Kwaito Blows Up

It's Saturday night and the streets of Johannesburg's Newtown section are thumpin'. South Africans usually avoid the crime-ridden downtown area after dark, but tonight minibus-taxis and cars packed beyond capacity cram the avenues. Music blares from every open window; women sell beer and wurst and kids in the street dance kwasa-kwasa, a jig that looks something like an old man stepping over a snake. Inside a nearby warehouse, 10,000 revelers grind, groove and sweat on the crowded dance floor. When they jump, their white sports caps look like breakers on a choppy sea. Then the DJ yells, "Are you ready to party?" The answer is deafening.

South Africa is definitely ready to party. And since Nelson Mandela's election buried white rule, kwaito (kWHY-toh) has become the soundtrack of liberation: the energetic, unrelenting voice of black township youth, expressing a new optimism and, at the same time, a slow-simmering frustration. "It's music that rose out of the excitement of the 1994 elections," says Maria McCloy, 24, editor of the online urban-culture magazine Rage. "Kwaito's the dominant cultural movement among young people right now. It's the music that moves [us]."

Kwaito's stars--performers like Bongo Maffin, Boom Shaka, and Abashante--subscribe heartily to the feel-good ethos. Superstar Arthur has called it "ghetto dance music." But kwaito is not just about dancing and parties. Artists often address pressing social ills that affect young people from South Africa's still impoverished black townships: unem-ployment, violence, crime, racism. For instance, Arthur, a Puff Daddy-like figure who sings, dances, produces and heads the record label Triple 9, released an album in 1995 called "Kaffir," the South African equivalent of n----r. Despite being banned on many radio stations, the album went triple platinum (platinum status in South Africa is 50,000 units) and established Arthur as a force in the industry.

At least as important, kwaito has put a hip new spin on "empowerment"--the South African effort to boost blacks into the middle and upper classes. "The political struggle might be over, but economically we're still in the dumps and we have to lift ourselves out of it," says Leo Manne, 27, co-founder of YFM, the station whose third anniversary provided the excuse to have the Newtown bash. Thandiswa, Bongo Maffin's 24-year-old lead singer, agrees. "The two issues young people are facing today are making a lot of money and making sure you don't die from all the sex you're having," she says.

But what is kwaito? The music--street-smart lyrics set to strong, danceable beats, adored by young people and spurned by adults for its irreverence and sexiness--has been called South Africa's answer to hip-hop. Yet, it is a distinctly South African mix: a slowed-down European house beat with strains of African jazz, blues, R&B and reggae. The lyrics are a symphony of the new South Africa's 11 official languages, plus slang. (The name kwaito comes from either the word kwai, which is Afrikaans slang for "hot," or a gang in Soweto called the AmaKwaitos. No one's really sure.)

Everyone agrees that it started in the townships. In the early '90s, black DJs were enthralled with the house sounds of international mixers like L'il Louis Vega and JM Silk. They started slowing down the vinyl albums--playing them at 90 beats per minute instead of the 130 bpm of European house--and mixing in South African '80s pop singers like Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Other influences, like African jazz, reggae and hip-hop, soon made their vibe felt, and kwaito was born.

Now it's everywhere in black South Africa--booming out of minibuses, taxi ranks and clubs. Like rap and hip-hop, it is spawning its own fashion culture that gets absorbed--albeit much later--by suburban white culture. The ubiquitous "sportie," a- soft-brimmed hat, has moved from kwaito parties to white shopping malls. And blond girls are wearing their hair with a straight line of bangs wet and pushed to the side, a style popular with black women several years ago.

Also like rap and hip-hop, kwaito has been criticized for sometimes misogynistic lyrics and overtly sexual performances. At Mandela's 80th birthday party in 1998, for example, Boom Shaka caused a furor by grinding to their jazzed-up version of the national anthem, sporting hot pants and lots of cleavage. That's partly because black South Africans traditionally don't even talk about sex, much less flaunt it. Those with a broader perspective don't think that kwaito pushes the envelope of taste. "Not as much as in American hip-hop, no ways," says Craig McGahey, 27, founder of Mama Dance Records in Cape Town, a kwaito label.

