/ 8 October 2020

The new wave way: How SA’s now generation moves different

Moon Child
Desire: Moonchild Sanelly worked hard to make it locally and abroad without using a music label. Photo: Tyrone Bradley/Red Bull Content Pool

Nasty C’s third studio album, Zulu Man With Some Power, is the talented Durban lyricist’s biggest to date. It made history when it was announced that the album is the biggest pre-add in South Africa and the biggest globally for a South African artist on Apple Music. The release boasts guest appearances from American stars and producers TI, Ari Lennox, ATL Jacob and Bankroll Gotit. 

It’s becoming a norm for (South) African artists to collaborate with their Western counterparts. The Web has shrunk the world, leading to a real-time cross-pollination of influences and a global network of musicians. In the case of Nasty C, it’s thanks to the internet and the backing by the strong muscle of Universal Music Group Africa and the popular United States label Def Jam Recordings. 

The debate between artists moving independently versus them signing with labels is a big one internationally. “It’s preference,” Nasty C said in an interview last year. “And how smart you are. I’m a musician, but I’m also a businessman, and businessmen make partnerships; they don’t do everything out of the garage. You move slow like that. That’s working hard. Businessmen work smart.”

Going it alone

But a number of South African artists have built careers without the help of labels. Moonchild Sanelly, Muzi, DJ Lag, J Molley, Spoek Mathambo, PatricKxxLee and many others release music on their own, purely online, and tour the country while some tour abroad. 

A-Reece’s Welcome to My Life and Meanwhile in Honeydew are internet hits with a million and three million views respectively. (Photo: Sabelo Mkhabela)

The Pretoria-based rapper, A-Reece, said in a clip from his and collaborators Ecco and Wordz’s 2018 music video for the song Welcome to My Life: “I’ve never been on tour before. And people really love my stuff. I only put my stuff out on the internet. But they knew every single song, they were going in, and I was like, hell yeah, what’s the next city?”

The video for Welcome to My Life recently became the latest A-Reece video to reach the one million views milestone. A-Reece has grown from strength to strength since leaving the controversial and influential label Ambitiouz Entertainment in 2016. The Pretoria rapper has since become one of several torchbearers for independence in the South African hip-hop scene.

His songs may not top the Metro FM or Ukhozi FM charts, but fans are streaming them in their millions on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music. His 2016 viral hit Meanwhile in Honeydew may not be a national hit of the same magnitude as Yanga Chief’s Utatakho, AKA’s Fela in Versace or Kwesta’s Spirit, appearing on every major radio playlist, but it’s an internet hit of note, with more than three million views and still counting. 

No need for hits

Nasty C explained the phenomenon of hip-hop artists like himself, A-Reece and YoungstaCPT, who start online, during a conversation with hip-hop veteran Stogie T on Vuzu TV in 2018. “The kids don’t really care if you have mega-hits anymore,” said Nasty C. “As long as they can attach something to you and feel like they can relate to you, if your social media is buzzing, or you’re just interested in interviews.” 

Artists such as Flame, PatricKxxLee, Zoocci Coke Dope, The Big Hash and J Molley release projects regularly to fans who consume their work instead of gravitating towards hits they hear on the radio or discover on Spotify and Apple Music playlists. 

Through targeted use of the internet to release music, Nasty C is confident in reaching a wide audience from an initially small but initiated base. (Image: Courtesy of Universal Music)

Nasty C attributed the rise of cult followings in South African hip-hop to artists knowing their audience. “It’s because [in previous years] you didn’t have a specific crowd that you were speaking to. You just made a song and hoped it catches to everybody. But right now, it’s possible to have your own people that you’re speaking to.”

Personal connection

Nasty C’s counterpart, the rapper Shane Eagle, is one of a number of artists who have their “own people”. The lyricist was deliberate in breaking the rules with the release of his 2017 debut album, Yellow

The album wasn’t supported by a big single as is usually the case with mainstream releases. Julia, a single he released prior to Yellow, didn’t make the album. “How can technology be moving so quickly yet human beings still wanna be thinking the same? You need to step out of that,” Shane Eagle said in 2017. Yellow would go on to win the Best Hip Hop Album award at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) in 2018. 

The rapper and his business partner, Vaughn Thiel, with whom he co-owns the label Eagle Entertainment, always make sure to maintain a “personal connection” with the fans. For instance, Yellow CDs and merchandise were sold directly to fans by the rapper and his team at pop-up stores and on the countrywide Yellow Tour. “We don’t have any major sponsors for this thing,” Vaughn said ahead of the tour. “We’re putting up our money, and we’re gonna do this thing without anybody telling us we can. Without any brands saying go ahead. We’re doing it on our own like we’ve done everything else.”

Shane Eagle prides himself on maintaining a personal connection with fans, with a couple of day ones personally invited to his Yellow Tour (Kgotso Aphane/@Maverick.Seizure)

Stars such as Cassper Nyovest and AKA have committed fans who they interact with and sometimes invite them to album listening sessions or shows. These fans who defend their faves on Twitter have collective names, such as The Megacy (for AKA), Tsibipians (Nyovest) and Slimes (A-Reece).

