South African urban music has a history as rich as the country itself. It is a genre characterised by diversity and fuelled by legends. The urban movement began in the townships and rural settlements of the country, and has grown from a simple form of expression to multi-million rand industry. This A-Z attempts to give a broad overview of the movement. Think of it as South African urban music for dummies: everything you need to know from Aero Manyelo to Zola.
Aero Manyelo: A local DJ who is making a name for himself as a hot commodity in the club and in the studio and has worked with top local acts. Manyelo’s “If Only” is currently charting on local urban stations.
Brenda Fassie: Now where would the local industry be without Brenda? She released seven albums and collaborated with numerous other local artists. In addition, she was voted 17th in SABC 3’s “Great South Africans” series in 2004. There is no doubt that the South African music industry will never forget the “Queen of African Pop”
Crazy White Boy: As one of the hottest acts in South Africa right now, Crazy White Boy proves that white kids have rhythm too. Their single “I Can Love You Better” is currently one of the most popular tracks both in clubs and on radio stations across the country.
DJ Fresh: Possibly one of the best-known local radio personalities and the most sought after DJ in the country. Fresh is a favourite amongst radio listeners and party-goers alike.
Euphonik: A top contender for South Africa’s favourite DJ. His specialty is house fuelled by hip-hop beats. The star claims on his website that he feels his music transcends racial boundaries, which is certainly the case if one considers the diversity of his fan base.
Freshlyground: The unique local band that has managed to merge kwaito, kwela and pop, with a hint of indie and jazz. So successfully in fact, that they won the award for Best African Act at the 2006 MTV Awards. This year, the group was featured in the global hit “Waka Waka(This Time for Africa)”, with Columbian songstress Shakira.
Gang of Instrumentals: Another local act that has succeeded in fusing different genres. The trio’s signature sound is a mixture of R&B, reggae, hip hop, pop, house, kwaito … well, pretty much everything. In 2009, Gang of Instrumentals won the coveted Best Urban Album award at the South African Music Awards.
Kwela: One of the offshoots of the marabi (see below) which brought South African music to international attention in the 1950s. Prominent kwela artists included Lemmy Mabaso, who began performing in the streets at the age of 10, and Spokes Mashiyane.
Kwaito: A uniquely local genre that emerged in the 1990’s. It is best described as house merged with traditional African beats, melodies and rhythms. Interestingly enough, the term “kwaito” originates from the Afrikaans word kwaai (strict or angry).
Loyiso Bala: The closest thing to an R&B superstar that South Africa has. Bala has won countless local awards and was nominated at the 2007 MTV Awards for Best R&B Album competing against Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Akon.
Lucky Dube: OK, so we already have an “L” in our list, but where would local urban music be without Lucky? Upon his tragic death in 2007, he was hailed by the Minister of Arts and Culture as a global ambassador for South African musical talent and heritage. In his lifetime, Dube released 22 albums in various languages (including Afrikaans) and was South Africa’s best-selling reggae artist for 25 years.
Mafikizolo: One of the most prolific acts to feature on the local stage. Their most popular album, Sibongile, succeeded in creating a new sound that combined kwaito with marabi.
Mango Groove: This band’s hit song, “Special Star” is virtually as well-known as the national anthem. The band, who describe their unique sound as “Afropop”, has been going strong since 1984.
Marabi: Another genre unique to South Africa which developed as far back as the early 1900s. The sound is characterised by the use of a keyboard, although pedal organs were often used in the genre’s early days. In the past, the sound was heavily influenced by American jazz and blues.
Mariam Makeba: Yet another “M”, but once again, this local music legend just had to be included. “Mama Africa” was the first black African woman to win a Grammy Award. Makeba died doing what she did best: after singing for a full half hour at a concert in Naples.
Nutty Nys: One of the hottest DJ’s currently dominating the local charts. His sound can be described as jazzy, mellow house with a reggae edge. Which is a lot of genres to mesh together, but he seems to be coping just fine with the challenge and was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2010 SAMAs for his album Nka Mo Dira.
Skwatta Kamp: The self-proclaimed local “hip hop super group”, which, to be fair, may not be far off. The group has produced six albums, one of which went gold, and another platinum. Skwatta Kamp also boasts two SAMAs and a Channel O Video Award.
Tumi and the Volume: Possibly one of the most unique acts currently making waves in the local industry. Tumi Molekane gives rap a whole new dimension, focusing more on the art of his lyrics. Definitely one for the more cultured hip hop fans.
Vusi Mahlasela: Another of South Africa’s music greats, Mahlasela is a quintessential member of the local music community. Although his career began in the early 90s, he is still receiving international acclaim for his latest work, and has worked with the likes of Josh Groban and Dave Matthews Band
Yvonne Chaka Chaka: South Africa’s answer to Madonna – minus any adopted African orphans (although she is involved in humanitarian work on the continent). Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s unique sound is based on the “mbaqanga” roots of local urban music, but features a disco edge. Chaka Chaka is a veteran of the South African music scene and was one of the first artists to bridge the gap between traditional music and popular culture.
Zola: Actor, TV host, musician, Zola seems to have all his bases covered. His primary focus is his music, which he categorises as kwaito and hip-hop. Plus he’s one of those people cool enough to not have a surname.
Photo: Daniel Gomez