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That’s Kwaito Style

4 minute read

When Kwaito burst onto the South African music scene in the early 1990s, the infectious mix of chanted lyrics, slowed-down house beats and bass-heavy African percussion quickly became the soundtrack to a generation. Kwaito (from the Afrikaans for angry, though it’s also township slang for hot and happening) was not just a sound, it was also a look: street threads and floppy Kangol hats worn with a new attitude. For young urban blacks, what got the party started was the fading of the old apartheid laws — suddenly they could spend a night in a club rather than under curfew. “The youth were beginning to have a voice,” says Lindelani Mkhize, managing director of Sony Music’s African division. “Musicians took the chants we used in the anti-apartheid struggle and said, ‘Let’s create a much happier type of vibe.’ It was all about going out to parties, meeting girls and having fun.”

These days, it’s harder to pin down South Africa’s musical and fashion trends — or its youth. The country is an MP3 player full of musical styles, including hip-hop, afro house and plain old R. and B. And the kwaito generation, now in its late 20s and early 30s, has grown to resent being pigeonholed. “When we do research among our listeners,” says Unathi Nkayi, a DJ on Johannesburg radio station yfm, “the first thing they say to us is, ‘Why are you trying to label me?'”

Its adherents may not like the tag, but kwaito remains the hottest look and sound around, defining everything from popular television programs to advertisements to fashion. A 2003 study by yfm found that kwaito rivals gospel as South Africa’s most popular musical genre; 30% of all hit records over the past five years have been kwaito. “It opened up an economic avenue for a lot of young people, as well as a creative avenue,” says Thandiswa Mazwai, who shot to fame as the lead singer of platinum-selling band Bongo Maffin before releasing her jazz and ethnic-sounds-infused first solo album last month. “It’s an expression of the freedoms we have now.”

The kwaito sound now regularly incorporates traditional African music, jazz, gospel and even rock guitar, most notably on Mandoza’s 2000 hit Nkalakatha, one of the few kwaito records to cross over onto traditionally white radio. Today’s popular stars — groups like Bongo Maffin, Mafikizolo and Malaika — also draw on the live sound popular in South African townships in the 1950s to create a style dubbed afro pop. “We have begun examining our roots,” says Maria McCloy, co-owner of a multimedia company that runs http://www.rage.co.za, a popular kwaito website. “The first generation of musicians was about breaking with the past. The new stars embrace it.”

That’s also obvious in fashion, where young designers are fusing black urban styles from their grandparents’ generation with modern influences. Leading the pack is the Johannesburg fashion house Stoned Cherrie, which was started by actress Nkhensani Manganyi three years ago and uses the slogans and iconography of black townships and the magazine Drum, hugely influential in black South Africa from the 1950s to the 1970s, as a recurring motif in its designs. These range from a black skirt fringed in cool orange, white and black beads to a T shirt sporting a Drum cover with the face of murdered anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. “A lot of designers are looking at what’s been in our backyard for years,” says Dion Chang, a fashion editor at South African Elle magazine. “They’re saying, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting’.”

Young white designers and musicians also revel in the era of liberation. At the Black Coffee label, Jacques van der Watt designs “homemade couture” that draws on his Afrikaner origins — quirky and feminine with a touch of irony. Durban’s Amanda Laird Cherry creates beautiful garments based on her studies of migrant-worker communities: a hint of India and the Far East. “People across the globe are trying to be individuals rather than part of a group,” says singer-songwriter Karen Zoid, whose rock-chick angst appeals to a generation of young Afrikaners less focused on politics and race relations and more into having fun. “The new generation is living free. We have a democracy now. We don’t care about politics.” A South Africa where young people are more into having fun than politics? Now that’s freedom.

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