Pioneer Amapiano 1_Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi (1)

Amapiano—the sound exploding in South Africa and beyond—in 15 tracks

Pioneer Amapiano 1_Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi (1)

As amapiano begins to go global, Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi tells the story so far of this intoxicating new style of dance music.

The South African township is a place where languages coexist, clash and meld. They pull each other apart and inside out, approximate and appropriate from one another in search of commonality.

In a country where the 11 official languages are breadcrumbs for expression, not the path itself, music can both articulate and personify this commonality. It can subvert the divisions that an apartheid government once imposed along racial, class and cultural lines. It can create anew.

Amapiano is an electronic music movement created—and still most popular—in the townships of South Africa’s Gauteng province. It gets its vocabulary and syntax from jazz, folk, kwaito, bubblegum, deep house, dibacardi and other genres favoured in townships. Early amapiano was almost exclusively instrumental. Vocals only became widespread when the sound was on the cusp of mainstream acceptance and eventual domination. But the language amapiano speaks to audiences is entirely of its own making. 

Amapiano is developed democratically and proliferated in person and digitally. At events around 2013, pioneering production and DJ duo MFR Souls gained a following for the nascent movement by adding inumber (amapiano first went by this name, which means “number”) to their deep house sets, a move that would eventually help them crack the mainstream.

“Because the sound was still fresh and nobody was used to it, it was more difficult to push it to the top guys,” says the group’s Tumelo Mabe. “To be honest, the streets helped us get to where we are today.”

Since then, amapiano has expanded from being an accent in DJ sets, played mostly in pubs, lounges and clubs, to a style with a variety of moods for different occasions. At its core, amapiano remains a dance music. But the proliferation of singers is a response to audiences’ desires for an amapiano style that can be listened to anywhere.

Given the variety of African languages spoken in South Africa, it’s no surprise that amapiano quickly separated into “sweet,” “dust,” “harvard,” “mainstream” and other variants. Amapiano in the sweet style, with smooth vocals in different languages sung over bass-led instrumentals, has become the lingua franca. But at this moment in amapiano’s short lifespan, dominance creates room for collaboration, and multiple amapiano slangs exist simultaneously. In the way that samples, drum patterns and melodies travel between producers, lyrics, catch phrases and party slogans travel between vocalists.

The South African music sector has been long considered exclusionary, with opportunities rationed out among established artists and few made available to new artists. But amapiano producers and punters use social media platforms (especially WhatsApp and Facebook), file sharing sites and streaming platforms (like YouTube) to distribute music and create followings.

These disruptive distribution models have helped ensure that the country’s most-played songs on radio, television and digital streaming platforms now come from a diverse set of artists. As amapiano multiplies, radio-friendly hits by Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa (together they are Scorpion Kings) share playlists and musical commonalities with the more avant garde sounds of Vigro Deep, Sje Konka, Focalistic and others. 

Mimicking, outright copying and false ownership claims are common in amapiano, partly because of the radical distribution models the movement has used. For the promoter and producer Dinho, real name Tiego Motau, this shared economy is not always beneficial. “If someone has made a banger,” he says, “someone else will take that vocal and make a remix without telling the rightful owner. You’ll find that the remix is better than the original, so the limelight isn’t on the original artist, it’s on the one who remixed the song. DJs don’t want to work together. There is no sense of teamwork.”

This fact notwithstanding, amapiano is credited with voicing criticism of the traditional creative economy. And its ability to adapt and respond to environments within the country is key to how the movement has grown to the space it now occupies. 

Indeed, as a movement representative of South African youth, created by them and based on lived township experiences, amapiano continues the work begun by kwaito music, which was invented and popularised in the ‘90s. But amapiano exists in a world increasingly tuned to the different sounds stemming from various African countries. 

DJ Edu, host of the Destination Africa show on BBC Radio 1Xtra, says, “I always think back to how kwaito was under-utilised. It was such a unique sound but it never got to cross the borders. But amapiano has managed to do that. I think a lot of African countries suffer from that insular production. You make such amazing music but you never share it with anyone else and no one else will know the genre, but people are comfortable within their countries that people know their music.”

Collaboration has become vital for the movement’s growth across the continent and elsewhere. Wizkid and Burna Boy featured on Kabza De Small’sSponono,” for example, released early in 2020 to great acclaim. Kabza De Small was able to attach his song and the amapiano sound to the Nigerian artists, who both enjoy a massive global following, having been key players in Afrobeats’ global growth. Nigerian artists Rema, Niniola, Mayorkun and, most recently, DJ Tunez and Olamide are experimenting with identifiably West African interpretations of amapiano. 

None of this should be seen as a challenge to Afrobeats’ clear dominance on the continent and globally. Instead, there are now multiple opportunities to present a diversity of African musical languages to the world.

