Kwaito – The Sound of Freedom and Dreams #40YearsLater
Having just commemorated Youth Day and the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the theme of freedom is strong in the air. When it comes to music and freedom it’s the iconic sound of Kwaito that stirs up the emotions!
Coinciding with the advent of democracy in 1994 and with its roots deep in house, Kwaito, (a word derived from the Afrikaans word kwaai which is slang for cool/hot/kicking) took major influence from African music such as marabi, mbaqanga, dance hall and in a few instances izibongo (praise poetry).
While many were quick to criticise it as an aggressive type of ghetto hip-hop, a sound that doesn’t show much pre-thought to lyrics or sound arrangement – nothing could be further from the truth. Kwaito was about freedom! An authentic music genre borne in the streets of Soweto, this was a sound for young people by young people! It was the melody of the township – a cultural phenomenon that would sweep through the nation and continent like a feisty tornado.
At the forefront of the movement stood Arthur Mafokate and M’du Masilela. Arthur, called the King of Kwaito in circles, defied convention with his 1995 album, which featured the first ever Kwaito track played in South Africa, “Kaffir”. The sound and the message of freedom and demand for respect and attention were clear. M’du the Godfather came in with a distinct sound of House and Bubble-gum pop and that gave credence to the genre and audiences were enraptured.
As soon as that first Kwaito track dropped, the pace with which it gained popularity was unprecedented. All of a sudden young people the likes of Zola, Boom Shaka, Chippa, Msawawa and Mzambiya realised they had a voice through which they could tell their story uncensored, share their fears, hopes and dreams without judgement and do it all in a language (tsotsitaal) that was distinctly theirs. More importantly Kwaito was their defiance to and breaking away from a system that didn’t recognize or celebrate their unique African sound and a confidence to engineer their own sound.
Economically Kwaito opened doors for many South Africans for whom previously being in the entertainment industry was a pipe dream that had no chance of ever being realised. The formation of the record label Kalawa Jazmee, which became the iconic home of many Kwaito groups, fulfilled these dreams for many budding artists who later became household names including Thebe, Professor, Bongo Maffin, Trompies, Brothers of Peace and Mafikizolo.
Musical legends such as Tkzee and renowned DJs like Cleo, Spikiri and Oskido enjoyed the fruits of their labour when they stepped into the arena and became sensations overnight. Democracy and all its trimmings brought about more platforms and wider access to audiences across the world and for a decade Kwaito was the lyric and sound that dominated and the world was listening.
Much like the June 16 protests called for freedom, respect and an acknowledgement of the needs and desires of a people, so too did the emergence of Kwaito. As it became more than a sound and evolved into a lifestyle, it gave young South Africans a confidence and appreciation of who they are and in finding themselves in their music they found their own freedom. Freedom to be themselves and find joy in it!
As we look back today at the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the advent of Kwaito it firms the belief that when a people stand up, stand together and dare to defy convention, societal norms and perceived oppressive structures, change can occur!
Change that can affect a township, a nation and a continent!