The dawn of democracy in South Africa gave birth to a new sound that blended slowed down house music, bubblegum pop and elements of maskandi. The sound was called kwaito, and it celebrated township life, the youth, and being black in post-apartheid South Africa,
Over time, kwaito became the cornerstone of popular music in the country, giving birth to iconic artists such as Mandoza, Boom Shaka, Bongo Maffin, Trompies and so on. It’s place in popular culture has evolved, and some may even say that it’s glory days have passed. And it is in the book Born to Kwaito that we see both the music and culture revived.
Co-authored by Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu, Born to Kwaito offers readers the opportunity to relive and celebrate the days of kwaito. The only difference now is that, through the help of both authors, we get to celebrate it with the benefit of hindsight- remembering the good, the bad and everything else in between.
Through a Skype chat, Esinako let us know why it was so important to celebrate, support and understand our own local music.
“I find that as much as it’s good to borrow from international communities and to… see the universal experiences of blackness and to share where we can, it’s still also important to remember who we are, because that’s the only thing we can make sense of. There are nuances to hip-hop that we will never get…there are limits to imagining ourselves as global figures and there are things within our local context that shape us.”
You definitely get a sense of this ‘shaping’ when reading co-author Sihle’s chapters. He writes out his essays by mixing journalism and theory with his own experiences as a young person born to kwaito. When speaking about the infamous show known as “Yizo-Yizo”, a series very closely tied with the kwaito movement, Sihle highlights how “Blackness had never been framed so closely, so terrifyingly, so beautifully. It felt both like baptism and drowning”. The beauty of Sihle’s writing lies in his ability to centre the reader right within the era and atmosphere of the kwaito movement.
Through the work of both writers, the reader is able to connect the dots between kwaito as a music genre with kwaito as a cultural moment, a political statement, an aesthetic and as a personal story for those who experienced it at its height.
“Kwaito was a direct product of our liberation”, says Esinako, quoting kwaito star Oskido. In the book, she describes kwaito as a cultural moment that was not only “dancing and carefree, it was also laughing in the face of oppression”.
The authors make it a point to celebrate the culture, but they don’t at all shy away from dealing with the hard truths about issues such as drugs, alcohol, and the misogyny that haunted the kwaito industry. For some readers, familiarising oneself with the discrimination and disempowerment that some artists had to deal with, especially women, might be heartbreaking. However, from this heartbreak, there is much to learn and a lot remember about the social ills that face us even today.
Esinako says that a good thing to take away from Born to kwaito is lessons. “So just because people were disempowered,it doesn’t mean that that’s how it ends. In this moment we can recognise how women are being let down and we can improve from that.”
Indeed, on a chapter titled “We need to talk about Arthur”, Sihle explores the dysfunctional and abusive relationships that Arthur Mafokate had with his some of his female artists and girlfriends (most recently with Busisiwe ‘Cici’ Twala). Arthur’s story is told in the book not only for us to understand how problematic he was as an individual in the industry. His story also appears as an example of how we as consumers of pop culture can become part and parcel of a social issue when we either continue to support problematic artists, keep quiet about them or ignore their behavior.
In this chapter, Sihle quotes feminist and musician Ntsiki Mazwai, who voiced out her opinion about Arthur facing charges of assault.
“Why are you surprised by Arthur when he has had power and control over all his women artists?” Ntsiki stated, “These men must stop being too comfortable with violence. Arthur has been exploiting young women in the industry for years.”
In their rendition of the story of kwaito, both Esinako and Sihle cover the good and the bad. It is clear that the point is not to condemn or celebrate kwaito, it is a matter of being truthful about its stories and the people it involved.
“I had anxieties around misrepresenting people or telling a single story and missing a bigger story”, Esinako expresses.
“I also had to remember that I’m not some omnipresent figure that can see everything or account for everything. And I had to remember myself from my perspective, from my positioning as a 21 year old young black woman and to move from that, but we tried to give as variant account as possible because we understand that it’s not just one story that’s happening,” she adds.
When Esinako explains this, I cannot help but let her know how incredibly good Sihle and her were at writing out the stories of kwaito in the way that they did. To take in so many different sides of kwaito and to recognise it in all its different shades and colors, as if it were a person you had to understand, is what made the book feel so in unforgettable.