Kwaito, South African Rap, Is The Next Big Sound
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Kwaito, South African Rap, Is The Next Big Sound

by Ed Beeson

What is the sound of freedom? In South Africa, it sounds a lot like rap.

Since apartheid unraveled during the early 1990s, a new form of music has taken hold of South Africa, and it characterizes the confusing mix of violence and hope that is shaping and shaking the country now. The music is called kwaito and, after developing in the slum-like townships where the majority of black South Africans live, it is spreading across the country at a faster pace than anyone could have imagined. A few years after South Africa democratized in 1994, the rough and gritty kwaito music became a bold, new industry. Its sales caught the eye of major labels; a radio station devoted to it grew to national stature; and kwaito crossed over to the children of white Afrikaaners, the former ruling class. Kwaito became the voice of the new South Africa.


And yet, the music has existed in a bubble. For a variety of reasons, kwaito has rarely left the African horn, and almost never has it touched American ears.

Until now. "Tsotsi" (pronounced sote-see) is a South African crime drama that is also an Oscar frontrunner for best foreign film. It hits theaters today and comes with a soundtrack packed with kwaito. Based on a book by playwright Athol Fugard, "Tsotsi" (Afrikaans for "thug") tells the story of a young man by that name who unwittingly becomes a father figure to an infant after he kills the child's mother during a carjacking. The fast, pulsating beat of kwaito drives the narrative, which arcs over several days.

So what does kwaito sound like? Well, nothing like Dave Matthews, South Africa's most famous pop music export. Nor is it like Vusi Mahlasela, whom "Tsotsi" director Gavin Hood calls "the poet of South Africa" and who can sound a lot like Cat Stevens mixed with romantic saxophones.

Kwaito, which is slang for cool but derives from the Afrikaans word kwaai, or angry, is a mix of hip-hop and electronic dance music called house. Its raps resemble the American MC style, delivered with guttural and grizzly finesse. But the lyrics are largely sung in "tsotsi taal," a linguistic gumbo of Zulu, English, Xsosa, Afrikaans and street slang that is spoken in the townships. The beats are simpler than mainstream American rap and their emphasis is on danceability. Some sample from South Asian bhangra beat, dancehall reggae or African chorals. Other times it sounds like straight-up Tupac Shakur. But all told, kwaito is often slower, less bombastic and more upbeat than one might expect.

Especially considering how desperate life in South Africa can be for the 44 million who live there. Nearly 28 percent of pregnant women, 21 percent of adults and about 5.6 million people overall are HIV-infected, the highest rate in the world. Crime is brazen and controlled by vicious gangs. Although murders recently dropped to 19,000 per year, or 51 per day, reported rapes jumped to more than 55,000 per year and armed robberies to 228,000 per year.

One of the hotbeds of crime is curiously also one of the hotbeds of kwaito. Soweto, a sprawling township outside Johannesburg, has produced some of kwaito's most important stars, like Zola, a reformed gangster who provided most of the kwaito music for the "Tsotsi" soundtrack.

Like rap in America, kwaito is criticized for its typically macho and thug-like posture, and its sound, which is crude compared to the jubilant but amorphous brand of world music. And like rap, kwaito has made millionaires out of a handful of young men and women who were born into crime and poverty.

But also like rap, kwaito has done much to expose the legacy of a racist system and the destitution with which it forces people to live. So it should come as no surprise that young South Africans are saying they belong to the "kwaito generation." Like rap in America, kwaito rose from a generation that came after a great struggle, when a civil rights movement broke the back of a racist system.

Now it is up to a younger generation to define the shape of this newfound freedom.

Reach Ed Beeson at beeson@northjersey.com. This article appears in The Herald News.