/ 19 September 2022

The evolution of amapiano

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Music producer Evens Radebe works on a song with his partner Augustine Mbatha as dancer Jayden looks on. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

“Amapiano is much more than just a hybrid of deep house, jazz piano and lounge. It is the sound of a new generation of black youths in a country escaping not only the current restrictions, but colonial and apartheid ghosts.” — Nkgopoleng Moloi

When kwaito artist Victor Bogopane, known as Doc Shebeleza, was asked by radio personality David Mashabela to share his views on amapiano, the music genre that has taken the world by storm, he did not mince his words: “I’ve got a problem because they don’t have a package. You hear the hit and you love the song but you don’t know the person,” the Ebumnandini hitmaker said on a podcast in March. 

He explained artists such as Mdu Masilela, aka The Godfather, are known by fans and the public because they were in public spaces, performing live on shows, doing radio and TV interviews and their faces were seen in newspapers and magazines. 

Although he appreciated and applauded what the young creatives had done, he felt their sound had become monotonous and lacked effective marketing and sustainability in an industry that had become precarious and “has got no money”. 

“Music is all about talent and it’s not like you are withdrawing petty cash at the ATM. They just need to relax and market it properly.” 

The music industry has changed dramatically over the last decade. Record sales have plummeted and the way people listen to music has shifted. Artists rely heavily on streaming services and social media to promote their music. Some have found success in this new landscape, while some are still figuring it out.

It is estimated that South Africans earn $3 800 (R65 000) per million plays on Spotify and $7 800 per million on Apple Music. This translates to roughly 5c per stream on Spotify and 11c a stream on Apple Music.

Music streaming service Deezer’s latest figures reveal that amapiano — Zulu for “the pianos”— was the number one streamed playlist in South Africa last year, seeing a 115% increase in total streams. 

The sound is basically slowed-down house music with keyboard and beautiful log drum — a raw bassline with a kick drum effect that is merged with jazz, hip-hop, soul, house, bacardi, kwaito, lounge etc.  

Some credit Tumelo “Force” Mabe and Tumelo “Maero” Nedondwe, known as MFR Souls, with being the pioneers of this sound. 

This underground trend started in about 2012 and exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been on the rise ever since. In 2019, the youth started to use amapiano music to create food, dance and fashion videos and memes.

DJ Maphorisa, 34, and Kabza De  Small, 29, played a pivotal role in popularising amapiano, and since uniting as Scorpion Kings in 2019 — they have more than 10-million streams to date — they’ve become the global figureheads of the sound. 

In the process, their partnership, hard work and collaborations with some of the giants of the global music industry have seen them  become millionaires and they have received numerous accolades. 

Other artists flying the SA flag high are Mr JazziQ, Major League DJz, DBN Gogo, Busta 929, Focalistic, Musa Keys, De Mthuda, Vigro Deep and Lady Du, to name a few. 

My quest to understand more about this genre led me to three popular, young, dynamic artists.

“I think amapiano is one of those proudly South African-owned products and something that we can export to the world and dictate how it sounds. We can say how much this product is,” says Lebogang Thubakgale, aka Lebza The Villain, during an interview in Midrand.

The 30-year-old DJ, producer and businessman from Tembisa explains the song-making process is the easy part but it is all about making sure the song is released, distributed and registered properly before venturing onto streaming networks. 

He mentions that here are several music-publishing organisations that collect royalties on behalf of artists in South Africa but song need to be registered with them. 

“The artists themselves need to know where to go to collect for what. For instance, if your song is big on TikTok, you need to know which is the house you need to go to.” 

He released a new song Want You with Nandi Madida on 19 August and proudly tells me he has signed a deal with international distribution record label Empire, which has artists like Shaggy, T.I., Fat Joe, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg on its books. 

He has produced and collaborated with big artists on hit songs such as Wena with Musa Keys and Sino Msolo and Possible with DBN Gogo, Musa Keys and Dinho. 

The house music fanatic admits if he had not switched to amapiano, he would not have achieved half of what he has achieved to date. 

“I’m super-excited about the evolution of amapiano. Five years from now, we won’t be listening to the same amapiano we listen to today.”

Lebogang Thubakgale aka Lebza The Villain. Photos: Oupa Nkosi

Monde Mgcina, 31, known as The Voshorist for his incredible vosho dance moves, is familiar with success and fame, having been a professional dancer for 15 years and vocalist for Soweto’s Finest since 2019. As a group, they have recorded hit songs such as Tikoloshi, which went double platinum, and Njalo-njalo, which was big in Namibia and Nigeria. 

The demands of the job, and the extensive travelling, took a toll on the father of Nkanyezi, 7, and Nkanyiso, 2. To readjust his lifestyle so he could spend time with his children, Mgcina quit the group. Now, as a solo artist, he has been working on an album he believes will make him one of the biggest artists in the country.

“Throughout the year I’ve been recording music, and documenting that, and when I plan my release, there is going to be a door that keeps you interested,” he says, cryptically. However, he assures me no one has done what he plans to do. 

On the day of the interview, Mgcina was shooting a cover for his single Mama no Baba at a house in Diepkloof. The song, which is dedicated to his late parents, is due to be released next month.

He choreographed for and has a role in the series Jiva, which is screening on Netflix, and he will be one of the Idols dancers this season.

Monde Mgcina known as The Voshorist for his dance moves. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Office 39 Creations is hidden away on the 8th floor of the beautiful old Champagne Castle flat block in Hillbrow. The flat has been converted into an office space and in the dimly lit, spacious lounge there’s only a couch and a table, which carries speakers, a computer, keyboard, cameras and instruments used to perfect the music-making process.

It is owned by music die-hard Augustine Mbatha, aka King, in partnership with less talkative production genius Evens Radebe, aka MBB — which stands for More Big Beats, a name he got from his brother. 

They sign up members on a monthly contract, at a fee starting from R250, and offer modelling, production, photography, videography, dancing and fitness services. 

“Basically, by maximising what we offer, we are able to keep the doors open,” says King, who is focused on the visual side of business.

Radebe’s humbleness, versatility and quick adaptation in music creation has made him one of artists’ preferred producers. The 27-year-old has worked with young and old creatives. In 2019, he collaborated with kwaito artist Cebo Ngcobo on his first solo single Lova Gijima, on which he successfully mixed kwaito with amapiano, soul and house music. They have just released two singles Imali Ikhona and Ngisizeni. 

“I used to call it ‘urban-kwaito’,” says a delighted Ngcobo, who worked with DJ Clock and Durban Nyts, before going solo. 

As much as the business is gradually growing, they are concerned about the music industry, which is exploitative and is no longer profitable. They feel online streaming needs to be regulated so people can’t download music for free. 

“Look at the more established artists, like Kanye West. He did not become a billionaire from music,” says King. “Most people are using music as a stepping stone to get popularity and becoming influencers to attain their revenue from endorsements.”

He warns if the government does not do something to protect the artists, beloved amapiano will die because artists are desperate and will jump on the next hip thing that comes along, leaving something massive without realising it, to chase a few coins. 

I wondered if Doc Shebeleza was right about the lack of packaging and remuneration in the industry. However, Lebza The Villain disagrees, saying: “There is money everywhere. The only difference between the artist, music and the money is the knowledge.”