“I think it’s the first time a genre of ours dominates our own airplay more than international songs,” South African superstar Busiswa says of the bright, jazzy style.
This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July-August issue of the magazine.
At Afropunk’s 2019 New Year’s Eve festival in South Africa, DJ Moma was scheduled to play a 45-minute set following headliner Solange Knowles. He knew exactly what to do. The DJ, born Mohamed Hamad in Sudan and raised between Paris and Queens, had frequently traveled to South Africa, immersing himself in the country’s music scene. Roughly 20,000 fans were gathered at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, formerly the site of a detention center that held Nelson and Winnie Mandela. “I started playing trap. They loved it. I went into some Afrobeats, they loved it,” says Moma. “And then I just said, ‘Are my yanos in the building?’ ”
Moma dropped “Labantwana Ama Uber,” by Semi Tee of Soweto, a hit in the surging amapiano subgenre of South African house music. “Yanos” is slang for the people who make and enjoy it — which, that night, seemed like everyone. Moma watched an ocean of fans break into dance, throwing limp fists in the air as they gyrated, doing the pouncing cat. “I’ve just never felt anything like it,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”
Even during the pandemic, amapiano, a bright, jazzy dance music culled from local house flavors and global R&B, has persisted as the country’s top genre, according to prominent South African artists and DJs. “I think it’s the first time a genre of ours dominates our own airplay more than international songs,” says Busiswa, a South African house superstar who’s worked with Beyoncé, and whose discography spans the subgenres gqom, kwaito, and newly, amapiano. While amapiano is huge in South Africa, it’s also transcended borders. On TikTok, the #amapiano hashtag stands at more than 570 million views. Shares of global streams on the AmaPianoGrooves playlist on Spotify have increased 116 percent globally over the past year; the increase in the U.S. is 75 percent.
Though in South Africa, like the rest of the African diaspora, West African Afrobeats has reigned musically for years, the nation has a rich history of house music that other African artists, including Afrobeats stars, are newly tapping into.
South Africa’s distinct house music derives from New York’s soulful house movement, explains DJ Moma. “It’s almost sacrilege to say, but they basically took all the elements of New York house — jazzy chord progressions, Afro percussion, soulful vocals — and they just made it better. Especially on the drum programming, because it just has that African sound.” In the mid-1990s, kwaito emerged, a subgenre birthed as the country celebrated the end of apartheid. It’s a fusion of African melodies, hip-hop, reggae, and U.S. house, slowed to roughly 105 bpm. While explicitly joyful folk music like Congolese soukous and Côte d’Ivoire’s coupé-décalé rose to the north and northwest, South African house retained a cautious edge. “The one thing that had made [South African house] specifically South African was the melancholy,” says Moma. “These are people that have been through stuff that no one can understand.”
From kwaito came Afro house, most popular in the 2000s, and in the early 2010s came gqom. It’s a dark, fast, and intense electronic sound from Durban, typified on Beyonce’s “My Power,” featuring South African acts Busiswa, Moonchild Sanelly, and DJ Lag alongside Nigerian Yemi Alade and Americans Tierra Whack and Nija. The sound reached its cultural peak around 2018, and while it continued to make waves in the years that followed, by early 2019, amapiano had taken over South African radio and clubs. Faster than kwaito but slower than gqom, amapiano lifts 1990s kwaito bass lines and the militaristic percussion of the South African house sound bacardi. “It’s almost like it’s the heartbeat of the youth at the moment,” Busiswa, 32, says of amapiano.
Amapiano began to gain traction in South African townships — historically racially segregated residential areas — in 2016. It has spread rapidly and organically through WhatsApp and ride-shares, spawning its own evolution and subgenres. “There’s jazzy piano where it’s just an instrumental,” explains DJ Maphorisa, the South African producer partially responsible for Drake’s record-breaking smash “One Dance.” “We have soulful amapiano with voices. And there’s this one we call tech piano, like techno, with claps and snaps.”
Most amapiano isn’t sung in English, which Maphorisa acknowledges can be a hindrance to global penetration in a Western hegemony. He says that South Africans, about 17 percent of whom speak English outside their homes, can be put off by English in local music; it appears hoity. With his sights set beyond South Africa, Maphorisa is strategizing to incorporate a bit more English into his music: “You don’t have to use it much, as long as the person can understand you’re talking about love or heartbreak,” he says.