This playlist marks some of the moments in amapiano’s rise to mainstream dominance in South Africa, as it begins to also find fans around the globe.

Gaba Cannal - Let It Be

In 2016, amapiano began to gain traction beyond its core group of enthusiasts. During the formative years, the majority of the movement’s staples were instrumentals, which borrowed primarily from kwaito, deep house and dibacardi. Instrumental amapiano coexisted with the vocal style (and continues to) and was arguably more popular. Gaba Cannal’s sound, although not singular in this early era, was influential on the trajectory of the movement and those currently at its forefront. 

KwiishSA – Isikhathi

Although the DJ and producer Lehlohonolo Marota admits that his first hit, “Isikhathi,” may not have been the first amapiano song in this style, it was an influential turning point for the movement. With amapiano on the rise at the time of its release, especially the vocal variant, this unpolished, chest-plate-rattling song broke through the underground and became popular on the digital distribution channels of the underground, as well as on mainstream radio and television. From then on, this style was known as “gong gong” amapiano, partly because of the force with which the bassline and drums hit.

Vigro Deep - Untold Stories (Pheli Bass Mix)

Kamogelo Phetla was raised in Atteridgeville, and the sounds that have been influential in the township, to the west of Pretoria, are clearly there in his music. The percussion speaks to an era when dibacardi made stars out of Bojo Mujo, Mujava and other artists from Pitori. Phetla, who’s 19, first gained popularity as a promising gong gong amapiano producer. He’s since become instrumental in growing the audience for a distinctly Pitori take on the different styles of amapiano. Releasing and rereleasing mixtapes and EPs, orchestrating social media campaigns and staying relevant in the scene have all ensured his growing popularity locally and internationally.

The Low Keys - Gringo

The former rap trio consisting of vocalist Mongezi Mashabela, pianist Lethabo Monyai and DJ Ofentse Gama realised after years of making and releasing music independently that, according to Mashabela, “With rap you need to have money to make money.” Instead, amapiano allowed them to pursue music while reflecting their immediate surroundings and lifestyles. “We decided to make an amapiano song, shared it on WhatsApp and it trended in our hood,” says Mashabela. “From our hood, it went viral.” Signing to Sum Sounds, a record label owned by artist-cum-entrepreneur DJ Sumbody that has a 50/50 deal with Sony Music, has helped the young trio access bigger audiences for their unpolished brand of amapiano and their energetic performances.

Caltonic SA – Internal (Mr. Bassplay)

Elias Shitlhangu started producing music in 2017, making tribal and commercial house as well as gqom, the electronic music originated in the Kwazulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces. Growing up in Seshego township in the Limpopo province, Shitlhangu’s older brother, who was a DJ, showed him the ropes. He sticks to “dust” amapiano, which he says resonates more with his younger audience, who respond to the drums and percussion of his arrangements. Some of his most popular songs are off The Terminator project, includingBambelela andBullet Point.”

Kabza De Small ft. Leehleza – Amabele (Shaya)

A number of producers who had been making amapiano during its underground years sought mainstream acceptance for their sound. Without it, radio airplay, brand endorsements and other revenue streams would be difficult to access. Over a relatively short period, an increasing number of amapiano producers included vocals in their songs, making them more recognisable and relatable to bigger audiences. “Amabele (Shaya)” became a case study for pairing lyrics about groove (parties), in township slang, with the instrumentals of the hood sound.

Vigro Deep – International

Vigro Deep has influenced a turn towards a moody, tech-house feel to gong gong amapiano that’s manifesting with artists like Snow Deep and Focalistic. What’s interesting with this song is it shows amapiano’s preoccupation with place. Hits like “Sandton” and Mamelodi” come to mind—pride in where one currently is, juxtaposed by where one aspires to be (Mamelodi is a township in Pitori; Sandton is an affluent area in Johannesburg). Being seen to travel abroad shows an affluence that many aspire to—hence the title “International.”

Sha Sha ft. DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small - Tender Love

Charmaine Mapimbiro, the artist known as Sha Sha, was born in Zimbabwe and raised between there and South Africa. As part of various choirs, she moulded her voice from a young age, eventually recording a demo song that was aired on one of the most listened-to radio stations in Zimbabwe. “I met Maphorisa in 2017,” she says. “I sang him one of my ballads. We have been working together since. From then on, everything just started changing.” A string of singles, with DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small on production, earned her the BET Best International Act award.

Samthing Soweto ft. Sha Sha, DJ Maphorisa & Kabza De Small – Akulaleki

Songwriter and vocalist Samkelo Lelethu Mdolomba shot to mainstream prominence as part of the acoustic group The Soil. As a solo artist, Mdolomba has released four projects. On Isphithiphithi, his fourth,Lotto” and “Akulaleki,” both featuring Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa, catapulted to prominence. His crooning voice and distinct vocals have influenced the singing style of other amapiano artists.

