Two years ago, I attended the South African Music Awards (Samas) at Sun City. At the time, fresh off his stunning sophomore studio album, Umqhele, Sjava was flourishing. Lady Zamar, Shekhinah and Prince Kaybee were inescapable, their music rotating nonstop on national radio. Sure, not everything was rosy in the music industry at the time, but there was a certain optimism in the air. It felt like we were going somewhere. Two short years later, things have taken a turn for the worst.
As we collectively examine the toll that the coronavirus pandemic has had on our day-to-day lives, there aren’t many industries that have felt the pain more pointedly than the music industry. Showstoppers like DBN Gogo and Kabza de Small, whose music is tailored for those late nights of drunk dancing at Junk Park and Moja Cafe, just haven’t been able to do their thing. The country’s iconic live music venue, the Ticketpro Dome, is gone, sold by its owners to We Buy Cars, which will be revamping it into the biggest used car dealership in the country. A closer look, though, reveals that we can’t simply put the blame on the coronavirus.
During a period that required steady and sensible leadership from the powers that be, we’ve received neither. Instead, allegations of corruption and mismanagement are rife. Over the past two years we’ve seen the South African Music Performance Rights Association and several well-known artists berate the SABC for nonpayment of needletime rights royalties amounting hundreds of millions of rands.
We’ve seen Chicco Twala sound the alarm on the Independent Music Performance Rights Association for allegedly using money meant for artists royalties to fund its social relief drive last year. We’ve seen Kwesta’s hugely successful label RapLyf implode in the face of allegations by in-house producer Makwa that he was swindled out of millions of rands for his production on several platinum- and diamond-certificated records.
Man, how did we get here?
Last Saturday’s Sama awards are a good yardstick for where we are at this juncture in South African music. Very rarely have the stakes been this high. With morale at an all-time low, there was an extra burden of expectation for the awards to offer some sort of respite from the chaos around us. Instead, what we got was a shoddy show, replete with poorly thought-out stage pyrotechnics, amateurish off-beat lip-synching from some performers, and completely out-of-touch guest appearances from a host of dignitaries. They absolutely stunk up the stage. Erm, is it just me, or did they rush through the show like they were trying to make curfew?
In the face of a flailing industry, the organisers and hosts, Recording Industry of South Africa, failed to meet the moment.
The night’s biggest winner, Kabza De Small — who walked away with four awards, including the prestigious male artist of the year — barely mentioned his “big night” on his social media accounts. As we find ourselves in the midst of an amapiano wave that’s quickly gaining steam across the globe, this was meant to be Kabza’s coronation as the leader of this movement.
But winning a Sama doesn’t mean so much to artists any more. The spectacle has faded. That we are in a pandemic year is a convenient excuse for the fiasco we saw on Saturday. The truth is, the awards have been on the slide for a number of years now. With the absence of the Metro FM Awards since the fall-out from the 2017 iteration, the Samas are now the foremost awards show in the land. You wouldn’t know, based on the mediocrity on show. To their credit, hosts Lawrence Maleka and Bontle Moloi brought some respectability to proceedings with their humour and charisma.
Local artists have not been blameless in bringing the industry into disrepute. We’ve seen AKA and Cassper Nyovest, two of our most prominent figures, challenge each other to actual boxing fights so often that it quickly escalated from a humorous trope to a ridiculous, never-ending social media war of words. Then AKA found himself embroiled in controversy after his fiance, Anele Tembe allegedly took her own life, and rumours of physical and substance abuse over the course of their relationship surfaced.
We’ve seen one the country’s brightest international torchbearers, Black Coffee, embroiled in a nasty public spat with his former wife, Enhle Mbali, stemming from rampant allegations of abuse levelled against the DJ. We’ve seen Sjava fall off, his image tainted by Lady Zamar’s allegations that he was abusive over the course of their on-off relationship.
Even Master KG, whose global hit Jerusalema filled us with national pride over the past year, recently found himself embroiled in an ugly social media tiff with collaborator Nomcebo Zikode after she accused him and his label of not paying her any royalties for her contributions to the song.
The mess is difficult to keep up with. It comes from all angles.
In a country in which we are constantly battling the paranoia of declinism, there’s a very real worry that our music industry is moving backwards, fast.