Forgotten freedom of the 90s

2014-05-22 10:00

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Am I the only person who feels we’ve neglected to remember kwaito music in our 20-year hoopla?

That we should be singing from the rooftops about this music genre that started as an irritant to our conservative generation only to become an industry in its own name.

Kwaito for me is synonymous with youth unleashed, sheer entrepreneurial spirit, and, inadvertently, freedom. It’s also the greatest South African story rarely told.

As we cheered on our first black president in 1994, kwaito was the new urban sound preparing to take centre stage. The sound had been bubbling under in the 80s, old reports say, but it was in 1994 when it hit the big time.

Whenever I think of kwaito, I remember Boom Shaka, the quartet of two scantily clad girls, Lebo Mathosa and Thembi Seete, backed by a pair of boys in baggy pants, Junior Sokhela and Theo Nhlengethwa.

Boom Shaka were instrumental in defining the kwaito sound of SA’s young democracy. Picture: Sunday Sun

Though the base of their music was Mathosa’s vocals, it had moments of rap and smatterings of ragga throughout. This merging of genres has become what I think is a defining factor in kwaito’s success.

It’s never parochial and takes on whatever influence is strongest, just as long as it helps the beat go on.

When the video for Boom Shaka’s first single, It’s About Time, was released, it split the young from the conservative and it would take a few more years before kwaito settled comfortably as the defining sound of South Africa’s democracy.

But kwaito never seemed to love politics. Its artists were accused of being apolitical, and they did stand in stark contrast to the generation of militant young people before them, many of whom had died in the youth uprisings about two decades before.

Unlike the black pop stars before, these new superstars weren’t really hiding a deeper political message beneath the beat. The title It’s About Time sounds vaguely revolutionary, but this seems fortuitous.

What the band was really talking about, in the lyrics and nonsensical rap and ragga mesh, was their impending success. It was also shrugging off the burden of having to answer to anyone.

It was their moves that made Boom Shaka provocative, so much so that even as our parents were chiding us not to watch, they themselves were peeking with one eye, watching Lebo and Thembi outrageously dressed in shorts and crop tops, with impossibly long and thick braids and talons for nails and platform heels, while popping their pelvises in the air and pumping their booties.

The boys swayed in the background in what looked like simulated sex scenes, as many newspapers pointed out.

In 1997, they “prostituted African culture for commercial purposes”, according to a report at the time. They remixed the anthem into House music for their second album and unveiled it to the nation in a sexed-up performance at the SA Music Awards.

But in spite of themselves (or maybe they always knew), kwaito was making a stand. Or kwaito was the stand because Boom Shaka weren’t just rattling the chains of conservatism, they were ripping the gates apart.

To those of us born in the 70s and 80s, on the precipice of a civil war, we were just mature enough to understand and maybe have to take on. Kwaito was a signal that there was nothing to worry about but music and dance.

We hadn’t just escaped the dompas, we could now challenge the establishment in our own homes as well as our parents’ top-down parenting style that involved never talking about sex or boyfriends or death and disease.

It was a new era for South African black youth and it also gave birth to a whole new music industry and economy.

Mathosa was the undisputed diva of kwaito, going solo after she’d left her band. I saw her perform live for the first time in 2006, as an opening act at that cursed concert where an American pop singer’s cousin died and singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill came to throw a tantrum.

By then, Mathosa’s stage act, with that voice, hair and dance music, had matured to perfection. I promised myself I’d see her again, but she died in 2006 in a car crash.

In the meantime, kwaito just keeps getting stronger, permeating other genres, making it difficult to tell where it begins and where it ends, and creating black music moguls where few existed before.

Two decades on, I think it still remains for me happy, party music. But I also see it as an embodiment of the political expression of the youth of the time – finally we could do whatever the heck we wanted.

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