Kwaito Culture as Nonpolitics In A Black Atlantic Creative Context

Much has been made in the years since 1994 of whether and how South Africa is new. Kwaito, “an encompassing term for a popular dance music that is associated with contemporary urban black [South African] youth style and identity” (Impey as quoted by Livermon ix) evidences just how new South Africa is. Kwaito is revolutionary, both because it is evidence of a complex interplay within a modern Black Atlantic cultural milieu and because it is a novel form of “nonpolitical” cultural resistance. Rather than thinking of a nation made new by an imagined racial harmony, South Africa’s newness can be seen as an articulation of reciprocal play in a web of interconnected Afrodiasporic signification. Kwaito culture is what I will call a strategically nonpolitical form representative of this articulation.

Origins and Embodied Forms of Resistance

When Apartheid rule dissolved, Black and Coloured South Africans began to explore new methods of self-stylization in new sites. Though still divided from their white, upper-class South African counterparts in the private sphere, they gained access to public spaces in the once racially restricted city: “For young urban blacks, what got the party started was the fading of the old apartheid laws — suddenly they could spend a night in a club rather than under curfew” (Robinson). Kwaito, a constellation of practices and signs, riffs off the tropes of the Black Atlantic ghetto; it has come to characterize what Nuttall might call the “politics of possibility” in young South Africa (Nuttall 268).

            By 1994 slowed-down House music had been rising in popularity, gaining traction as an alternative to the Bubblegum sound once immensely popular in South African clubs. David Coplan, who has written extensively on popular music in South Africa, calls the Bubblegum that preceded Kwaito, “a childish tease in which the initial burst of sweetness quickly vanishes on the tongue” (Coplan 12). In contrast to Bubblegum’s seemingly simplistic pop trappings, Coplan notes that the genre’s star, Brenda Fassi, performed songs that dealt with a wide spectrum of South African experiences. In addition to the sexual politics of recordings like “Weekend Special,” which protests the “subordinate romantic status of the ‘weekends-only’ girl,” Fassi penned an ode to the country’s first Black President as well as a song that imagined a debate between a liberal and a racist white on the subject of educating Blacks (Coplan 12).

            Though Bubblegum is an important genre tied to the development of Kwaito, the emergence of Kwaito should not be understood as a linear evolution from it. Kwaito actually began to emerge in the late 1980s through the experimentation of producer/DJs in clubs like Pretoria’s Gemini and Jozi’s Razzmatazz. It was in these venues that, as South African producer Oscar Mdlongwa aka Oskido says of the early days, DJs started “remixing those international house tracks to give them a local feeling … putting in percussion and African melodies but maintaining the house groove” (McCloy as cited by Steingo 2005).  This South African flavor condensed in the post-Apartheid moment with elements of Hip Hop, Ragga, R&B, and American and European House to constitute Kwaito music.

The Kwaito sound is primarily produced for and by marginalized bodies, with the township functioning as a symbolic site of embodied contestation. As performance geographer Sonjah Niaah says, the township is a constitutive part of the ghetto imaginary linked to these bodies: “Johannesburg and its surrounding townships, Soweto in particular, hold important sites of memory for Kwaito. The township is associated with high levels of danger for the average Black South African youth: high murder rates, police harassment, hardship and squalid conditions” (Niahh 10).  Niahh goes on to describe the way that spatial politics inform Kwaito culture: “On weekends, streets are taken over by jams or bashes, where aspiring actors try to woo audiences and attract the attention of producers. The street is the first stage for many aspirants” (Niahh 12). One excellent example of the township as a frame for the Kwaito imaginary can be viewed in Bongo Maffin’s video for the song Kura. In it the township takes center stage; school-uniformed youth march in step with the group’s three singers and people go about their daily work, stopping only to dance or braid singer Thandiswa Mazwai’s hair (Bongo Maffin – Kura).

Some scholars writing on Kwaito have grappled fitfully with spatiality, embodiment, and dance, and their bearing on the culture’s revolutionary potential. Gavin Steingo, in an article published in 2005, expressed anxiety and frustration with the continued use of materialistic tropes and gold imagery in Kwaito lyrics: “kwaito artists do not ap-propriate, but ex-propriate, as defined by Jacques Derrida: ‘ to lose one’s memory in the memory of the other” (Steingo 2005, 351). Steingo’s writing focused on lyrical content, and thus he missed the forest for the trees.

