I recently read an exceptional piece of writing by The Roots’ ?uestlove on “How Hip Hop Failed Black America”. I think anyone who has any type of interest in music has a duty to read this series of essays.
While reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder how music had contributed in shaping us into the adults we are today as 80’s babies. Obviously, we cannot talk about the history of hip hop in South African black society in the same vein as Black America, our scene in infantile in comparison. However, we did have something that was more than an equivalent; Kwaito. I say ‘did’ because, as it stands, kwaito is currently not even a shadow of the musical juggernaut that it once was, yet we owe so much of who and what we are now to what was once called ‘Sgubhu’.
I was born in 1984, which means that I was not entirely ‘conscious’ of the political strife that the country went through. My memory wasn’t fully developed to capture the pain and turmoil indelibly. My earliest memory of music were struggle songs or ‘songs of umzabalazo” as they were called. Ancient African rhythms that were now infused with political vex, chanted by amaComrades as they prepared to stand up to an unjust system. I remember my brother teaching me “kill the boer, kill the farmer” in the late 80’s like it was a nursery rhyme.
In terms of recorded music, Bubblegum as a music genre was slowly but surely losing its grip. It was a music of generation that was now growing old and beyond hype. Chicco Twala, Dan Tshanda and the likes had peaked. Brenda Fassie had cracked open the old guards’ façade of jovial folk music and she had made pop music a veritable wrecking ball against the architecture of apartheid. She got the old and young dancing while still reminding them that we still needed a black president.
There could not have been a better time for it. In the early 90’s South Africa was on a knife’s edge. On one side, we could implode into yet another African country consumed by war. On the other side, we could become a socio-political miracle the likes of which had never been witnessed.
Arthur Mafokate dropped “Don’t call me kaffir” and we knew that either way, at least musically, we were not going to apartheid. To be honest, when that joint dropped, it was not that serious for me and my peers, in fact it was a funny song. Which is what good music manages to do, I suppose, it offers respite in the toughest times without being ignorant.
In the midst of the political tension, Don Laka, the legendary jazz phenom, was about to pull off a move so inexplicable that it would change and dominate the South African music scene to this very day. He did what visionaries do, he saw; one part, the trajectory with which we were hurtling towards a new world and one part, that the youth were growing restless with what was currently on the airwaves. Together with Oscar Mdlongwa and Christos Katsaitis he formed Kalawa Records.
“It’s About Time”, said Boom Shaka. They unleashed this track and things were never the same. Kwaito was becoming undeniable force in the most inappropriate way possible. Theo on that androgynous flow, Junior on that Shaba Ranks tip and…moment of silence…Thembi and Lebo, dressed in some plastic leather briefs, dripping with sexual innuendos, gyrating their bare midriffs, pierced noses, box braids and thick thighs into our living rooms. It was so wrong, it had be right. Kwaito had moved out of obscurity and it seemed the youth finally had their own voice.