Shane Eagle spoke about the strategy of maintaining a personal connection with fans to US radio personality Ebro Darden in November last year. “[Fans] who’ve been with me since the beginning,” he said, “I know them personally. I hit them up via DM and invited them to a pre-launch party before the mixtape came out so they could experience it first.” He also keeps a mailing list of his fans and shares special surprises and news with them. 

Reaching West

In his 2019 mixtape, Dark Moon Flowr, Shane Eagle features a plethora of artists from the US and Africa — Kota the Friend (US), Santi (Nigeria), Nasty C (South Africa), PatricKxxLee (South Africa/Zambia) among others. In the past few years, the West has been looking to the continent for inspiration and collaborators, resulting in African artists being hand-picked by the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar for projects such as Black Panther: The Album and The Lion King (The Gift and Black is King). 

South African artists score nominations on international award shows and regularly appear on reputable media platforms such as A Colors Show, Sway in The Morning, Apple Music 1 (formerly Beats 1), BBC 1Xtra and Tim Westwood TV. Bands such BLK JKS, Tumi and the Volume, Fantasma and The Brother Moves On kicked off the era of the country’s left field bands finding success abroad in the late 2000s. 

Reflecting on the years she spent building her name abroad, Moonchild Sanelly told the audience at the Midem Africa music business conference in Cape Town earlier this year about her personal journey. “I’ve landed in France with only R100,” she said. “But in the second year, I went back with R500. I was establishing relationships to a point where now when I go back to SXSW, there’s a club that I host at because of the consistency and me investing the time. And, now I don’t go [overseas] for free.”

South Africa has one of the most professionally structured music industries on the continent, but the country hasn’t exported enough of its talent to match that from Nigeria and some parts of West Africa, especially Ghana. Nigerians have the advantage of a big diasporic population, which has helped spread the music of their country of origin in Europe and North America.

But with the internet, one of the most disruptive tools artists have at their disposal, the possibilities are endless. One never really knows who is watching, and one single move could lead to a career highlight or life changing opportunity. 

Hybrid of old and new

Recently, the world fell in love with Limpopo bolobedu house music producer Master KG and singer Nomcebo’s mega-hit Jerusalema. The song, which was one of the biggest South African summer hits of 2019, didn’t make it at the SAMAs earlier this year. Master KG and his fellow bolo house hit-makers King Monada and Makhadzi didn’t bag a single nomination.

The show seemed to favour artists signed to influential labels such as Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Ambitiouz Entertainment. These labels have teams dedicated to plugging their artists on radio and their backing give an artist weight. 

This also points to the limits of the judges behind these awards. In 2017, the rapper Riky Rick shocked the industry when he insinuated that awards were rigged. “There’s a lot of people that struggle to put music out in this country, and I feel like there’s too many structures that are blocking people from putting out the dopest music,” said Riky during an acceptance speech at the Metro FM Awards. “90% of the shit I hear on radio is garbage. The stuff is living on the internet, everything is on the internet right now. So if you’re a kid and you’re watching this right now, forget radio. If they don’t let you play on radio, you better go to the internet and make your songs pop on the internet.” 

Master KG’s is the latest internet success story. Right after the SAMAs, Jerusalema caught on fire and is now sitting at a mind-blowing 120-million views on YouTube and has topped charts in countries such as Switzerland, Burkina Faso, France, Romania, Grenada, Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy and Portugal. One can never tell for sure how far a song will travel. When Jerusalema was the song of the summer, no one, including Master KG and Nomcebo, could have guessed that the song would have an extended lifespan and become a global hit. 

Just like Shane Eagle’s, Master KG’s strategy is a hybrid of ways of doing things. In a recent opinion article in Bizcommunity, the founder of the urban music website Slikour On Life, Siya “Slikour” Metane wrote that Master KG understands the importance of distribution and marketing. “What’s interesting about Master KG,” wrote Metane, “is that he has understood this because he’s kept himself in touch with his audience. He knows that he finds most of his fans on Facebook, but he also knows that he has an audience that is not digital. He produced a CD because it was the best way for his grandfather to hear his music, and it turned out his grandfather wasn’t the only one who wanted a CD. If anything, he is a master of people with whom he has a deep affinity, a quality that few marketers possess.”

South African artists like Sho Madjozi, ByLwansta and Stogie T have had times when the world’s eyes were on their performances. With R&B sensation Elaine’s recent signing to Columbia Records, and Def Jam Recordings setting up shop in Nigeria and Johannesburg, it’s clear that South African artists have created a demand in the world for their art. 

The new generation of the country’s artists combine both new and traditional ways of distributing and marketing their music. As Shane Eagle rapped in his song Empty Highways, “This that new wave, I mean who jiggier than this?”

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut focusing on various aspects of innovation