Critical dismissal of Kwaito’s “bodily politics” sidesteps a major aspect of the genre’s practical social utility. Writing several years after the publication of his first article, Steingo acknowledged that his inadequate criticism of Kwaito was based on the, “contradictions inherent in the politicization of a cultural formulation that has apolitics at it center” (Steingo 2007). Lara Allen’s interview with Arthur Mafakote, a well-known Kwaito artist who’s song “Kaffir” was both political in its lyrics and in its exhortation of bodily resistance, neatly illustrates the trap of lyrical analysis: “They thought there was gonna be a war [at Apartheid’s end] … I thought, but what if this music can bring unity? Because if they all dance to the same tune they might as well be under one leader” (Allen 85). Arthur’s song “Oyi Oyi,” and its choreography-laden video further illustrate the sentiment (Arthur).

Other theorists, such as Bhekizizwe Peterson, are better able to conceive of Kwaito’s embodied possibilities. His assessment of Kwaito as the, “triumph of … the corporeal and hedonistic body over the suppressed and repressed body of conservatism,” situates Kwaito in relation to tropes of entrapment, or the incarceration of ghetto life, and flight, the liberation of strategic identity formation that transcends it. These poles aptly characterize the thorny terrain that Black and Coloured youth must navigate; Peterson recognizes Kwaito to be the soundtrack of that struggle (Peterson 207). His analysis illustrates ways in which youth who identify with Kwaito culture are actively engaged in a process of identity formation predicated on newly liberalized imaginaries and possibilities.

The benign neglect of the body in much of Kwaito criticism is not simply a dismissal of what ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt calls “a technology of Black communication and identity” (Gaunt 59), it also fits in nicely with an a patriarchal American/European cannon of Black pop culture criticism that has engaged in the flippant feminization of embodied forms, missing a whole spectrum of context-specific eruptions in Afrodiasporic hybrid culture. Gaunt sums up the significance of what she calls “kinetic orality” in relation to Black expressive culture:

The body … becomes a musical interpreter—the repository of various dance styles, and multiple bodies can be observed and analyzed as a set of somatic historiographies of black social life, or interpreted as nonrepresentational commentary about social identity and identity formation.

Gaunt 126

Niaah’s notion of “performance geography” is similarly useful.  She venerates “the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual task of enacting one’s being in such spaces as the Black Atlantic, between violation, ruptured roots, and self-(re)constrution” (Niahh 2). When understood in tandem with the concept of a politicized Kwaito body, “connected discursively and materially to the musical practices of Kwaito … racialized as Black … mobile and disruptive,” (Livermon 124) the enormity of Kwaito’s politicized bodily articulation is magnified. Gavin Steingo sums up the strategic pose of the nonpolitical, embodied stance: “Kwaito fans arguably work toward a kind of de-subjectification that shouts defiance … resisting normative forms of resistance [they] skillfully dodge the totalizing dialectic of hegemony-resistance” (Steingo 2007). By using their bodies and refusing to engage in a logocentric debate, Kwaito bodies are resisting hegemony on their own terms.

The symptoms of critical misinterpretation that affect Kwaito are hardly new. Critics of Black art have often dismissed or ignored dance and its constitutive body politics. Dance and the body are seen as being excessively corporeal and only moderately worthy of being theorized, if they merit any theorizing at all. The 1980s school of Black British cultural studies, with luminaries such as Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, has focused largely on the work of filmmakers and visual artists whose cultural products exist outside their bodies, while popular American critics such as Kalefa Sanneh of the New York Times and Sasha Frerre-Jones of The New Yorker have been blessedly preoccupied with the lyrical content and masculine vicissitudes of Hip Hop. This is not to say that there hasn’t been some touch-and-go attention given to Black forms of dance music, rather it is a call for a more nuanced, robust field of critical work on Disco and its stylistic children. Without a densely populated critical terrain, audiences and critics alike will continue to misunderstand many of the important interpretive cadences that find their origins in the movements of the body.

