The metallic thwack of a basketball reverberates around an outdoor court like a drum roll. Sitting on the sidelines, around 60 school kids cluster in cliques, blasting rap music on a boombox, gulping fizzy drinks, unaware of who’s about to arrive. As the golden afternoon sun slices between the skyscrapers of downtown Johannesburg, there’s a nervous energy among the crew. It’s our final shoot of the day – and our subject is late.
“It’s too busy; she’s going to get mobbed,” protests a sharply dressed record exec, looking nervously toward the teens.
The label owner
“It’s not whether I see myself as a role model, I am a role model. People get in touch with me constantly; it’s a responsibility I have to engage with every day,” asserts Spoek Mathambo, founder of the label Teka Music, and part of the band Batuk. A figurehead for many young South African artists, he’s already achieved international acclaim for his four solo albums, and three MOBO award nominations. “I’m careful not to overpromise and underdeliver. There’s this sad dream of getting signed and everything working” – he clicks his fingers – “like that. Unfortunately, it’s hardly ever the case.” With Teka, Mathambo is forging an independent path. “Primarily, my interest is to make innovative music rooted in African rhythms. As a young urban South African, it’s also my way to discover where I’m from.”
And then, she arrives: Moonchild Sanelly bounces onto the court. As predicted, there’s a hum of excitement and lots of pointing as the kids snap away on smartphones. Dressed in a paintbox of bright primary colours and her cobalt-blue “moon-mop” plaits, the Port Elizabeth-born, future ghetto-funk star hides behind yellow-tinged sunglasses. But she looks unfazed. And why not? Racking up millions of YouTube hits worldwide, Sanelly is one of the most famous musicians in South Africa right now. This month, she flies to London to work on her new album with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, a collaboration due out this year that follows their 2018 co-release Strong Together. But fame, it seems, hasn’t dented her enthusiasm; or, it turns out, her love for her adoptive city. “To have found recognition without having to change myself highlights the diversity of the scene in Johannesburg,” she says, after a patient 15 minutes of selfies with fans. “If you’re an artist, you’ve got to move here. Right now, Joburg is where you make your dreams happen.”
And she’s right. Moonchild typifies the musical revolution that’s happening in South Africa. In the past few years, home-grown artists have been thrust into the global mainstream, and now compete with the likes of Drake and Rihanna in the South African charts. With a genre- defying mix of sounds – think, house, electro, pop and soul, together with gospel, afrobeat and guttural tribal – much of the new scene centres on Johannesburg. Last year, for example, the Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack to Black Panther featured four South African artists (three from Joburg). Sanelly says you can hear South African sounds in mainstream acts like Diplo, who recently collaborated with Babes Wodumo and Distruction Boyz, a Durban duo who popularised the native genre gqom, a kind of bass-y, South African house.
Radio 123 describe their music as “Mandela Pop”. “Our sound is all about peace and reconstructing our beautiful country,” explains trumpeter and guitarist Siphosenkosi Nkondlwane. “In one song you can find five different languages, so people from many backgrounds can hear each other.” Nkondlwane and vocalist Simangaliso Mfula grew up in Vosloorus township, where they always knew they wanted to be musicians. “I wanted to dance like Michael Jackson,” says Mfula, “and make a beat like J Dilla.” They played Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival in 2017 when they had no music recorded at all. Now, they’re buoyed by Joburg’s music scene. “The alternative sound here is now picking up,” says Nkondlwane. “This is what’s going to trend in the next five years, if not a decade from now.”
Joburg is where you make your dreams happen
“Now, the whole world is looking to Africa. American and European artists are coming to South Africa to get that authentic sound,” she says. “Africa is the future; and people are realising it now.”
So what’s driving the growing international interest in South Africa’s music scene? I heard a number of views after we wrapped the shoot with Sanelly. Music manager of YFM, the city’s youth radio station, which has a self-imposed quota of 50 per cent local artists, Marco de Carvalho says it’s the new, home-grown interest in the music that’s allowing artists to find recognition on the world stage. Like many of the acts making it big in South Africa right now, YFM was born from the ashes of apartheid and celebrated its 21st birthday last year.
