Is kwaito an old thing yet?

Whenever I get the odd interview on Born to Kwaito: Reflections on the Kwaito Generation, interviewers ask me, “Is kwaito dead?” — a question I know is often posed to kwaito artists as well. The question never interests me. If anything, it just irks me. A more interesting investigation would be into the kind of infrastructure that makes it difficult for many genres and subgenres to thrive sustainably in South African popular culture.

Between my and my co-author Sihle Mthembu’s work, and the people who ask us if a genre we have recently published a book on is dead, somebody has failed. As long as kwaito remains fixed in people’s minds as a song and a clothing style, there is going to be a constant struggle to make sense of its life and cultural significance. It should be clear by now that kwaito lives on as a kind of heritage — not only as a popular mainstream sound — and the investment should be in preserving this crucial part of history and black identity. But what does it mean to think of kwaito as heritage? 

An undergraduate qualification in anthropology later and the meaning and idea of “heritage” seems more elusive to me than it did when I was a first-year student who routinely wore umbhaco to campus, feeling identifiable as a proud Xhosa girl.

The ability to connect to paper the idea that kwaito is heritage is evading me. A site I stumble on after  googling, “What is heritage?” says, among other things, “Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.” It also throws up the questions: “What is worth saving?” and “What can we, or should we, forget?” 

That seems like a great point of entry. It makes heritage a space that is not fixed: one that can be debated and, therefore, constantly created and recreated. In essence, heritage is the culture, the traditions, the monuments inherited from the past and preserved for future generations. 

The site I stumbled upon makes mention of “old things” and then I struggle. Is Kwaito an old thing yet? Or is it rendered old by the fickle nature of the South African dance landscape? Kwaito is almost only as old as our democracy, which is still so contested, subject to active public reflection, debate and discussion. 

What is worth saving? The statue of Brenda Fassie at the Bassline comes to mind as it enters the world of Nelson Mandela statues and materialises the argument I have tried to make. The sometime kwaito star is memorialised in one of South Africa’s longest enduring cultural hubs, acknowledging her place in heritage-making as an artist. In a country that typically creates monuments to colonialists and freedom fighters, Angus Taylor’s sculpture comes to embody the idea that our popular cultures also form part of our heritage.

Perhaps the strongest argument I can make for this inheritance, this tradition, is that, more often than not, we do not have too many monuments that we have inherited as black South Africans. We have had to battle with Cecil John Rhodes statues, Voortrekker Monuments and apartheid flags and, because of our material dispossession, in most cases we have to rely more heavily on heritage as culture and tradition — not buildings and objects. 

In that world, we have a beloved music that is known for its footwork, its lazy, localised approach to rap, its ability to reflect our history (and the present) and its undeniable, unforgettable beginnings as the soundtrack to one of the most crucial points of South African history. New question: Is kwaito worth saving?

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Esinako Ndabeni
Esinako Ndabeni is a writer, an undergraduate student of International Relations and Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is interested in the ways in which popular culture encourages and normalises certain raced, classed and gendered ideas and behaviours. Therefore, with Born to Kwaito, she interrogates how women are imagined in popular culture, the impact that these imaginings have on real lives and how women in kwaito fought back against various forms of discrimination.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Latest stories

Joshua Cohen’s ‘The Netanyahus’ wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction

The Pulitzer Prize awards grants another controversial award to a book that mixes both fiction and non-fiction

Court hears text message irrelevant to Mkhwebane’s legal fortunes

Advocate Andrew Breitenbach, appearing for parliament, said the message he received did not advantage his client and was no cause to suspend the impeachment inquiry against the public protector

Tazné van Wyk murder trial: accused twin sister brought in...

Murder accused’s twin sister tells court of interacting with the accused two days after the deceased went missing

Those who attack funerals self-identify as pariahs

What happens in Israel and Palestine does not affect Israelis and Palestinians, alone. It fuels a global fault-line of mistrust, suspicion, intolerance and violence
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×