Rethinking Kwaito as a Cosmopolitan Musical Practice

“I don’t come from hell

You would not like it if I called you a baboon

Even when I try washing up, you still call me a kaffir

Boss, don’t call me a kaffir”

In his 1995 kwaito hit ‘Kaffir’, Arthur Mafokate, a labourer, calls out to his boss arguing that he wouldn’t accept his black labourer referring to him as a baboon. ‘Kaffir’ was one of the first kwaito songs played on national radio, it marks a time when kwaito had become established as a genre of music in South Africa, but it’s impossible to claim it as a marker of when kwaito actually began. Kwaito’s strong associations with the 1994 political changes and with an urban black youth culture are the main focus point which this essay seeks to explore. Looking at the context in which kwaito truly emerged, the role songs like ‘Kaffir’ played in the turbulent political environment of South Africa, and the meaning it afforded for those who produced and consumed the practice.

In order to do so I am focusing on the early years of kwaito; from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s after apartheid had officially ended. I am also limiting myself to uncover the function and meaning of kwaito within the black South African community, that is not to say kwaito was necessarily racialised in the way it was consumed, but I do think (as should become clear) that it was within the black community that kwaito was created. To analyse kwaito in this way I use two main tools; firstly, I draw from the social and political relations between American hip hop and kwaito, a musical practice that has already been compared to kwaito in some literature, (Schwarz 2003). Secondly, I utilise Paul Gilroy’s framework of a ‘Black Atlantic’; a theory that connects both sides of the Atlantic through routes of exchanges. Using both of these to help analyse the functions and meaning of kwaito, I hope to show the way in which kwaito afforded South African’s a way of creating a reality that had been imagined during apartheid.

The Early Years of Kwaito

Kwaito is often cited as emerging almost side by side with the 1994 democratic elections, tending to brand kwaito as the music of freedom, a result of post apartheid struggle, or an expression of a new found freedom (Allen 2004, Coplan 2005, Steingo 2005, 2008). Indeed, kwaito cannot be separated entirely from the collapse of the apartheid government. The political changes of 1994 cannot be cast aside or easily ignored in any South African discourse during those years as the new liberation impacted the entire landscape. Not just the political landscape but also the social, economical and cultural. Yet, as Gavin Steingo argues, attempts to pair kwaito solely with the collapse of apartheid, are at risk of failing to incorporate any recognition of the many pre-1994 cultural shifts that were already laying the groundwork for kwaito. “While kwaito was and is certainly the soundtrack of a different South Africa, the notion that kwaito is just about “celebration” is highly reductive” (Steingo 2008:83).

Genres of music do not arrive overnight, kwaito should be thought of instead as a culmination of events and influences, one which presented itself gradually through what existed and what was changing within South Africa. In the 1980’s kwaito may not have existed as a “genre-apart” but through music such as bubblegum we can trace it’s history starting to unfold (Coplan 2005:11). Bubblegum has no strict sonic qualities or musical structure but can be identified as the music played in townships that was highly influenced by American disco and European pop during the 1980’s. During this decade, South Africa also saw the international community active challenge or undermine the cultural boycott that had been put in place by the apartheid powers. Important black South Africans were helping to reconfigure the international representations of apartheid South Africa; musicians such as Hugh Masekela, Joseph Shabalala, and Mariam Makeba. American popular music started making it’s way relentlessly into the country, being consumed and even performed, including collaborations and tours such as Paul Simon’s Graceland (Steingo 2008). The 1980’s saw some important changes that were able to lay the groundwork for the possibility of kwaito to emerge.

