By the late 90’s the storm that was the ’94 elections had ceased and gleaming a rainbow nation stood proud. The socio-economics of the country were shifting and more township folk found themselves with some serious disposable income. Patience Muyambo was yet to coin the awkward euphemism, “black diamonds” but, by and large, the coal was under proper pressure to shine. More and more black people could now afford to live in the suburbs or, at least, to take their kids to “white schools”, as was the case with my folks. With more access to the world outside, black peoples’ aspirations were shifting upwards of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. At the very top of the self actualization list; Get Out The Ghetto!
The negative portrayal of townships in media was also starting to bear fruit and now, being from the hood seemed like something you admitted rather than claimed. For kwaito, this meant that people were less inclined to take it with them out of the hood. It was like taking your ghetto cousin to your white neighbours’ pool party. The thing that had made kwaito what it was, it’s exclusivity to black culture, was now stifling it’s growth. It really looked like it was all “going south of the border” for the growth of kwaito, that is, until two significant moments came as a requiem for the ailing champ.
“Nithi lento eniyiculayo imnandi? Lento ibolile, maan!“, these were the words of an irate mother who had called in into a new fledgling radio station. The translation: You think this music of yours is nice? It’s rotten. The radio station: Yfm. You couldn’t have found a better sound bite even if you had paid for it.
Yfm had many parents revolting, it seemed like a form of radio porn. My own mother wasn’t quiet as irked, she would occasionally ask me, “what kind of job is it where people just come to sit and talk and laugh and have fun?” The two contrasting statements captured exactly what we loved about Yfm; it was disgustingly fun. The sheer number of influential dj’s, the stations’ full embrace of youthful abandon, the music that seemed to speak our own language, these made it an irresistible force for us.
Through it all, one figure stood out as a torch bearer for kwaito at the station at the time, Fana Khaba aka Khabzela. Although his Mekonko albums dropped mainly house compilations, Khabzela was the personification of the story of kwaito. A taxi driver turned radio icon. I remember a classic retort of his to constant jabs at his “ugliness”, “mina ngimubi kodwa nginemali and ngihamba nge anaconda. Wena unani?” – I’m ugly but I have money and a nice ride, what do you have? This is what kwaito was, unapologetic about its inadequacies and straight in your face about its successes and, of course, the love of classic built BM’s. His raw humour and street wise wit brought the hood right onto the airwaves. If kwaito was a movie, Khabzela would have been the narrator.
On tv, the revolution was being televised. A new drama was causing major upsets in the hood. Yizo Yizo was the near realization of every parents’ nightmare and we fucking loved it for that. Obscene portrayals of violence, a broken education system, juvenile delinquency were all fantastical were they not real. Within a few episodes, nearly every hood had it’s own version of Papa Action, Gunman and Chester. The show created a scene messed up enough to see kwaito flourish. The soundtrack was dark ensemble of a kind of gangster kwaito, less jovial that its predecessor but all the more relevant to the malevolent times we found ourselves in.
From belch of thick weed smoke of bottle-kops, one would emerge to change the game. Bongikosi Dlamini played Papa Action in the second season of Yizo Yizo, replacing Ronnie Nyakale. Off tv, he went by the alias, Zola. Riding on the fame copped from the tv show, Zola released his debut album Mdlwembe and literally spat in the face of the status quo.
As an entity, Zola was the embodiment of kwaito; his demeanor, his grimace, his lean and gear right down to the toothpick. But, it’s what he did on the mic that split the musical atom. Unlike the sparse lyricism of chanty, chorusy vibes of ‘traditional’ of kwaito, Zola fired 16’s like echoes of an AK in the hood night and he swung low hung rhymes from bar to bar. Somehow, Zola had built a fortified bridge between kwaito and hip hop. When he killed “Ghetto Scandalous” featuring Amu and KB, the curtain between the two genres was torn. Not only that, he also showed the commercial value thereof through the endorsement deals he scored. He had reaffirmed kwaito’s presence as something we could walk confidently with into the future.
Sadly though, there would not be many quiet like him that followed and it would be some time before the likes of Pro(Kid) would pick up the baton. On top of that, a few years later, Skwatta Kamp would release Khut ‘n Joyn and summarily set the bridge that Zola had built on fire. SK was the okapi that severed hip hop clean from kwaito because, though the raps were straight ghetto but, kwaito it was not. Timb’s and Chucks parted ways and bom’rapper subsequently separated themselves from, well, everybody else. With the boom is youth culture yet unable to partake, at seemed as though kwaito was “up against the ropes, semi-conscious without no boxing skills”.