One bright spot on the horizon is the work of Xavier Livermon, who analyzes Kwaito in a context of embodied practices. In his 2006 dissertation, “Kwaito Bodies in African Diaspora Space: The Politics of Popular Music in Post-Apartheid South Africa” Livermon coins the term “Kwaito bodies” to describe “the ways in which those young people who participate in the musical practices of kwaito are configured in representational practice” (Livermon 244). His analysis distills the notion of nonpolitics that I propose, imbuing it with the importance of the compromise that Blacks have made in the neoliberal post-Apartheid moment. They participate in capitalist practices, but they have defied the illogic of an explicitly economic, though tacitly cultural, agreement predicated on European whiteness and education:

If black bodies do not properly absorb and perform this capital, than their inclusion into the spaces of modernity and humanity occurs at a subordinated level. “Kwaito bodies” are disruptive because they remind the racialized colonial elite that they will enter the spaces of whiteness on their own terms. They will play their music loud, spin their cars on suburban streets, and slaughter animals to bless the new home

Livermon 246

Other Nonpolitical Articulations and Identity Formation In A Black Atlantic Milieu

Kwaito culture can be looked at as an emergent zone in Post-Apartheid South Africa, one where new identities are in the making. Young artists explode from the townships; the beats they craft encourage young people to come together, to dance, and to engage it what Peterson calls a “redemptive fantasy” (Peterson 197). They are generation “Born Free,” not the “Lost Generation” derided by those who fought for their freedom. Old political lefties such as Professor John Simpson of The University of Capetown have brushed aside and admonished the Kwaito generation with statements like, “Twenty years ago young people were the vanguard of the struggle for change. Now kids are saying you must look after yourself, the social issues are not important” (Masland).

While it may be true that Kwaito’s lyrics do not necessarily exhort listeners to enact political change, they are hardly apolitical. First of all there is the politically charged act of choosing to sing mostly in Tsotsital, or ghetto-speak. Songs like Zola’s “Stars” evidence a complex amalgamation of English, Afrikaans and South African dialects explicitly crafted for a township audience (Stars). This is a significant political statement after long years of government-imposed Afrikaans in public schools and government. Lara Allen, quoting A&R manager Skumbuzo Khulamo, shows the political significance of Kwaito’s sanction of ghetto vernaculars: “in the township we’ve got our own ways of talking. And what excites people [about Kwaito is that] for the first time they are hearing what they are using in the township being recorded. It’s for the first time! It’s that excitement” (Allen 87).

Like the youth studied by Elaine Salo in her Manenberg ethnographies, the Kwaito generation is using new tools provided by a newly visible globalized youth culture. This culture, accessed via the mass media new technologies, is primarily comprised of the artistic contributions of Black Americans, Europeans, Caribbeans and Africans. Afrodiasporic tools from these distinct but interrelated cultures help articulate new ways of being and open up a new space of becoming, where identities are less fixed by Apartheid structures such as the Coloured Labour Preferment Policy, and more dependent on an individualistic approach. One use of these tools involved the slowing down of British house and the translating of its lyrics into vernacular South African (Allen 89). This methodology ultimately proved fraught with legal implications, but it is evocative of a Black Atlantic affinity also visible in the “versioning” of Dancehall or “sampling” in Hip Hop. Using technology, Kwaito practitioners were refashioning, popular song structures or melodies to suit their needs and participating in a form of Black Atlantic creative practice.

Sampling the visual and sonic elements of Afrodiasporic art functions in Kwaito in many of the same ways that it does in popular American, Caribbean and European Black music. It is a means of recognizing and paying homage to musical forbearers, as Bongo Maffin does by sampling Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” for their song “Makeba” (Bongo Maffin – Makeba). Sampling is also used to update and make relevant, dare I say reclaim, contested texts, such as the South African national anthem, which was given a Kwaito update by Boom Shaka.

