But Is It Art? A Look at Pop Culture in South African Music

Trouble has a habit of shaping the culture of nations. Slavery in the United States resulted in the birth of the blues, and with it, the rise of artists like Robert Johnson and Son House whose influence is still present in music today.

South Africa has had its own share of troubles. Apartheid lasted from 1948 all the way to 1994, drawing a solid line between white and black communities. Today, the country is a democratic rainbow nation of different cultures doing their best to coexist, and it’s this yearning for symbiosis that has resulted in a pop culture that is completely unique. Where else in the world would the choice of presidential candidate be dictated by whether he can do the kwasa-kwasa?

Music and dance is an essential part of the South African cultural identity. It’s this almost fervent need for self expression that has forged the youth identity and music trends of the present.

Post-Apartheid feeling in the townships is best evidenced by the evolution of kwaito, a type of urban hip hop that flourished without the constraints of censorship. Kwaito became an avenue of self-expression for the black youth and resulted in the rise of contemporary artists like TKZee, Mandoza and Zola who used the medium to carry their political sentiment into the mainstream music world.

Kwaito artist Mzekezeke hails from the Johannesburg township of Tembisa. His Kasi-style, (township style) heralded a new wave in kwaito that came from the very heart of the townships. His balaclava-sporting on-stage persona shocked many, as it seemed to glorify the tsotsi (gangsters responsible for urban crime such as highjacking). Mzekezeke’s use of the balaclava as a political statement sparked a trend towards performance art as a form of self expression among musicians. The artist describes his persona as a representation of the man in the street, but it can also be seen as symbol of the impoverished inhabitants of the townships, many of whom see crime as a viable solution to poverty. Mzekezeke won both Artist and Song of the Year, for S’guaqa Ngamadolo, at the 2003 South African Music Awards.

South African Afro-pop artist Spoek Mathambo draws heavily on his roots, describing his signature urban sound as “Afro-futurism”. Mathambo favours straight suits, poor boy caps and bow ties, calling to attention the fashion of the amakrwala (young Xhosa initiates) who are awarded new clothing to symbolize their passage to manhood after returning from initiation school. The signature style has since found its way into hipster street culture. Mathambo’s unique take on rap and electronica has helped the genre cross the racial border, making it accessible to the vast multi-cultural country as well as international audiences. Mathambo released his debut album Mshini Wam (“Bring me my machine gun”) in 2010 on BBE Records; in 2011, he signed a multi-album deal with Seattle-based imprint, Sub Pop.

Perhaps the king and queen of South African performance art are none other than Ninja and Yo-landi Vi$$er from Zef-rap group Die Antwoord. Zef refers to the distinctly white Afrikaans South African style of being both modern and out of date, while at the same time decidedly kitsch. The music video for the band’s debut single “Zef Side” received over a million views when it was released in 2008, catapulting the band to international stardom. Die Antwoord were invited to perform at Coachella, after which they were signed by Interscope Records.

Watkin Tudor Jones puts on a convincing performance as white-trash Afrikaans rapper Ninja, but the persona is perceived by many to be an exploitation of the perceived “poor white” Afrikaaner. It could be argued that the use of this stereotype, and even the invention of the term Zef, is way of drawing the world’s attention to the current socio-political climate in South Africa, where the boundaries of rich and poor have started to blur.

Another artist that quickly forged a Zef identity of his own was Zander Tyler, better known by his stage name Jack Parow. The Afrikaans rapper, who claims to hail from the Cape Town suburb of Bellville, has released two albums as well as his own braai (barbeque) sauce, drawing on the misconception that white South Africans spend most of their time in front of a braai. Parow’s debut single “Cooler as Ekke” (“Cooler than me”) shows the artist rapping in his larger-than-life peak cap, shorts and vest–supposedly the stereotypical attire of the white Afrikaans male. The elongated peak cap has become the artist’s signature gimmick, setting the stage for yet another trend in the local music scene.

Electro-pop outfit Gazelle, made up of Xander Ferreira and Nick Matthews, have created a fusion of African rhythms and contemporary disco, a genre they have dubbed “Limpopo-pop”, which Ferreira has described as a genuine African crossover. The band is known for their over the top costumes: Ferreira graces the stage in garish leopard-print African dictator suits while Matthews, performing as DJ Invisible, prefers white suits, traditional African headwear and a visor. This is satire at its best, poking fun at the concept of racialism in Africa, and the taking the seriousness out of politics in South Africa.

Gazelle’s colourful live performances feature an array of traditional back up singers and Drum-era dancers, which quickly gained the band international recognition. Gazelle took their “Kalahari Safari” tour across Europe, and have been featured in various international music magazines. Their multi-lingual debut Chic Afrique was well-received, and blends traditional Zulu folk music called Maskandi with reggae and electro to great effect.

Performance art and gimmickry has become a means for South African artists to set themselves apart, especially in an era when audiences have seen it all. Masked Cape Town pop band Jax Panik promote themselves as a parody, despite the fact that they received a South African Music Award for Best Pop Album; the Wedding DJs have collected a huge following for doing little more than playing bad ’80s tracks in matching tennis shorts and sweatbands; while comedians Rob van Vuuren and Louw Venter parade in giant fake mustaches and Afrikaans accents under the monikers Corné and Twakkie at music and arts festivals around the country.

The antics of these artists seem to hint that the key to success in South Africa is a mullet and a DIY wardrobe, but it’s much more intricate than that. Contemporary South African pop culture reveals a myriad of artists searching for an identity in a country still recovering from racial hatred; and a youth looking to the past in order to make sense of the present.