According to Busiswa, Maphorisa is often thought of as pushing amapiano into the mainstream, but he has followed the path lit by pioneers like DJ Stokie, Junior Taurus, MFR Souls, Mr JazziQ and Josiah De Disciple, and Kabza De Small. Maphorisa credits Kabza, a 28-year-old DJ and producer from Pretoria, with being one of the first acts to lay vocals atop amapiano beats. As a solo artist, Kabza has been the most-streamed local musician on Spotify South Africa for the past two years. His 2020 solo album, I Am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust, was the most popular South African project in Apple Music’s history. For his part, Kabza is a Maphorisa fan, and in 2019 the pair formed the duo Scorpion Kings, rapidly releasing five studio EPs and albums, plus a live album, together since.
While Afro enthusiasts in the U.S. are familiar with amapiano, Covid-19 lockdowns likely impeded its spread here. “A lot of [amapiano] is to be enjoyed like any musical art form, but a big part of it is to be experienced on the dance floor,” says DJ Moma. In 2019, Moma noticed revelers at his weekly residency at Le Bain, a swanky rooftop bar in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, going up for the amapiano he would play. “It was like a de facto South African vibe every Wednesday,” he says of the party. Last July, after four months of enduring the pandemic in South Africa, Moma went to Zanzibar, Tanzania, where restrictions were lax. There, he finished his own take on amapiano, an EP called MomaPiano, inspired by American R&B from the Nineties and early aughts. He also found a new residency at a beach club, where his amapiano sets became a raging success.
A promising sign of amapiano’s potential for global impact is its popularity across Africa, and particularly Nigeria, which is emerging as the world’s fastest-growing entertainment and media market. Afrobeats still dominates the country, says Rema, a Nigerian prodigy newer to the scene. But he’s incorporated South African house into two of his beloved tracks: 2020’s “Woman” calls upon amapiano, and this year’s “Bounce” leans into Afro house and gqom. Both songs developed their South African sound organically, says Rema. “When I go to the studio, I have a producer with me, and we just create. I’m not limited to any sound.”
Rema has admired house music since 2015, when he first heard “The Sound,” a collaboration between Maphorisa’s collective Uhuru, Nigerian pop star Davido and DJ Buckz. “I love the beats, I love the emotion, I love the spirit in it,” he says of South African house. “There’s a lot of spirituality behind it. I can feel it in every bounce of the beat, in every rhythm, in every vocal, in every ad-lib. I see it going up and up from here.”
Artists like Busiswa, Maphorisa and Rema share a vision of musical pan-Africanism, in which any artist from the continent may experiment with any sound. “It’s just better for everybody if we unite and move forward together,” says Busiswa. “It’s not very often that new sounds emerge in mainstream dance culture, so when young people create [something] with potential to take over the world, it’s better for us to push it out, rather than saying, ‘This is South African.’ ”
Rema says genres have been bleeding into each other for some time: South Africans tap Afrobeats rhythms and vice versa. “It’s one Africa,” says Rema. “I feel like the mixture of the elements makes [our] voice louder, in terms of preaching our culture to the rest of the world.”
Maphorisa and Busiswa have been teaming up with musicians across the continent who have wanted some of South Africa’s sound. Maphorisa is a part of Kabza’s sweet and infectious “Sponono,” alongside Nigerian Grammy winners Burna Boy and Wizkid, as well as Cassper Nyovest, one of the biggest figures in South African rap. Nigerian singer Naira Marley tapped Busiswa for his scandalous dance single “Coming”; Beninese singer Shirazee called upon her for his amapiano track “Right Thang.”
Collaborations between South African artists and performers from other parts of the continent are happening on a newer and bigger scale, says Busiswa, citing Master KG’s “Jerusalema” remix with Burna Boy. A gospel-house song originally released in November 2019, “Jerusalema” has been streamed more than 552 million times across its various versions and remixes on Spotify alone, and has earned more than a billion views on TikTok.
Amapiano can be perfect for a breezy afternoon at home or a hot, stuffy night in the club. It can ride like winding roads or pulse and beat like driving over cobblestone. Amapiano can be slipped smoothly in DJ sets of Afrobeats and R&B. It can live everywhere. The yanos, like DJ Moma, continue to remix and innovate. “Things are going to reopen this summer, definitely, and amapiano is going to be huge,” Moma says.