Global Vibes South Africa: Kwaito gives voice to freedom

Kwaito, a developing musical trend in South Africa and Namibia, seems to have taken the teenage 21st century world by storm. It is a simple style of house music, combined with soul and some African tribal beats.

Kwaito originated in the 1980’s in southern Africa, but did not spread to other countries or continents due to the lack of significant publishers and producers. Thanks to modern networking advantages, the story today is different, and Kwaito is spreading internationally.

Popular artists of this genre of music such as Arthur Mafokate cite Kwaito as an inspiration from ghetto and gangster life in South Africa. Mafokate, one of the pioneers of this type of music, is well-known for his 1995 hit “Kaffir” and says that the lyrics in his songs are deliberately provocative so as to inspire youngsters to stand up for themselves.

The songs either narrate stories of freedom from apartheid and racism while patronizing the African culture and heritage, or they portray the rags-to-riches stories that are commonplace in southern Africa. For this reason, Kwaito’s samples were never featured in public gatherings, being seen as a source of uneasiness and agitation. The songs have been banned by some radio stations in South Africa for stimulating rebellion, causing Kwaito to be characterized as a political music genre.

On a more rhythmic note, Kwaito features instruments like synthesizers, drums and other percussion to create dance music. The lyrics are usually in the form of rhythmic speech rather than melodious singing, a style some other rap artists have experimented with.

Songs are typically sung in Afrikaans, Zulu or English, the primary languages in South Africa and Namibia. The music is also slower than generic house music, with the beats repeating after four counts. It is also meant to be interactive, with the vocalist asking questions and the listener responding.

Thokozani Mhlambi, a famous Kwaito writer, says that this form of interrogative lyrics is used to teach youth to live and speak for themselves. The songs are aimed at relaxing youngsters who have undergone stress and struggle and the songs show a reversion to better times.

The criticisms of Kwaito are numerous, with critics frequently condemning the sexually driven lyrics and dances of this genre of music. Furthermore, the industry is primarily male-dominated, with only a couple of significant female producers.

Some other critics allege that Kwaito is a plagiarism of other genres of music like drum ‘n’ bass, garage and house music. The genre also has several economic and cultural implications. Since nearly half of the South African population is under 21, the youth exerts a major influence on social life. They have supported  Kwaito and caused the album sales to skyrocket to record numbers.

The genre popularizes certain kinds of clothing, language and attitude and has been used by mainstream producers to advertise their products. It has also been known to advertise political agendas.

In a nutshell, Kwaito has risen from little popularity to record sales in a matter of years. Predominant among the youth, this music has been cited as an inspiration by numerous western artists like Diplo and other hip-hop producers. Featuring slow house beats combined with speech based lyrics, Kwaito is a form of dance music that is taking large strides and is quickly spreading across Africa.