beyoncé has mixed Swaziland-born, South African-based amapiano artist Uncle Waffles’ breakout track “Tanzania” into one of her dance breaks. When a concert-goer posted the clip of it, Uncle Waffles retweeted it saying "I'm crying wow” – teary emoji to boot. It’s quite the co-sign from one of the biggest acts in the world, and it would be remiss to criticise the genuine joy she feels from garnering this kind of attention just for being herself. 

There’ll be many more co-signs to come, preceded by many more critiques. What Phillips wants to do is move past presenting these artists as clickbait or a short-lived obsession, devoid of context and history. She concludes: “I want to redefine South African music in a way that gives justice to these artists' stories.”

South African Popular Music by Lior Phillips is out now via Bloomsbury Academic.

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