For the Kwaito generation, meaning is layered in these new polysemic interpretations. How does making the SA anthem a club track work to establish new ways of being or new modes of understanding one’s body in a post-Apartheid context? Perhaps by jacking his or her body to the national anthem in a club, the Kwaito youth is disrupting the prescribed way of comprehending and consuming it: somberly standing at military attention with one’s hand over his or her heart. Kwaito is an exercise in musical memory and an exorcism of the past. It exposes the paradoxical idea of a “lost generation.” Lost for whom and at what cost?

Further, Kwaito is a genre that can be understood as an indigenous expression while maintaining a dialogue with American and European forms of popular Black music and their accompanying visual scripts. This Black Atlantic conversation, what Paul Gilroy or George Lipsitz might call a product of diasporic intimacy or affinity affirms a new South African identity in a post-Colonial context (Lipsitz quoted by Livermon 4). As with many 21st Century Afrodiasporic hybrids, like Reggaeton, Grime and Baile Funk, Kwaito demonstrates the trans-Atlantic incorporation and elaboration upon African traditions as well as the enabling of artistic characteristics facilitated by enhanced connectivity and technological innovation (eg. liberalized access and the internet). Much in the same way that the advent of the phonograph enabled the “eclectic flexibility” of post-bellum American Black secular music, the globalization of once ghettoized Black sounds like House and Hip Hop has enabled this process of exchange (Levine 231).

In his seminal essay on the Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy employs a notion of the ship as a “chronotrope”, a mobile microcommunity that has linked the port cities in the Atlantic throughout history. Some scholars have critiqued Gilroy for his term “Black Atlantic” because in its articulation he eschews the importance of Africa.  Notably, Gilroy’s terminology emphasizes the irreconcilability of modernism with traditional African ways of being, the slave trade and colonialism (Gikandi and Okphewo as quoted in Livermon 19). To reconcile the Gilroy conundrum Livermon looks to Hanchard, who describes Afro-modernity as a response to the age and technology that made the aforementioned contradictory elements possible (Hanchard as quoted in Livermon 20).With respect to new technologies, the ship may not be so useful a metaphor today, since the developed, and in many cases the developing, nations in the Americas, Europe and Africa are constantly in conversation via the internet.

Today’s Afrodiasporic conversations happen within a complex dialogic matrix; digital transmissions of ideas are absorbed by audiences and performers via streaming web radio, shared YouTube videos and comment threads on blogs. By envisioning these points of connectivity as part of a massive conversation mediated and influenced by an unceasing ebb and flow of information, we can understand the cultural hybridity and interplay of rooted scenes resounding on a global level.

Critics operating in the Black Atlantic paradigm must be careful not to impose a sort of “ontological essentialism,” as Gilroy would call it, in favor of a “brute Pan-Africanism,” while attempting to negotiate this new discursive space (Gilroy 67). While Kwaito’s roll call of Hip Hop, Ragga, House and other Afrodiasporic hybrid forms may be a manifestation of longing for an imagined home outside of the nation, it should not be understood as something that has emerged from a biological imperative. The connective tissue of Afrodiasporic, cultural hybridity is found in a give and take across the channels of a social and ideological web. To paraphrase an informal aside by noted scholar Tricia Rose: if we were to open King Tut’s coffin today, he wouldn’t pop out knowing how to do dance like James Brown. The characteristics that have persevered within Africa and abroad have done so through cultural memory and socialization over the course of generations.

Afrodiasporic Art can be thought of an ever-growing body of artistic contributions made by Africa and its descendents abroad. Afrodiasporic transnational identity, predicated in many cases on relationships with this art, can be an additive way of understanding belonging and ethnic particularity. By denying full conscription to national identity in states that colonized and brutalized their people, the children of the Diaspora can fashion hybrid identities that are less constrained by dominant post-colonial narratives, which continue to obscure violent histories of oppression.

This additive identity, comprised of both local and transnational sets of symbols, may not be articulated as such in the logocentric realm, but it is greatly informed by still images, film and sound. The accompanying genealogy of Afrodiasporic music is a subjective interpretation of genres that I believe to be part of Kwaito’s bloodline. Feel free to comment, contest, dispute and provoke via the individual entries’ comment threads.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Mark A. “Accountability, autonomy, and authenticity: assessing the development waltz conducted to a ‘kwaito’ beat in Southern Africa.” Development in Practice vol 18 No. 1 2008. p. 40 – 52.

