MELANIE TRIEGAARDT: From CDs to streaming ... 28 years of enduring SA music

A country’s history is so often told through its arts and music - most notably the songs its people have sung on their journey through time. South Africa has a rich culture of music and singing about freedom and for the past 28 years that sound has grown, evolved and told many new stories in the country’s streets.

Regardless of what stage of freedom South Africans have found themselves in over the past 28 years, music has remained an enduring thread of commonality and even unity in the midst of societal challenges. Long before the days of music streaming, the end of apartheid collided head-on with the rise of Kwaito, spearheaded by the likes of Oscar “Oskido” Mdlongwa who took inspiration from international House music beats, slowing them down and infusing them with local genres and township slang.

By the early 2000s, Kwaito was undeniably entrenched as the sound of South Africa’s streets, with hits such as Mandoza’s Nkalakatha seeming to crush racial hard lines by reaching the number 1 spot on 5FM - a station which, until then, had been considered the “the domain of white pop-culture” according to theconmag.co.za.

According to Spotify data in the past three months, the sounds of Kwaito continue to resound both locally and internationally. Over the past 90 days, streams were generated as far and wide as countries such as the UK, USA, Germany, and Australia - all listed among the top five sources of Kwaito streams outside of South Africa. What also emerges from the data is that Kwaito’s popularity is not specific to any particular age range, with music lovers between the ages of 18 and 44 all listening to the genre in equal measure, at an average of about 22% for each age band.

Just as Kwaito emerged in tandem with the fall of apartheid, a new sound on South Africa’s streets emerged commercially just before the pandemic. "Yanos" - or Amapiano, to the uninitiated - is undeniably the loudest voice of South Africa’s current creatives and the sound of Mzansi’s streets. In addition to this fact being common knowledge in South Africa, Spotify’s data points to music lovers around the world accepting this sound as being definitive of the country right now.

Over the past 90 days, South Africa-based music lovers led Amapiano listens and generated a whopping 149 million streams of tracks in the genre on Spotify. Moreover, listeners in the UK, USA, Canada, the Netherlands, and France combined generated streams reaching 42 million, while streams generated in Nigeria, Botswana, Kenya and Namibia came up to 16 million. In total, the top 10 countries streaming Amapiano over the past 3 months produced a total of 207 million streams, with most listeners falling in the age groups of 18-24 (44%) and 25-29 (20%).

Unlike the post-apartheid genre Kwaito, the etymology of which owes its meaning to the Afrikaans word "kwaai" or angry, the content of Amapiano tends to be more hedonistic and even aspirational. The top-performing Amapiano song on Spotify in the past 90 days,Paris by Afriikan Papi, Q-Mark and TpZee, is a love song in which the singer of the hook promises to take the love of his life to Paris the day they get married – something likely unattainable for many at the time of apartheid’s fall and Kwaito’s emergence. In the same breath Adiwele by Young Stunna, which features DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small (the top two Amapiano artists over the past 90 days), is an inspirational anthem about breaking through and making it in life where the pre-hook vocalises “Nami ayangbiza amathousand” - loosely translated as “Thousands (of rands) are also calling my name”.

Young Stunna, who started out as a Hip-Hop artist before switching to Amapiano, rose to fame when he featured on Felo Le Tee and Mellow & Sleazy's smash Amapiano hit Bopha. The single captured the yearning for freedom people experienced during the stringent lockdown days of the pandemic. “I got caught travelling after curfew coming from a gig,” recalls Young Stunna. “I think we’d reached the end of our tolerance for the curfew - we just wanted to be outside. Being arrested for being out after curfew while chasing my dreams really frustrated me, and the only way I could express my emotions was through writing Bopha. It was a hit song because South Africans could relate to my frustration.”

A lot has taken place both societally and in South Africa’s music scene between the time that Kwaito and Amapiano emerged. Genres such as House/Dance and Gqom have also at some point contended for recognition as the sounds of South African streets to varying degrees. And while the rise of Amapiano might lead one to believe that these genres are out of vogue, Spotify data points to the fact that the impact of these genres still reverberates among the age band of 18-29. Two-thirds (61%) of Gqom streams and 64% of House/Dance streams can be attributed to this sector of South African society over the past 90 days, thanks to top artists in those genres such as Dlala Thukzin, DJ Tira, Black Coffee and MasterKG.

In the 28 years that have gone by since South Africa celebrated its first Freedom Day, much of the way we live our lives in South Africa has changed: our aspirations, our values, our day-to-day challenges, and even the way we consume music. Technological evolution from tapes and CDs to today’s streaming platforms ensures that now we at least have one constant – an enduring musical record of the sounds of South African streets, right at our fingertips.

And, as the stories of South Africans' lives continue to unfold, the soundtrack to the nation’s vibrant streets will carry on serving as the country’s musical witness, both here and abroad. As Young Stunna states: “South Africans want to be heard and seen and Amapiano is exactly what represents that culture. Just seeing the world lean towards Amapiano is confirmation that African culture is beautiful and we have so much to offer the world. We are the prize and we’ve always been the prize.”

Melanie Triegaardt is head of music strategy and operations in Sub-Saharan Africa at Spotify.