Kwaito group Malaika, performing at Hazyview. They are one of a few groups that inject some intelligence into their lyrics, something overshadowed by hundreds of mediocre wannabee artists


The South African Music Awards always have a way of underscoreing the lack of professionalism of most South African artists, especially those in the much hyped kwaito genre. Up until today no scientific formula for a kwaito song is available for potential singers to put to use and come up with their own compositions which in turn should add to the huge catalogue of locally brewed township pop. The reason for the inavailability of the formula is simply that one doesn't need to be a talented singer to do kwaito. The awards clearly demonstrate the need for the genre's practitioners to take the lead in the bestowing of honour on the genre and give it an identity. If kwaito is a ghetto baby, then it needs to be fit for its christening, which its fathers shouldn't try and lie to the world that it is alrealy calvinised.

First, kwaito artists should not claim that their music is like the CNN of the townships since nothing they sing about is worth certification. Nothing is really saying "this is what is happening in the townships and this is our response to it". Instead the real thought that kwaito is here , even without a compass or mandate demands that its originality and claims of being a medium for young black people be put under intense scrutiny. Kwaito, for all that remains of it is a genre that has been infiltrated by individuals with quick cash agendas and no intention to contribute to its development. Without going into mentioning names, it is an undeniable fact that tens of one hit wonders had come and gone and some claimants to the genre keeping on popping out of the
woodwork, car-washes, taxi ranks and street corners everyday.

Most recently it has been on the spotlight because of the way some of its stars behave in public, their drug binges and their attitude towards each other. Kwaito artists are full of beef for representatives of a genre so young. The fact that some even refuse to work together at a time when the genre is on life support begs for government intervention. South Africa is believably the only country where there is a cold war in music genre circles, whereby some artists have sworn never to work together no matter how big the money at stake. They think studio made songs like Tupac and Biggie's Running are the in-thing, but still they are not doing it. The only thing they do together is diminish lines of cocaine under the pretext that the fact that they come from the township and do kwaito justifies their unruly behaviour. That was the undoing of TKZee, once the best kwaito group of all times. It is due to such a behavior that most township parents have a serious problem with kwaito as a music, and its stars as practitioners. This is so because they know they never raised rebels without a cause. They accuse them of encouraging kids to do drugs. Though not wholly true, they don't really discourage them not to, except in cliché choruses with an intention to gain a few more fans. And funny and telling, most of them later confess to the same drugs they always evangelized against while some overdose to their early graves.


The story of kwaito and where it originated remains contested as every camp would like to believe that it started in its neighbourhood, but for now it is a sad development that it is perceived to be black music, rather than universal music like pop and rock & roll. Mdu, Senyaka, Arthur all claim to have given birth to the genre. Nothing certified though. They are black men, and maybe they are the ones who are coming up with the black label that has seen Lekgowa failing to penetrate the kwaito die hard. Could kwaito's development been fast tracked if it was white music, or just universal pop? Is kwaito's pride its own undoing?

Who drew the line between what is black and white entertainment anyway? In music, anything with a strong socio-political message is considered black and worthy of controversy. Genres like gangsta rap, hard-real-hard a la Jimi Hendrix rock and now kwaito.

The one song that introduced most pessimists to the appealing quality of kwaito music back in the early days was Boom Shaka’s It’s about time, It was an eye opener and masterpiece because of its simple, easy to memorise lyrics coupled with well choreographed dance moves on stage and the girl's "give us the devil anytime" attitude. The video for the song, which regardless of its not so excellent visual quality and lack of creative direction however painted a glossy picture of the scenery and the camaraderie of the people who made guest appearances in it. The repertoire of artists and stars who provided cameos gave a sign that a whole genre was being born with celebrities gracing its christening. That was before the hate and the falling out of favour of the founders. The song also worked because it was neither a black or a white song, it was music - full stop, something that can be credited to one of the producers Christos Katsaidas.

