Expanding gqom’s visual palette

Perhaps in a manner similar to dancehall, it is nearly impossible to speak of gqom without paying attention to its environmental context. The dance space, be it legendary clubs such as downtown Durban’s 101 or the ubiquitous, cyberspace clubs offered by cellphones and social media, the culture of gqom is propelled by vocalists, DJs and as much as, if not more, by dancers.

Muses to its innovators, they morph from dance-floor expressionists to physical beacons of how the music is to be interpreted visually. In a February 28 poolside Twitter video of Artchild flexing some moves to Rudeboyz’s Major Turn Up (off the pair’s Gqomwave EP), what one sees beyond mere movement is something of a balancing act, a real-time reappraisal of the artform’s audio-visual palette.

The track, a throwback hip-hop sounding joint that resembles Run DMC’s Sucker MC’s filtered through gqom, finds its match in Artchild’s approach to dance, which seems to take fragments of moves associated with ukubhenga and reassemble them through a thread of diverse popular dance forms. This not only alters their form but, thanks in part to her lanky frame, their sense of timing.

“The beat influences what the body does. It’s like it tells the body what to do,” says Artchild from a couch in a Linden guest house, dressed as if she is going to attend a winter dance event.

We meet on the last day of her four-day Johannesburg visit, where she has been marshalling a crew of five dancers (including herself) through their video set cues. They have been taking part in a video shoot for Rudimental and Major Lazer, an intercontinental collaboration featuring English singer Anne-Marie and Nigerian artist Mr Eazi.

For Artchild and the 031 Movement (the crew of dancers she manages), it’s a call-up that signifies a future that has come knocking.

“I started dancing [in videos] with DJ Cndo’s video, Yamnandi Into,” she says of the 2013 track that launched her sideline as a video dancer and choreographer. “But firstly, I started doing hip-hop. After matriculating [in 2010] I took a gap year and I did hip-hop dancing. In my first year in college I got an invite to be part of a video, Yamnandi Into, which was one of the first gqom tracks to be public. I co-choreographed that with some friends of mine. Cndo was so happy that she called us for SABC1’s Live Amp, when she was launching the song.”

So began Artchild’s association with Afrotainment, which released Cndo’s version of that track. “I choreographed for different [Afrotainment] artists, like Tira, Duncan, Cndo and Joocy — anything to do with dance, usually, they came to me and I did it. When they needed more dancers on stage I would outsource dancers and then I ended up seeing that I could just make this thing permanent. So I ended up having a solid team and I called it 031 Movement.”

Artchild’s first TV appearance, however, was not as a video dancer but as a contestant in the dance show Jika maJika. Along with six other dancers from the Fabulous Entertainment stable, Artchild was placed third in a Stumbo Stomp national competition. This was before enrolling for hip-hop dance classes with Tarryn Smit’s Breakthrough Dance Company in 2012.

“She is one of the best choreographers in Durban,” says Artchild of her erstwhile teacher. “Besides me, she has one of the biggest dance agencies.”

I am less interested in verifying Artchild’s statement than in believing it. Her momentum seems to be speaking it into being.

It was her clique, alongside Distruction Boyz, who kicked off the hyperkinetic dance series that was MTV Base’s Gqom Nation, which sought to capture and bottle the energy of gqom as a dance movement. When Dladla Mshunqisi released the visual spectacle that is the Pakisha video, part of that visual flooding of the senses, in which the cityscape of Durban is used as a prop, is attributable to Artchild recruiting and choreographing some of the formation scenes involving about 50 dancers.

As in that video, she now prefers to be behind the scenes, except of course when kickstarting her own musical career, which is where her focus has been of late. She has been racking the vocal performances up, such as on the Rudeboyz-featuring four-beat gqom stomper Bhenga, which has actually been on heavy rotation since the onset of Gqom Nation although its official release is a few weeks away.

Artchild bookends the almost linear pulse of the song with sparse rhyming couplets celebrating the freedom of being on the dance floor. In the song’s waning moments, she offers English rhyming lines, similarly paced, where she celebrates dance as a sensual experience between worthy dance partners.

In Woza, another song credited to DJ Vumar, Artchild recites a few autobiographical lines before promising to cause a scene. That scene is dancing, and I guess the other doors she is planning to open for herself and her squad. From the outside looking in, these are doors opening on terms they dictate.

Street Volume’s Qondanisa, featuring Artchild and the producer Catzico, is a track with a pulsating, three-note bassline with that and other snatches of live instruments. For its hook, Artchild twists a biblical verse, rendering it as “ukuqala kokuhlakanipha ukuthand’ ukjitha” (the first sign of wisdom is knowing how to move). Looked at in unison, Artchild’s current oeuvre contains songs that stand as a testament to her vantage point as a dancer in a scene in which mastering that artform is a form of currency.

During the interview, Artchild explains that she has a history as a house singer, a talent she toyed with on the Red Bull’s Lalela sessions, which featured singers in an intimate setting. She remembers singing songs such as uZongilinda by Cuteness and Naima Kay’s Lelilanga — “soulful music” she says.

Artchild has dual personalities, she says: an extroverted side best expressed through gqom, as well as an introverted, more emo side best articulated through lyrics sung on top of house beats. She currently has a clutch of about 10 songs, including the “introverted” ones, that will go towards her album.

It is neither Artchild the singer nor the gqom vocalist that is of prime fascination to me. It is something more innate than her artistry. It is her confidence, not too cocky and not too brash, a survival strategy forged through years of living in boarding houses and “always having to be around other kids and experience different environments”.

Through all that drama, Artchild sang, danced, drew and studied for psychology and industrial psychology degrees, which she says are a great help when it comes to keeping her staff happy and productive.

As she focuses on her music career, a goal she is learning to achieve through delegating and empowering her young staff is that of taking gqom-influenced dancing into other genres.

“I want to incorporate the dancing into other genres and I wanna take the sound internationally; that’s my main focus,” she says. “I am not done yet but I am in preparation.” 

In the next few days, Artchild, alongside another dance crew called D-Mob, will choreograph and cameo in a Rudeboyz video titled Let It Flow. Her cameo in the video is brief, she says. Her footprint, however, looks set to cause ripples for years to come.  

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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