Pop music and politics in post-apartheid Johannesburg

Pop music and politics in post-apartheid Johannesburg

Famous around the world for its role in the struggle against apartheid, Johannesburg’s Soweto district is also the birthplace of kwaito, a musical style that rose to prominence in the early years of South African democracy. 

Although enormously popular with urban black youth during its heyday (approximately 1995 to 2005), kwaito had many detractors. Drawing inspiration from American house, it typically featured simple, sometimes nonsensical lyrics layered over electronic beats. Critics considered it disposable party music distracting young people from the serious work of building a new nation. 

Ethnomusicologist Gavin Steingo takes issue with this interpretation. “Those criticisms assume a very, very limited notion of what music is—and of what politics is, for that matter,” he told me. A Johannesburg native now teaching in the US, he has spent the last decade studying the genre, culminating in the 2016 book Kwaito's Promise: Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa. Spending time with musicians and listeners throughout Johannesburg, he became convinced that it represented far more than hedonism, despite its lack of commentary on matters of governance and inequality. “What I’ve tried to show in this book is that kwaito is political by virtue of its rejection of that form of politics.”

As the country settled into a new era in the wake of 1994’s historic elections, it soon became clear to black South Africans that most of the nation’s economic and social capital remained in the hands of the elite—and would remain there for the foreseeable future. Looking for alternative ways to navigate their environment, many moved toward the realm of aesthetics, Steingo argues. (“To perceive something aesthetically does not necessarily mean seeing or hearing it as ‘beautiful,’” he writes in the book. “It refers instead to a modality of perception in which objects and forms are withdrawn from normal hierarchies and causality.”) Understanding that they couldn’t win the dominant game in South Africa, urban black youth invented a new one.

While conducting fieldwork in Soweto over the past seven years, Steingo befriended a man named Sizwe who described his extensive nonprofessional musical practice as a means of “looking for a new frontier, a new utopia.” Rejecting scholarly truisms that sentiments of this kind are always hopelessly naïve, Steingo decided to take his friend seriously. He attended many of the frequent music-making sessions held at Sizwe’s house to better understand kwaito’s role in township life. With formal employment scarce and personal mobility severely limited by a number of factors (including an apartheid-era street grid designed to do exactly that), neighbors often spent hours singing and playing together, improvising over looped electronic tracks they created themselves.

Semiprofessional home recording studio in Soweto. Courtesy Gavin Steingo

Semiprofessional home recording studio in Soweto. Courtesy Gavin Steingo

For a lucky few, kwaito created a path toward material success. The music was popular on a commercial as well as a nonprofessional level, and many popular artists and promoters left the townships for Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs, where a black middle class was beginning to take root. But in interviews, these individuals expressed ideas about kwaito’s role in society similar to Sizwe’s. When Steingo asked popular artist Kabelo Mabalene whether the genre had any liberatory potential, he responded, “I know escapism has negative connotations. But… it can help in taking people’s focus off what seems to be real and isn’t. So in a sense, that is a form of freedom.”

For Steingo, the “promise” of the genre is its ability to facilitate a shared understanding among musicians and listeners that everyone, regardless of his or her circumstances, is free to imagine different ways of living in the world. “Kwaito attests to the fundamental equality of human intelligence,” he writes in the book, “and thus opens the horizon for a potential politics.”

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