…Kwaito?

Ever wondered what the deal is with the style of song dominating the local music scene?

What's the deal with... Kwaito?

Kwaito is an uniquely South African music genre that emerged in Johannesburg during the 1990’s. This ‘gangster music’ is generally referred to as being the music of the urban youth, more specifically the poorer Township-living youth.

Its defining qualities include the slowed down, quite prominent drum and bass beat, (similar to house music) as well as the spoken, almost ‘shouted’ vocal melodies, generally sung in one of the native African languages. In many ways it’s our cultural answer to the music that leads parents worldwide to look at their disenfranchised offspring with anger, shouting the familiar, traditional chant of "That rubbish does NOT need to be that loud!’’

It has at times been too easily dismissed as our answer to American Hip-Hop. While there are certainly similarities, to judge Kwaito on these qualities would be to miss the point altogether - its important cultural impact not just now, but also at its beginnings, at a time when we so very badly needed something to call our own.

Kwaito defines as much as it is defined, playing and having played a prominent effect on the fashion, attitude, language and culture of South Africa. Art as a reflection of culture, and vice versa. Another reason for parents to fret, all the while shouting the familiar, traditional chant of "You are NOT going out dressed like that!’’

Due to its origins in the early 90’s, Kwaito arose just as South Africa was finally becoming a democratic country – many see this as coincidental, any connection between the two merely being that Kwaito could not have existed in the prior years of segregation (African music having no major commercial outlet to speak of). Part of this thinking arises due to the fact that Kwaito is distinctly apolitical in its lyrical content.

Kwaito‘s lyrical theme’s focuses around life in the township, girls, partying and so on. Some might think the normal trivialities of any ‘pop’ music – but to truly appreciate the subject matter in Kwaito, one has to understand or at least acknowledge the extrinsic factors playing a role here. Kwaito takes on the subject matter it does or doesn’t, more likely as an answer to the years of Apartheid and to the problems that South Africa now faces. In other words, it’s trying to move away from the problems, and as so much popular entertainment does, tries to provide an escape - whether you like the particular avenue it takes or not.

That is not to say that certain artists don’t at times focus on racism, sexism, political corruption or other features decaying our society, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Kwaito is for the urban youth of South Africa, just as Hip-Hop is for the youth of America now, or Rock was for the flower children of the seventies - an outlet, a medium of expression and more poignantly, an escape from the problems that pervade their lives. It has a pretty catchy beat too.

Also, I had the extreme privilege of an interview with the ultimate Master of Kwaito - TKZee. It was a pleasure Read A Charismatic Kwaito Chat with TKZee here.

By John Scharges

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