Everybody who felt kwaito deserved its chance to shine took the role of being its godparent and endorsed it at a time when it was not yet a safe bet to do so. As the video faded at the end what was left in the head of the viewer and critic was the undeniable revelation that kwaito was here, with its explicit-at your face introduction. It was either you had to stay out of the kitchen or to deal with it on its terms. But sadly record companies never saw it as a genre that needed development but a meal ticket for executives and quick cash for indebted companies, but the artist. The companies made money out of kwaito, shooting only one video to promote long albums while the artist remained unappreciated, unpromoted and exploited. The companies posted humungous bottom lines while the artist chased the drug dealer in Hillbrow to escape from his misery. Often dodging the dealer when his royalty cheque was R22, 37cents.

Thebe’s Re a di Busa took over where Book Shaka left off. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the creative brains behind It’s About Time might have had something to do with the latter’s hit. It was the year of the Dangerous Combination Crew, Kalawa Records's production crew. The music video was even a rip-off of the latter's music video cameos, and the party cliché of decadence and bliss that insults the humble beginnings of kwaito was once again repeated and exhausted to the tendon. If it was the next phase of the genre then the fathers of kwaito were obviously turning restlessly on their office chairs at the injustice, if they were not the people contributing to that injustice. It is almost shocking that the same people were busy demolishing the building they had started, as 999 Music was releasing more mediocre deliveries every summer and churning out controversies about unpaid acts instead of hit records with real township messages. Surprisingly none of the 999 artists has ever won a SAMA even though their deliveries are often a little competent. Only Arthur himself has won a controversial people's choice SAMA award with his repetitious Oyi Oyi.


Maybe it might be because they don't fit into the classes that exist in such a small genre. Most 999 artists have never come out to pull stunts of alleging to be doing drugs so as to draw attention to their impending albums. Except for Zombo, who lucky for him it translated into ambush airplay which does not necessarily mean sales. One wonders what would happen to them if there was no Musicians and Artists Assistance Programme of South Africa (MAAPSA).
Would Kabelo have overdosed one of these days or would he have booked into an expensive rehab centre like the late Brenda Fassie, and come out like Fassie, only to later have his final date with nose candy like Fassie did?

Drugs are not about race but plain economics. They are not about where you come from or the music genre you listen to. There is no dress code that is associated with junkies. A dope fiend can be anyone from your boy/girlfriend, neighbour, and your police commissioner to the Father who takes your confessions at the house of prayer. Black kids do cheap drugs, marijuana and mandrax because they can’t afford the expensive stuff done by whites in the suburb night clubs. You give a black man money and a life in the ‘burbs, soon you catch him snorting coke or raving, driven by ecstasy and LSD. We learn to do drugs with benzine and glue. That curiosity never dies. We grow up to embrace either kwaito or rap already contracted to a certain demon. That someone smokes weed and loves kwaito has nothing to do with the influence the genre might have on them. If a person was rich and suburban he/she would still love kwaito and diminish lines of coke. It’s a matter of economics, not race or creed. White kids dig Mandoza, not because he is black and happening but simply because they could relate better to the thumping bassline of Nkalakatha. They are unaware that since Nkalakatha he has released many other albums. Would anyone then have expected them to do cheap drugs because some of the people who bop to his music are into marijuana and cheap sex?

The problem with most performers today is that they can not successfully divorce drugs, booze and cheap sex from their entertainment lifestyles. Known artists like Tshepo Tshola, Hugh Masekela and allegedly the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Brenda Fassie were all patrons of the substance at some time in their careers. The mere fact that some of them they did it and remained themselves (lived to tell about it) tends to draw an unfortunate parallel between their art and themselves as human beings and role models.


If controversy was the barometre used to measure a song’s success and public appeal, Arthur’s Kaffer would go down in kwaito history as a masterpiece. The same hit started the hackyened "king king" debate that Arthur proudly and blindly endorsed but covertly embraced. The same "king" title was responsible for the division that later plagued kwaito.

Suddenly everyone started complaining that they way Arthur and his likes did music was killing the music. Arthur was sampling foreign music a lot and not acknowledging the source. He was using instruments that could not be reproduced on real music instruments and its was way too bad. They complained that African music was not about the digitally mixed beat. African folk music has down history had messages concealed between her rythming lyrics. Africans have always danced to the beat while at the same time they were singing. Africans have always told stories through music, which is something Arthur and his likes were not doing.