Allen, Lara. “Kwaito versus Crossed-over: Music and Identity during South Africa’s Rainbow Years.” Social Dynamics 30, no. 2 (2004): 82-111.

Arthur Mafokate – Oyi, Oyi – Kwaito.  16 April 2008. Youtube. Video. 10 December, 2008. <;

Bongo Maffin – Kura.  6 February, 2008.  Youtube. Video. 10 December, 2008. <>

Bongo Maffin – Makeba. 17 January, 2008. Youtube. Video. 10 December, 2008. <;

Coplan, David. “God Rock Africa: Thoughs on Politics in Popular Black Performance in South Africa.” African Studies 64, no. 1 (2005): 9 – 27.

Gaunt, Kyra. The Games Black Girls Play. New York: NYU Press, 2006.

Gilroy, Paul. “The Black Atlantic As A Counterculture Of Modernity.” Theorizing Diaspora. Ed. Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 49.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity And Diaspora.” Theorizing Diaspora. Ed. Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 233.

Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford, 1977.

Livermon, Xavier O’neal. Kwaito Bodies in African Diaspora Space: The Politics of Popular Music in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Thesis (Ph. D. in African American Studies)–University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2006, 2006.

Kaganof, Aryan. Kagablog. Blog Entries: Sharp Sharp! (The Kwaito Story). 24 July 2008. 5 October 2008 <;.

Masland ,Tom. “Generation Born Free.” Newsweek 4 May 2004, Vol. 143 Issue 14: 42 – 43.

McCloy, Maria. Kwaito. 2 December 2008 <>.

Niaah, Sonjah. “Performance Geographies from Slave Ship to Ghetto.” Space and Culture 10, no. 10 (2008): 1 – 18.

Stephens, Simon. “Kwaito.” Senses of Culture: South African Cultural Studies. Ed. Sarah Nuttall and Cheryl-Ann Michael. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2000. 256 – 73

Pareles, Jon. “MUSIC REVIEW; South Africa’s Reigning Pop And Its Upbeat Ambassador.” The New York Times. 23 August 2002. 19 September 2008. <;.

Peterson, Bhekizizwe. “Kwaito, ‘dawgs’ and the antimonies of hustling.” African Identities vol 1 No. 2 2003. p. 197-213.

Porter, Christopher. “Shanty-house.” Time Out Chicago, March 16-22, 2006. http://

Robinson, Simon. “The Kwaito Style.” TIMEeurope Magazine 11 April 2004. 5 October, 2008 <;.

Salo, Elaine. “Negotiating Gender and Personhood in the New South Africa: Adolescent Women and Gangsters in Manenberg Township on the Cape Flats.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 6. 3 (2003): 345-365.

Sanneh, Kelefa. “CRITIC’S CHOICE/New CD’s; House Music Thrives in South Africa.” The New York Times. 9 August 2004. 19 September 2008.

Sanneh, Kalefa. “Hip-Hop Hybrids That Scramble Traditions.” The New York Times. 25 August 2008. 19 September 2008. <;.

Stars. 4 June, 2007.  Youtube. Video. 10 December, 2008. <;

Steingo, Gavin. “South African Music after Apartheid: Kwaito, the “Party Politic,” and the Appropriation of Gold as a Sign of Success.” Popular Music and Society vol 28, No. 3 2005. p. 333-357.

Gavin Steingo, “The Politicization of Kwaito: From the Party Politic to Party Politics.” Black Music Research Journal 28.2(2007): 75-102.

Steingo, Gavin. “The politicization of kwaito: from the “party politic” to party politics” The Free Library 22 March 2007. 05 October 2008 < politicization of kwaito: from the “party politic” to party…-a0172908478>.

“The Kwaito Generation.” Inside Out Pt. 1. Sean Cole. NPR. 90.9 WBUR. July 30th, 2008.

Zola. Ibutho. Ghetto Ruff Records. 2005.

Zola. Umdlwembe. Ghetto Ruff Records. 2000.


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