In ‘Historicising Kwaito’, Steigno interviews Arthur Mafokate about the music genre he’s so famously associated with. When talking about the genre’s beginning he makes clear his views that kwaito was not a reaction to the democratic elections, but had already been gradually growing in the years prior. He saw kwaito as the “voice of the (black) youth”, a demographic group that had been searching for a platform for expression for some time (Steingo 2008:86). This consolidation into a genre happened coincidently to the 1994 elections. Arthur sees kwaito as a practice that could be completely separated from the political context of South Africa. His opposition to kwaito as a reaction to the elections, is important because it is an example of how those who actually participated in kwaito, saw it. He may not hold a shared view with everyone who participated, and perhaps his comments in the interview may have been exaggerated to make a point clear. We do have to recognise that kwaito began it’s journey earlier than Nelson Mandela’s election, yet although we can’t reduce to kwaito as a mere reaction to his election, we do have to recognise that the shift to a non-racialised, democratic political environment was necessary for the growth of the genre. Previously black kwaito musicians would not have been played on national radio, nor would they have had much chance of being signed or employed by a recording studio.

Steingo notes; “the important point is that in the extremely repressive decade of the 1980s, the majority of black South African musical voices were affirmative. Black culture was being affirmed; South African culture was being affirmed; in a sense, life itself was being affirmed” (Steingo 2008:83). The beginnings of a black culture and a black identity that existed beyond the borders of South Africa. This way of conceiving black identity is supported by Lara Allen who says the primary reason for the strong international sound in kwaito is that in the early 1990s “South African youngsters” became bored with township pop and turned to international music (Allen 2004) The younger generations came to identify increasingly with communities outside of South Africa through finding shared characteristics and experiences:

“kwaito embodies a set of identities that resonated with vast numbers of young South Africans. It was perceived as simultaneously local and global, national and international. Through kwaito township youngsters were able, with pride and confidence, to associate with concerns of young people all over the world who share similarly mapped identities, without losing a sense of their own individuality” (Steingo 2008:90).

Kwaito in that sense, provided a platform in which young South Africans were able to create a dialogue around the interplay of a new identity, finding a way to bring their history into the future they sought, connecting their local to the global. Kwaito was a way of enacting or performing an achievable imagined reality. What we are left with are a series of questions on achieving political effect through music, the role of politics and aesthetics in music. How did kwaito help to realise this new reality and what were the shared experiences that young black South Africans were drawing from? How were post apartheid tensions between what had been imagined and the reality of the experience being played out?

Recognising the Influence of Hip Hop

Hip hop was an important musical practice which helped forge a transnational identity for black youths all over the world. A genre that started in early 80s American among urban black youths, and quickly became associated with the racial politics and abuse it emerged from. Today hip hop is found across the globe, produced, consumed and performed unrestricted by race or nationality, and yet the genre still holds a strong and important association with urban black youths in America. Despite the cultural embargo between South Africa and the rest of the world during apartheid, international music like hip hop was still making it’s way in. Hip hop by the late 80s was being widely consumed amongst townships in South Africa, and as this is also the build up years to kwaito it’s evident that similarities between the two genres would support a direct relationship.

Musically they are very similar. In terms of materials they both make use of new technology with heavy production using drum machines and samplers. Notably both moved away from live instrumental performance and made use of studio recording to make backing tracks so performers could then perform (and dance) along live and on stage. The samples sourced for these early tracks, although sonically different are similar in being important within each context. Listening to Boom Shaka’s 1990’s “Nkosi Sikelela” was a kwaito take on the South African national anthem which sampled a speech given by Nelson Mandela on his election, similarly early hip hop in the USA (such as Grand Master Flash in 1998’s ‘The King’) have sampled the memorable “I have a dream..” speech given by Martin Luther King.