This was not a question of old school mentality when kwaito came and got the reception it was given. Kwaito was more like a drug that was served to induce the consciousness of township people that all that was necessary and important to them was to dance and have fun, "rena re ipatlela monate feela/ ga re batle ditshele" (all we want is fun/ we don't want issues) echoed S’bu and Robbie. They were deriving their cue and motivation from kwaito group, Tkzee’s songs, which emphasized the need to boogy and enjoy, forgetting that not everybody had a BMW Z3 and lived in the ‘burbs. Fun under the sun has for years been the theme of kwaito, closely backed by a thumping percussion.

What in American hip hop slang is called freestyling or plain stupidity, depending on which side of the fence you are, is becoming kwaito’s nemesis as most of its artists make their music in this fashion. The perception that there is no need to write down your lyrics is proving to be the point where kwaito is repeatedly shanking itself to an early death. They just come up with a theme, hit the studio and let the most often sampled beat dictate the flow. Kwaito is becoming a collage of music genres than a music in itself.

It was no surprise that when the up and coming godfather of the genre Zola came, fresh from the ghetto and flipped it, most heads said he would be a one album wonder kid. Beef? Zola had issues and he sang about them. His music was not more about the heavy hitting bassline, courtesy of his producer, Kay Bee, and unlike hitmaker Gabie Le Roux’s magic with Mandoza. When Zola rapped, "even if I got my own CD/ I’m the same old g/ clever angisbuyi", it demanded, not requested attention.


However, Zola, unlike other stars had some originality in his personality, he was not original in his music lyrics though. Most of his lyrics are Zulu translations with minimal alteration of the original English rap and R&B songs by overseas artists. His first line in Ghetto Scandalous is a direct rip-off of American crooner Genwuine’s song Same ol’ G. The idea is not to brand Zola as a copycat because there’s more to him than that. If only he can try to find himself out there. However, his continued plagiarism is not going to do his revolutionary version of kwaito any cultural justice.

Worse still, the video of the song was also a direct rip-off of Tupac Shakur’s Made Niggaz, but at least with a little attempt to conceal the crime, with minimal success.

Zola is not alone in the fold. It can safely be attested that most major kwaito stars who have managed to sell more than 25000 units were guilty of a crime of plagiarism, either the beat or the lyrics, if not the CD cover design or the music video treatment. Amongst the suspects are Purity, Doc Shebeleza, Mzambiya, Msawawa, Arthur, E’smile, Brothers of Peace, Speedy, the list is endless. Everyone is guilty of something and some people are condoning it.

Probably it must be the same people who objected vehemently to Boom Shaka’s interploration of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. The national anthem of a country should not be hip or sung over a heavy bassline. It should not be danced to, but marched. People need to raise fists, not beer cans when performing it. For God’s sake the ladies even had gold hair extensions. But who, for the life of music felt they dared to draw the line at how creative people could get? If anybody could clear the copyright with the Enoch Sontonga estate who cared what they did with the master? Sample it, interplore, make a cover, remix the original over some house beat or just keep it for posterity to do whatever will be done to originals then. Obviously, it was money objecting and not explicit patriotism. The national anthem remains a song that should be cherished. If a listener could fall asleep during the National Symphony Orchestra or Police Brass Band’s performances of the tune, then happening people should be allowed to make it happen.

In most high schools learners tend to enjoy singing rather than mass reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It has a nice rhythm when sung. Surely, Sontonga wasn’t turning in his grave when Boom Shaka were dropping their licks. It can’t, with any degree of certainty be said that he was ululating either, but the mere fact that his song was being sung and receiving airplay might have been honey to his ears. It was food for thought for people with political credentials and reputations of pulling others down, they later ended up footing the bill and doing the dishes, because their opposition to it was a vacuum cleaner- it sucked.


The sad thing is that kwaito, after a short stint in which it shook the country and won its practitioners a couple of awards at the expense of other genres is finally dying. More and more acts would rather rap in English than be another Mzekezeke with a ski-mask and an attitude that itself is performing euthanasia on kwaito. The SAMAs are not a mirror to anything, and kwaito, remains the mystery it has always been. Though it can't be called music of the gutter, but some gutter practitioners are busy pulling it into that direction.

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