A few weeks ago I was watching the 17th annual South African Music Awards. To say they were badly organized would be an understatement. People were still trickling in after the show had started and at some point a recipient of an award didn’t have a microphone to say his acceptance speech. Another notable thing on the night was musicians, namely Kwela Tebza and dj Cleo, chanting “Viva ANC Youth League Viva” and asking “What would the SAMAs be without dj Cleo; what would elections be without the ANC; what would soccer be without Orlando Pirates(who had just been crowned champions earlier in the day)?” respectively. The promulgation of the aforementioned artists’ political positions wasn’t expected, to some degree. I say this because they, Kwela Tebza and dj Cleo, are closely associated with kwaito, a (black) youth-centric genre of music which is sometimes, rightly or wrongly, punted as South Africa’s version of (mainstream) American hip hop. Kwaito, since its emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, has largely chosen project itself as apolitical. So, would the chanting of the governing party’s youth wing at an awards ceremony be a breaking away from the ‘traditions’ of kwaito? The answer is a simple no. Well, at least not anymore.
Today, it’s not unusual to see the likes of Chomme dancing with president Zuma at the governing party’s rallies and victory parties. Didn’t the Durban Kwaito Music outfit, Big Nuz, meet the president at the ANC head quarters after winning “Song of The Year” last year? The very association with any political party, in this case the governing party, discredits kwaito’s ‘apolitical’ stance of old. Sharlene Swartz, in a 2003 paper titled “Is Kwaito South African Hip Hop? Why the answers matters and who it matters to” writes as follows: “Unlike some genres of hip hop rap music, kwaito claims to be apolitical and young South Africans say they like it that way. They are tired of politics, the beat is what it’s all about. But there are many ways in which Kwaito is in fact an act of politics. South African youth from the 1970s to the 1990s have been at the forefront of the political struggle to topple apartheid. After the South African democratic elections in 1994, kwaito emerged in welcome relief and with it a drive for economic prosperity…” Swartz argues that kwaito, as an entrepreneurial tool that has been used to eke out a living far detached from the poverty caused by the previous regime, is a political act. That makes a lot of sense when it, kwaito, is viewed in that manner. But there’s another school of thought whose rebuttal is to the effect that kwaito, with its association with the governing party, inevitably swallows its ‘tongue’ of criticism and therefore can’t be the voice of the frustrated young people without jobs in the townships.
I came across an article published on an online magazine, Presh, and part of its criticism of kwaito reads thus: “Here( in the article) I make the argument that the mass popularisation of kwaito provided and still provides a crowding out scenario for Hip Hop and thus for consciousness and critical thinking. My point is that this anti-Black system( Google Andile Mngxitama’s work) would never allow Hip Hop to thrive until it waters itself down because in its “unwatered down” state it provokes thought and thought is a basis for rebellion; a threat to the system. When Andries Tatane was shot while protesting one would have expected that the next day Ben Sharpa’s Hegemony would have received record breaking radio air play and downloads but alas we continued singing imot’ etshontsh’ imali.” It’s true that much of the content of kwaito concerns itself with the partying and all things jolly but we all know that that’s a far cry from the daily township experience. So, that leads to the question, can we continue to refer to kwaito as the artist authority of young black people’s experience even when there’s little artistic content serving as the soundtrack to youth that are at the forefront of what has come to known as ‘service delivery’ protests?
In a country were the majority of people are black, young and live in the townships, one would expect that a kwaito artist not to celebrate an album selling ten thousand copies. Should they not be able to move more units? That’s perhaps another reason for the ‘apolitical’ stance of kwaito. Is there isn’t a guarantee that a politically ‘conscious’ kwaito album will sell when the ‘apolitical’ barely lives the shelves? The bread and butter issues can’t be divorced from the debate of whether or not music ought to take a critical stance on our body politic. It also has to be mentioned that kwaito isn’t the only genre that is ‘apolitical’. The reason one chose it specifically is because of its historic appeal to the youth. It’s also for the same reasons that the governing party has been increasing the number of kwaito musicians on its recent election campaign trails. They, the artists, have an influential appeal to the young vote which the governing party needs in order to rejuvenate its ranks. Which political party wouldn’t want the youth vote? Even in the American presidential election of 2008, we saw the likes of Will-Iam of the Black Eyed Peas throwing his weight behind president Obama and with Will-I am’s backing came a lot of his followers, I’d like to think. If kwaito consciously chooses to remain indifferent to pressing issues that face a large constituency of its market, does it not risk being irrelevant and tacitly digging its own grave? That which is irrelevant eventually ceases to be. It can’t be that music that arises out of the experience of the (previously and, to some extent, currently) neglected surroundings that are the townships acts likes all is well in the republic.