But few South Africans lament the economic opportunity kwaito has brought a handful of young blacks with few job prospects. (A recent study by the National Business Initiative found that only 10 percent of black high-school graduates find jobs in the formal economy.) The $130 million-a-year kwaito industry offers a way out of the township and into the money. The major artists are all black. The major labels, radio stations and production companies are all black-owned and operated. Groups like Arthur and TKZee started their own labels, and now Triple 9, Guz Records, Kalawa, MDU and Ghetto Ruff churn out hit groups and records each year. "There's a whole bunch of people who have bettered themselves" through kwaito, says McGahey. "Kwaito star Ishmael, for example, used to be a street kid. Now he's driving a big white Mercedes-Benz."

Another hit singer, Mandoza, 22, grew up in Zola South, one of the toughest parts of Soweto, but now lives in the posh white suburb of Sandton and owns two BMWs and a new Audi A5. Many young artists who make it big from the townships have what Bongo Maffin's Thandiswa calls the "so-long-denied syndrome." "If you're an 18-year-old white boy, you can dream of owning your father's company," she says. "But if you're an 18-year-old black whose father hasn't had a job for 200 years, you can't dream of anything. So if you get money, you have to show it off. The young men see Puff Daddy on MTV, and they want the diamonds and the Bentley. The girls just want the guy with the diamonds."

But kwaito's not all diamonds and Bentleys. Often even successful acts can't support themselves from their music alone. Cape Town-based kwaito group Dantai had a No. 1 hit, "Pajama Jam," last year. But since they're from Cape Town, a much smaller kwaito market than Johannesburg, the group's members can't afford to quit their day jobs just yet. Dantai's rappers, Goggi and Diggy Bongs, work as DJs; their singer Pam is a receptionist for a public-transit company.

South Africa's AIDS crisis also drives kwaito's beat. Its target audience, black 16- to 30-year-olds, is also the most at-risk group for transmission of the AIDS virus, so it was natural for government and AIDS prevention organizations to tap kwaito musicians as ambassadors to that demographic. Thandiswa and fellow Bongo Maffin rapper Appleseed are on the board of Love Life, the government campaign against AIDS, and star in billboards, concerts and TV ads on AIDS prevention. "If you want to speak to people, do it in a language they can understand," says Thandiswa. "Even white kids and colored kids understand the energy of kwaito."

But not many white and mixed-raced folks listen to it. Despite its impact on fashion, the music is almost unknown in the suburbs. "That's just where South Africa's at," says McCloy. "It's still racist. We're still partying separately." Of YFM's 627,000 listeners per day, only 3,000 are white, surveys show.

Still, the music's backers are confident that it has international appeal. "[South Africans] are very much a world people. We were colonized, decolonized, we had apartheid and now 'freedom'--those experiences are not only African, but international," says Thandiswa. Bongo Maffin played to sold-out houses in France, England and Denmark last summer, and TKZee and Boom Shaka have both drawn big audiences in London.

The old-timers are taking note. Legendary musicians like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela are turning to kwaito--and vice versa. Bongo Maffin did a hit version of Makeba's famous song "Pata Pata" in 1997, and Masekela has incorporated kwaito into his last two albums. "I'm crazy about it," he says, adding that his daughter teaches him the dances to do onstage. Kwaito "is about showcasing our Africanness," says Thandiswa, "about showing off our continent, our culture and our country."

On that recent cool Saturday night in Newtown, Nokuthula Manana, 18, rested on a beanbag in a corner of the dance floor as the YFM party raged. She had left Soweto with her friends prepared for 12 straight hours of dancing. She came, she said, because of "the whole vibe. It's just cool." And she added, "It's important to support South African music instead of American." At the rate it's going, kwaito may soon give millions of kids around the world the chance to do just that.