Africa is the future and people are realising it now
“The appetite for South African music in the last few years has exploded,” he tells me, “to the point where it surprises me. The biggest dance and hip-hop songs in the country are not international, they’re local. Now, venues are being booked out with local artists. We’re not having to bring huge international acts to sell out stadiums, we’ve got them right here.”
One such stadium is the FNB in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township. Here, 11 different languages are spoken – the click of Xhosa, rhythms of Zulu and the gentle lilt of Sesotho. As I walk down Vilakazi Street (the only street in the world to produce two Nobel Prize-winners, it turns out: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu), restaurants buzz with house music, gospel bellows from the car windows and CDs pave the street. I’m here to meet ex-resident-artist-producer-label owner Spoek Mathambo, one of South Africa’s most successful exports known for his mash-up of electro, afrobeat and pop. What’s changed? Why the fairly sudden success for so many made-in-Africa artists?
“The change is technology,” he says. “Now, anyone can make high-quality music at home.” Relatively low-cost access to music production software, he says, effectively gives a new wave of talent the keys to a music industry once in the sole grasp of major labels. In 2014 he founded label Teka Music so he could release his own album. “I want kids to see they can do it themselves; you don’t need a record deal, you can release everything yourself.”
“Johannesburg is a city of jazz,” says Kevin Naidoo, co-founder of The Orbit, a live music venue in Braamfontein, the centre of the city’s music scene. “After apartheid, jazz clubs were one of the few places where people of all races or economic groups could mix around music.” The venue opened five years ago, when many places in the city were shutting down, and it’s bucking the trend, with a restaurant serving dishes from all over the African continent (“the crayfish is from Mozambique!”) and tables facing the stage.
“Jazz has got a different meaning in Europe,” says Naidoo. “Here, it’s younger, fresher and not too intellectual. The way that it will survive is if it evolves.” And it’s more than surviving, he says. “Now, young jazz musicians are incorporating rock, hip hop and rap into their music. Jazz is in the charts. But, at the end of the day, it’s all music.”
Believe it or not, this is still a revolutionary approach in South Africa, which only saw Apple Music launch in 2015 and Spotify less than a year ago. Nevertheless, the country has been quick to catch on. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, music streaming in SA increased by 330 per cent between 2016 and 2017. Streaming is now a viable revenue source for artists, says Mathambo. “Record sales are now such a non-factor in an artist’s success – there are no gatekeepers any more.”
Daughter of late jazz legend Ray Phiri, Nonku Phiri is another artist who’s carved her own path in the industry. I meet her at The Tennis Club which, by day, is a patchwork of bottle-green asphalt courts that morphs into one of Joburg’s coolest live-music venues at night. Alongside her solo career, in 2015 the singer-songwriter-soundscapist founded her own label, Albino Black, which she hopes will benefit other up-and-coming performers. Like Sanelly, Phiri sings in multiple languages, collaborating with musicians from different backgrounds to reach new audiences. She says that diversity is what makes Johannesburg’s music scene so rich, and a big reason why she isn’t tempted to leave the City of Gold for other, more established music cities like New York or London.
“We have 11 languages here – I want to play a role in being a part of the next phase of our oral tradition,” she says. Mathambo agrees. “Life is good here,” he says. “You don’t appreciate that until you leave. I remember, I first went on tour in 2005 and was going to a lot of techno parties in Belgium. I suddenly realised, ‘Oh, the way we do it back home is so much sicker than this!’”
The music entrepreneur
With a career that spans more than a decade, festival founder-live music curator Dominique Soma is a long-serving player in the Joburg music scene. “Everything I do comes from a place of passion,” she says. It’s this passion that led to the creation of WeHeartBeat – an influential multimedia music agency that this year opens a new content studio as well as Beats Festival and music conference. “I’ve been involved in the hip-hop scene since I was 15,” she adds. “After 1994, a lot of transition was happening in South Africa. Artists took their struggles from the post-apartheid period and translated it to a hip-hop beat. Now it’s 25 years post-apartheid, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Music keeps things positive and gives people hope. It’s people that make South Africa what it is.”