Yet directly comparing the two genres can be problematic (Schwarz 2003). Linguistically, to denote that kwaito is South African hip hop is to say that that kwaito is a version of hip hop. The suggestion implies an everlasting link with American hip hop as the original style that has been copied. This limits the ownership, creativity and credibility of kwaito musicians. To talk of South Africa’s hip hop is to broaden what hip hop refers to and to give direct ownership of part of that sound to South Africa. The implication is to think of kwaito as hip hop. Similar to the previous phrase, we have now erased kwaito and replaced it with hip hop. Both also imply that the practice is not an entirely South African phenomenon. It’s also problematic as South Africa also has a separate and successful hip hop scene. It’s very apparent that we are discussing two different genres: “given the widespread popularity of kwaito among Johannesburg’s black township youth – the same demographic fan base from which the region’s hip hop traditionally draws – it is not surprising that the music has had significant impact on local hip hop scene leading in some cases to a potential blurring of genres. There are those within Johannesburg’s hip hop scene, however, who hold firm to what they see as clear and necessary artistic distinction between the two genres” (Perry year 653). Kwaito and hip hop can easily be identified from one another, yet similarly, as Perry points out, there have been occasions where a strict line cannot be drawn between them, but they blur into each other. Instead of directly comparing and relating the musical practices, I think it is more useful to look at the cultural and political similarities of the genres to help us understand why the comparison is made, and what that would infer if kwaito was (and I think it was) influenced by hip hop.

Hip hop’s influence on kwaito shouldn’t be understood in a Eurocentric way, or as Americanisation. Instead if we understand kwaito as an organic expression of self, one would be expected to use the materials at hand. For South African’s, hip hop music was at hand, it was part of their sonic environment. They were exposed to it day to day so it’s difficult to argue that there was an ideas of it being seen as necessarily foreign and separate from the concept of what was South African. Any expectation of recognising and categorising ones everyday between what is South African and what is not, what was local and what was global is inherently flawed as these two spheres may not always be so clearly bordered in day to day reality. To say that hip hop was an influence, was appropriated or assimilated into the South African musical landscape is heavy with possible problems. One way of addressing these is to use Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, a framework I find particularly helpful in coming to understand a transnational black culture; a transcultural formation of culture, not nationally absolute. Instead of looking at diasporic groups as having been separated, he shifts our view to understand them as a hybrid community.

South African’s Double Consciousness

Gilroy’s Black Atlantic describes a counterculture to Enlightenment and rationalism theories present in European modernism and post-modernism. He argues against what he sees as an essentialist version of racial identity and racial nationalism and in favour of a heterogeneous (but shared) culture of Black Atlantic. Through analysing the Black Atlantic as one unit of culture, a transnational, intercultural perspective can be achieved. One that still recognises the regional and local culture, but applies it to a meta-culture or what Gilroy refers to as a network or rhizome. Instead of identity markers such as African American or black English the concept of Black Atlantic offers a way to discuss both sides of the Atlantic and recognise the influence each has had on the other. Instead of foregrounding the differences that construct these identities, the imagery of a network enables a series of routes to surface and for sameness to be explored. This network consists of ‘routes’; both real and metaphorical; and both forced and voluntary. The real routes of slave labour, the ships that forcibly displaced black communities, are the origin of a shared sense of dislocation and terror amongst a wider black community. Other routes were then carved out across the Atlantic to exchange economic, material, social, political and cultural materials, ideas and experiences.

Prominent in his theory, Gilroy utilises what W.E.B Du Bois referred to as a ‘double consciousness’; an awareness of existing both inside and outside of the dominant culture. Du Bois saw this as an inherent part of the African American experience, and subsequently Gilroy see’s this as inherent in the whole of the Black Atlantic. Existing as a black person whilst similarly living as a black person in the presence of more dominant cultures. Music, within this context, becomes a useful vehicle for cultural expression, it’s accessible and prominent. Music functions as enabling a performing of culture and identity and subsequently functions as a useful medium for analysing social and cultural phenomena. Gilroy uses the concept of a Black Atlantic to analyse the ways in which musical performance develops throughout his Black Atlantic cultures. Focusing on musical practice allows us to move away from the Western dichotomy between body and mind, an approach Gilroy criticised for leading to understanding of black culture being the lowest form of art, purely physically, and never intellectual.

