30 Jun Making music in a young South Africa
Moonchild by Thina Zibi
During our focus on young South Africa this Youth Month, we published guest-edited playlists featuring music by the newest artists out of Durban, Johannesburg (with a nod to Pretoria) and Cape Town. The line-ups revealed a boast of fresh and varied talent and an infectious optimism from the curators for the young sub-scenes they drew from.
In what seems to be such a thriving period for new acts, or a specific kind of new act perhaps, we were curious to find out what might be different, if anything, from previous generations of garage bands and radio debuts. As independent music makers are increasingly finding their individual voices, is there a commonality defining this time? We asked singer/songwriters, rappers and bands at various stages of emergence, but who are all fairly new to this, about the music scene in the country at present and where exactly they fit in. While their answers were at times divided, a common thread emerged – each is pushing a new sound and it’s nothing you’ve heard before.
Asking each to define the kind of music they make uncovers a healthy disregard for predetermined iTunes/awards show genres and an enthusiastic revelry in breaking the rules. As artist Umlilo, who describes his sound as ‘Future Kwaai’, puts it, “Genre will soon be a thing of the past.” Another example of genre-amalgamating, Moonchild describes her sound as ‘future ghetto funk’, influenced by her background heavy with kwaito, jazz and hip-hop. By letting us know his blended sound is a reflection of the very nature of being South African, and coming from a mixed family with different cultural influences, Durban MC Aewon Wolf provides a possible insight, “South Africa being diverse has made me diverse in my sound.” A line of his bio reads: He is as diverse as the nation he calls home.
Determined to do things his own way, rapper Boolz, a self-proclaimed trilled-out-Xhosafied-weirdo from Langa says, “If I worried about what sounds people are looking for I wouldn’t be unique or happy. As long as it’s not forced it’s cool.” OBie Mavuso, a singer originally from the Eastern Cape, is another who brings her mother tongue into the description of her music speaking of ‘Xhosa rock’. Yannick Meyer from Native Young talks about the Cape Town band’s music as ‘African Psychedelic Pop’, a sound with a distinct African flavour that’s a direct result of living in Africa and collaborating with traditional musicians.
It’s clear, and encouraging, that music being made by these young South Africans has such a strong sense of place. OBie Mavuso references South African rap superstar and recent BET Awards Best International New Artist nominee, Cassper Nyovest as, “a dude from Mafikeng who raps in township fashion. A true reflection of his hood.” Sometimes, however, local audiences aren’t quick to embrace something so close to home. As Moonchild says, “My music has taken a while to be digested where it stems from.” She feels music consumers here self-limit their local music intake because, “most of the time the authentic, different music from home hasn’t been sold back to us by an international market.”
If not always geographical, new local music embodies a sense of place in time. “The music I make is a representation of freedom and how I feel at a particular time.”, explains Boolz. Similarly Umlilo let us know while the music coming out now isn’t always a reflection of our South African cultures in a traditional sense, he is “far more interested in music that one day will give a glimpse as to what the culture was at a certain time.”
Umlilo by Luca Vincenzo
When looking back, what will these new sounds reveal about the here and now? Moonchild has an unashamedly optimistic answer, “There’s a new wave! A wave of daring, non-conformists…We have a sense of freedom, we are expressive and most of us are pioneering in our own distinctive sounds.” Yannick (Native Young) agrees, “I really dig the notion of anyone being able to make music in their bedroom. It’s totally yours and you can do whatever the fuck you want. I think that’s definitely making a rise on the South African scene – it’s great!”
As epitomised by musicians like Nomisupasta and Dope Saint Jude, a number of local artists are contributing to a movement we’ve noticed across disciplines; using their medium to actually say something. OBie Mavuso explains her message, “I make a lot of social and political commentary in my music and videos and it is specific to my experience as a young brown girl in SA.” But choosing to say something doesn’t by definition mean she’s choosing to be niche, “I think music is generally divided into the ‘conscious’ and ‘commercial’. I make no business of picking between the two. I believe I am both conscious and cool.”
How then do you begin to market yourself as a musician in SA? The internet is, of course, a major tool and is facilitating an interesting reverse in proceedings. Where entire music careers were were once launched via mainstream TV and radio, now Aewon Wolf says that thanks to people making enough noise about his music on the internet, radio and TV opportunities are coming knocking. Boolz calls social media his biggest channel to an audience, “I’m all about going directly to my target market – wherever that is or they are. There are no rules really. It’s all about finding ways that people haven’t found yet.” And these solutions may not always be digital. Native Young found success through pop-up street performances and busking around Cape Town to get their music heard, “There’s something personal and raw about playing on the street that I think audiences can really connect with.”
If everyone is busy doing it themselves, the question must be asked, where is the record label’s place? The general consensus to our question was that record labels are still valuable to musicians, but in an entirely new way. “The one thing we need to get in our heads,” Moonchild says, “is that being signed doesn’t mean you’re set. Having a label doesn’t mean you’ve made it. If anything this is a time where you push even harder.” Yannick has noticed record labels being an asset in roles like management and digital marketing as opposed to advances for studio time and physical distribution. Umlilo says, “Underground music always informs what the next step in music evolution is but there’s still a big disconnect between conservative old record labels and the actual music scene on the ground so what’s on radio and what people listen to on their iPods is vastly different. Power is shifting from labels, radio etc onto the music lovers who will always go and find/listen to what they like.”
As the industry moves away from the shot-calling presence of major record labels under which risk-taking was a calculated practise, we’re starting to see more independent artists breaking through. Aewon Wolf contributes this to the internet, and to the fact that these new stories are authentic. While the creative decisions are yours to make, the independent route is anything but easy. OBie Mavuso says, “It is difficult to stay true to your voice when there is constant pressure to market oneself in a way that will make money instead of in a way that truly reflects who you are. If who you are happens to be a businessman first, then you are in luck in the music industry.”
It seems there are no delusions with this young group about where the responsibility lies for making a success of yourself, as Umlilo says, “Musicians still think that they have a God given right to be put on a pedestal and showcase their talent with minimal business knowledge and struggle. The truth is in any creative field the days of not understanding the business side are gone. Talent is not enough to make it, in fact sometimes it’s completely irrelevant.”
Boolz by Chris Ketz
As for what the industry here is lacking, both OBie Mavuso and Moonchild call for more collaboration – especially between female artists.
Despite the challenges ever present, it’s clear there’s much to be excited about. As put succinctly by OBie Mavuso, “The art scene as a whole is at a developing stage, just like the country.” We suggest you stay tuned.
Native Young by Adam Kent Wiest