Semi Tee ft. Miano, Kammu Dee - Labantwana Ama Uber

Amapiano is not overtly linked to the conditions, aspirations and social outlooks of young black South Africans. However, South Africa can be described as politically liberal but socially conservative, with different religions playing a central role in the society’s make-up. Conservative South Africans have clashed with the liberal and epicurean ethos of amapiano on several occasions.

“Labantwana Ama Uber”’s lyrics hint at drug-use and women who have sex for money and favours. This caused arguably undue outrage, which might only have grown interest in the song and amapiano. The lyrics for another song, “Ur Sheete” by Kabza De Small featuring Moonchild Sanelly and Leehleza, raised controversy partly because a section of its chorus translates roughly to, “We don’t take your shit here, we will fuck you.” Moonchild Sannely’s verse on “Ndikuze,” by Major League and Focalistic featuring Kabza De Small and The Lowkeys, turned the gender tables and saw the female vocalist owning her sexual desires—also to some public opprobrium.

De Mthuda & Njelic - Shesha / Jobe London & Mphow69, Kamo Mjanje - Sukendleleni

From the moment the log drum kicks on some amapiano songs, there is an almost instant hope for a partner song. Both “Shesha” and “Sukendleleni” speak to a hedonistic atmosphere during the South African summer—an atmosphere that is, for now, not as carefree. De Mthuda and Njelic’s “Shesha” featured a refrain for the summer festive season in December. The song’s lyrics plead for a partner to wash themselves quickly (“shesha geza”) so they can go to a party. The fat drum kick of “Sukendleleni,” meanwhile, shook cars, home theatre systems and festival rigs throughout the country at the song’s height. 

Kaygee Daking X Bizizi - Kokota Piano

Viral trends have been in the arsenal of amapiano artists, which makes sense as its use of social media for distribution and marketing is a primary (and often only) avenue for independent artists. This can be orchestrated through, for example, the creation, posting and promotion of dance challenges or re-enactment videos. For amapiano, which had only recently established itself as a mainstream staple, “Kokota Piano” raised the bar for what social media could accomplish for relatively unknown artists.

A recent viral social media trend, #JohnVuliGate, derived from the eponymous single by Mapara A Jazz, raised the bar even higher. Perhaps a combination of the song’s catchy lyrics, amapiano’s growing international popularity, and increasing user numbers on platforms like Tik Tok help explain the phenomenon.

DJ Sumbody ft. Cassper Nyovest, Thebe, Vettis - Monate Mpolaye

With decades in the entertainment business and half of that time as a venue owner, Oupa Sefoka, AKA DJ Sumbody watched the explosion of amapiano in real time. For him, the electronic music movement was a resurgence of kwaito, the genre born in the early ’90s at the time of South Africa’s interregnum. Bringing about a resurgence of kwaito meant bringing the catchy lyricism of that genre to the newer style without sounding dated. “If the rhythm is there, the hook is there, then it’s a hit,” Sefoka said. “You don’t have to be trained at schools to sing at these gigs. Actually, the funniest thing is the people that can’t sing are the ones that make hits right now in this genre especially.”

Focalistic – In Your Mind

Since applying his lyricism to amapiano instrumentals, rapper Lethabo Sebetso’s rise has been meteoric. He was introduced to electronic dance music by his producer friend Snow Deep, and, on a limb, he decided to record over an amapiano instrumental by production and DJ duo Major League. 19 Tobetsa” was released in 2018 and earned him a place on the DJs’ tour, a six-track collaborative EP, and a string of hits, including 2019’sShoota Moghel,” and 2020’sNdikuze.” Sghubu Ses Excellent is Sebetso’s debut full length album, a highlight of which is “In Your Mind.”

Niniola – Addicted

Nigerian pop musician Niniola Apata released her second project, Colours And Sounds, earlier this year. Two songs on the record saw her experimenting with amapiano, giving it a Nigerian pop sensibility. These songs were released around the same time as other Nigerian amapiano experiments, namelyWoman” by Rema andOf Lagos” by Mayorkun. Amapiano exists in a new era for African music, where the internet plays a fundamental role in how African artists reach audiences outside of their home countries and the continent.

Producers and vocalists are expressing an ever-wider range of personal and musical ideas and feelings. As it resonates on the continent, particularly as Nigerian artists experiment with the sound, it continues to exist in a state of becoming. It’s unclear if global audiences will intuitively understand the language of amapiano. But it’s perhaps this unpredictability that’s helped make it so powerfully disruptive in South Africa.