The perspective Paul Gilroy offers of contemporary Western music is invaluable because it allows us to think of it in a context of the transnational flows exist; he approaches globalisation as a process that was has been gradually built up in the last centuries, throughout the Atlantic. This process takes place beyond the frames of nationalist ideologies, which have become less crucial in the lives of ordinary people (Gilroy 1993). His metaphor, or imagery, of routes and ships represents how authentic black culture is a composition of the cultural exchanges across the Atlantic.  Previously important dichotomies, such as that between site of arrival and site of departure, become unnecessary in this framework, as these routes forge a dynamic flow between the locations that move in both directions.

In this light, as well as Eurocentric theories posing problems, Afrocentric theories now fail to recognise the influence the Atlantic had on South Africa. Both Afrocentric and Eurocentric perspectives are guilty of reducing reality to an essentialist point of view, unable to account for the full story behind kwaito. The Black Atlantic challenges any ideas of local and global, national and international, and origins and diaspora by transcending these ideas. For Gilroy the Black Atlantic can be understood as an articulation of the past rooted in a shared suffering and dislocation. One reaction and expression of this pain was music, and so it’s important to analyse what role this music played in social history – not just as an object but as an active agent.


Marc Perry looks at the ways in which the ‘black’ racial significance of hip hop culture was received and interpreted within the Afro-Atlantic world (Perry 2008). His work can help us to understand how hip hop helped to facilitate kwaito as being a general movement towards forming a black, youth identity within South African communities. Hip hop today has assumed an increasingly significant role in shaping contemporary forms of black diasporic consciousness and subjectivity. It has given a global image and sound not only to young black youths but to the racial turmoil of politics that they live through. The Black Atlantic allows us to see the dynamics of black identity within South Africa during this time, one which was both inseparable from the country’s history and politics, but also a black identity which existed in a global context. A black identity which could be both localised and globalised.

What Perry is suggesting is understanding hip hop as a phenomenon not restricted by geographies. South Africa’s engagement with hip hop is absent from it’s location of production. Hip hop can be understood as one of Gilroy’s routes, one which allowed the forming of a black youth culture that was beyond the confines of national borders:

“While such diffusion may move along similar global circuits as culturally and geographically divergent as Senegal and Japan, it is clear hip hop’s reception and decontextualisation is the formation of local followings can often involve very different kinds of social meaning making” (Perry 2008:640)

Hip hop retained a critical capacity to convey a signifying blackness of aesthetic form and emotive force regardless of it’s location. Hip hop “cannot be viewed simply as an expression of African American culture; it has become a vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identities all over the world” (Mitchell 2001:2). ‘Black’ becomes a political signifier of identity, one that binds communities both geographically and throughout history.

Through the network of the Black Atlantic, South Africa becomes part of the black diasporic movement. South Africa doesn’t share a history of diaspora with America, instead South Africa had new communities arriving on it’s land and communities being taken (Perry 2008:638). South Africa has a different relation to movement in this way, of being invaded rather than pushed to a new country. So South Africa was posed with the challenge of how to include themselves in this globalised space. The “rise of vibrant local hip hop movements” throughout Africa (including Senegal, Ghana, Benin, and Kenya) by the early 1990’s “suggest African youth were increasingly engaging in the black signified cultural space of hip hop as a medium of critical self expression” (Perry 2008:652). South Africa was so deeply ingrained in racial discourse, it is hard to conceive that a shift away from a racial concept of identity would have been easily or quickly achieved following the end of the apartheid years. Hip hop is not just musical sound, hip hop can also be understood as a powerful presence and recognition of young black culture. To engage (consume, produce, etc) with hip hop can’t only be to appreciate the sonic but also to have that cultural recognition, the political voice of the black voices behind it. The history and origin of hip hop was from the culture of american black youth, any engagement from any other demographic doesn’t dilute that significance but instead gave the movement more momentum.

