The History of Kwaito in South Africa


Kwaito is a distinctly home-grown style of popular dance music that is rooted in Johannesburg urban culture and features rhythmically recited vocals over an instrumental backing with strong bass lines. Like many styles of house music, kwaito is not performed using live instruments but is composed in the studio and then played as backup on stage or in clubs for artists to sing to live.

With its locally flavoured lyrics and strong dance beat, kwaito is the sound that best reflects the youth culture of post-apartheid South Africa. It is heard across the country, from minicab buses to clubs, radios and parties and its sound defines the voice of young, black urban South Africans. Like American hip-hop, it is an expression and a validation of a modern, urban way of life, sung in street slang which is a mixture of English, Zulu, Sesotho and Isicamtho (the South African street slang which is a modern version of Tsotsi-Taal.)

Kwaito, as a genre of music, started emerging in South Africa in the 1990’s as a mixture of a number of different rhythms ranging from the marabi sounds of the 1920’s, kwela of the 1950’s, mbaqanga / maskhandi of the hostel dwellers to the bubblegum music of the 1980’s, and traditional Imibongo (African praise poetry).

Singers like Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie and Chicco Twala have also influenced the kwaito sound and the use of styles drawn from hip-hop, ragga, jazz and American and British house is sometimes evident. Lyrically the songs were inspired by singers like Fassie and Twala, who represented the people and talked about what was happening in the ghettos. One the genre’s best-known originators was Arthur Mafokate who, in 1993, caught the moment with his controversial hit song Don’t Call Me Kaffir: a reference to the derogatory name for blacks in apartheid South Africa.

DJ and producer Oscar “waRona” Mdlongwa recalls: “In the late 80’s we started remixing international house tracks to give them a local feeling. We added a bit of piano, slowing the tempo down and putting in percussion and African melodies.”

Kwaito is the angry voice of the township, telling about the township, knowing about the township, understanding the township, walking the walk, talking the talk and, of course, wearing the style. Kwaito reflects being proud of things township, which is ironic and provocative when one considers that the townships were created by the apartheid Nationalist government as part of their rigid separate development policy.

Kwaito is an authentic symbol of township life that has been enthusiastically embraced by South Africa’s huge youth culture – almost half the population of 50 million is under the age of 21. It has helped to energize a feeling of optimism and self-confidence in post-apartheid South Africa and has changed the cultural landscape forever.

“Kwaito is going to be around for a long time,” says musician Hugh Masekela. “It’s going to become part of mainstream music. I find nuances in it that so-called critics will never understand. It’s the core of township feeling.”

Currently the second biggest selling musical genre (Gospel being the biggest) Kwaito has injected big money into the music scene. It has inevitably also attracted criticism – some claim certain Kwaito acts are over-sexed with meaningless lyrics. However, according to Lance Stehr, head of Ghetto Ruff, a top selling Kwaito record label, “There is something about Kwaito lyrics that youth wanna hear and are turned on by, more so than a hip hop act from the States.”

Kwaito is tapping into real issues faced by South African youth at home and on the streets. It’s a scene bursting with different local personalities, looks, sounds, dances and flavours, and the lyrical content is becoming more meaningful with young South African artists learning to write more insightfully about life in the new South Africa. Gradually the Kwaito sound is starting to influence the international music market, with certain artists selling beyond Southern Africa to the US, Europe and Australia. Exports are also soon to start to China and Japan