Through hip hop was the possibility of constituting a new identity of ‘black’, one which was a “nationally transcendent understanding of black political struggle and subjectivity” (Perry 2008:656). Kwaito can be understood as existing through what came to be seen as possible with hip hop. Young, black South Africans were able to position themselves amidst shifting racial paradigms of “old” and “new”. Of course they were not residing in a post apartheid environment, but in reality the lived experienced would have run counter to any claims of non-racialism, and still seen racial hierarchies in practice.

Forming a Cosmopolitan Existence

The social significance isn’t just in international circulation and consumption but through the ways  hip hop was actively used as a site of racial mobilisation and self formation. How it came to function in the hands of kwaito musicians. One function that can be attributed to kwaito is the formation of a Cosmopolitan consciousness. After too many years under the apartheid government, perhaps it is not extreme to consider that a black cultural identity was more affirmative than that of South African culture (although, I’m careful here to state that kwaito music and musicians are South African, and strongly identify as such and I do not mean to argue otherwise). Instead thinking of a Cosmopolitan consciousness allows us to perceive the degree of estrangement that existed amongst many of the younger South African generations that had not had their whole adulthood dictated by apartheid (Steingo 2008).

A cosmopolitanism view is the idea that all citizens of the world exist in one single community together. There are many interpretations of cosmopolitanism; some focus on political institutions, others on moral norms or relationships, and still others focusing on shared markets or forms of cultural expression. What is interesting about this philosophy is how it works in reality; how citizens come to negotiate and participate in a community that is not localised. Cosmopolitanism poses the question of what does it mean to be modern, and why is there a desire to modernise Cosmopolitanism as a perspective is looking forward instead of backwards, it is less interested in historical political situations and events. Kwame Anthony Appiah recognises cosmopolitanism as the freedom for an individual to create her own identity, not necessarily to be ‘a citizen of the world’ and have a rootless existence, but one that is not solely dictated or confined to nationality (Appiah 2006).

Kwaito understood through these frameworks allows a binary of thinking, one which gives agency to the subaltern. Without thinking of kwaito in this light, we risk reducing it to a single phenomenon;  e.g. the neo-liberal political changes, or Americanisation of hip hop. Kwaito gets reduced to  a reaction to politics, cultural exposure or social change rather than a musical practice that performs all of those discourses.

The collapse of the apartheid structure dominating South Africa was essential to the successful rise of kwaito’s popularity and accessibility. These years though, instead of being a sudden splurge of freedom can be understood as a liminal phase for South Africa. By this I mean the liminality as used to describe a process in rituals, the state in which the orders of power and society are dissolved before being established in a new and altered state (Turner 1969). Liminality and the ritual process tend to be associated with initiation and coming to age ceremonies, but the premise of the liminal state can be applied to large scale societies as a whole. The significant, and necessary, difference is that the altered state reached after the liminal transition period is unknown. Similar to Turner’s use in rituals, the liminal phase is one in which hierarchy and power become dissolved, in South Africa although apartheid had ended there was no quick restructure to put in place to create a new racial equal South Africa. At once there was the lived experience of apartheid years and the new experience that was forming. This new experience itself was a dichotomy of the lived reality and the previous imagined experience. One that had been struggled and fought for for many years.

In achieving a fuller understanding of the context in which kwaito began to emerge, recognising the social, political, economic and cultural roots the practice held, we are able to understand it’s meanings and function. Kwaito embodied the changes that were occurring in South Africa, it empowered blacks and gave a platform for their voice, as did the election of Nelson Mandela. Kwaito also represented the routes of the Black Atlantic, it was inspired by a growing affinity with  the hip hop movement and community. It embodied black culture beyond South Africa, but it was (and still is) intensely localised, the use of synthesised marimba and structured izibongo praise poetry make kwaito easy to identify as South African, but it also has many international influences and makes use of new technologies and methods of music making. Kwaito is then an amalgamation of the period in which it emerged, it represented all the events, changes and experiences that were so crucial to young black South Africans. Kwaito functioned as the liminal phase of adjustment during and after apartheid. It slowly created bridged between South Africans and other black communities whilst still allowing them to be identified as ‘South African’.


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