South Africa is a melting pot, a country with 11 different official languages and a musical legacy littered with distinctive subgenres like kwaito, gqom, kwela, and bubblegum. New artists are paying homage to these musical blueprints but tweaking them slightly – the wavy, glitchy synths of kwaito might be underpinned by menacing trap drums, whereas DJs are digging deep into vinyl archives to resurrect samples of South African bubblegum pop and splicing them into new, more modern production. Rules are being bent and the results are starting to garner the attention of international audiences.
The heavy presence of South African artists on last year’s Black Panther soundtrack only solidified the country’s reputation as a hub of creativity, and labels like ATM (African Trap Movement) are slowly but surely building rosters packed with potential stars. The likes of Black Coffee, FAKA and Die Antwoord have already built global fanbases for various reasons, but now the spotlight is being shone on newer artists or musicians whose work has been largely underrated by audiences worldwide throughout their career.
It’s impossible to collate a definitive list of artists to add to your Spotify lists, but from trap stars and kwaito queens to iconic rappers and viral hit-makers, here are ten wildly different South African artists to brighten your musical palette.
Rapper AKA has been beloved by both the music and fashion industries for almost a decade, but last year saw him release Touch My Blood, arguably his best album to date. Not only did it yield one of his biggest hits ever, the smooth, heavily-vocodered "Fela In Versace," it also housed "The World Is Yours," a song whose combination of whirring synths, shit-talking raps and confessional lyrics garnered worldwide attention. 2014 album Levels had already established him as one of the best in the business – "All Eyes On Me" is still timeless – but if his comments that Touch My Blood will be his last album are to be believed, now is the time for the world to start to delving deep into his back catalog.
Sometimes all it takes is one hit to kickstart a career. One rapper who knows this better than most is Dee Koala, whose 2018 smash "Whuzet" combined with a viral freestyle video earned her a high-profile co-sign from Riky Rick and a performance in front of a 2000-strong crowd. She may only have one full-length EP –18-18 – to her name but the steady trickle of freestyles she’s released have kept her name on the lips of critics across the country. By fusing Xhosa raps with English hooks and gloriously cocky adlibs, she’s developing a reputation as one of the freshest young talents in the industry. Only time will tell, but it seems 2019 could be Koala’s year to smash.
You might not know DJ Maphorisa but you’re guaranteed to know his work – he has a production credit on Drake’s inescapable, dancehall-tinged smash "One Dance." The track – which initially featured a guest verse by acclaimed Nigerian rapper Wizkid – accelerated Maphorisa’s profile immediately, but in the years since he’s continued to work closely with fellow South African artists, crafting a back catalog of certified bangers in the process. The dark, thumping house beats of gqom generally characterize his recent solo work, but the afrobeats tinge of "One Dance" is similarly written across his 2017 collaboration with Major Lazer, "Particula." If you’re looking for a playlist to soundtrack your spring, Maphorisa is your man.
Listen to Sanelly’s "Weh Mameh" just once and you’ll be guaranteed to have the chorus jammed firmly in your head for weeks. A frequent collaborator of Maphorisa, Sanelly has a signature flow and an obvious soft spot for the kwaito house beats which have become somewhat of her sonic identity. Better still, she’s fiercely sex positive. Late last year she announced plans to open a naked sex club with a strict dress code, drawing allegations of brothel-keeping and sparking huge controversy, but Sanelly remains undeterred – just weeks ago she dropped a new collaboration, "Yebo Mama," with Heavy K.
Despite being one of the newest artists on this list, Mx Blouse already has a concise collection of bangers to their name. "Is’phukphuku" combines a slick, mid-tempo beat with occasional sax breakdowns and lyrics which flip nonchalantly from Zulu to English. The video, which features Blouse turning a series of elaborate looks as onlookers watch on, is further proof of their creativity. Earlier this year they released the infectious "No Match," a cool and confident track propelled by a blistering trap beat, whereas last year’s collaboration with Thor Rixon proved that Blouse can fill a dance floor at a moment’s notice.
It takes an extremely special artist to win the praise of Anohni, but London-based Nakhane recently went a step further by enlisting her vocals for "New Brighton," the long-awaited first single from a deluxe re-release of his 2018 album You Will Not Die. Religious metaphors and themes of queer desire coincide beautifully in his music, which interpolates the gospel he was brought up with it and paints it with a lick of shiny pop gloss. His aesthetic is equally striking, a fusion of BDSM gear and sharp tailoring topped off by razor-sharp cheekbones and a liberal sprinkling of shimmer. This queer approach may have seen his acclaimed "Clairvoyant" video restricted by YouTube, but it’s also won him legions of fans worldwide as invested in his message as they are in his music.
The last few years have seen a slew of talented women rise through the ranks of South Africa’s rap scene. Nadia Nakai recently released viral hit "Naaa Meean" and garnered millions of views worldwide, whereas Moozlie attracted critical acclaim for her 2018 album Victory. But Rouge is the name on critics’ lips, and she has been since she released her stellar concept album New Era Sessions back in 2017. She may be young, but she already has enough features under her belt to prove she’s more than a flash in the pan, switching between genres with ease. If reports are to be believed, 2019 is the year of a new Rouge album – and likely even more record-breaking success.
Simmy’s career has been interesting to say the least. Over the years she’s pivoted from neo-soul and funk to dance, making a name for herself as one of the best house vocalists in South Africa. She solidified this reputation late last year with newest album Tugela Fairy, a collection of melodic, percussion-heavy house tracks offset by Simmy’s honey-sweet vocals. Lead single "Umahlelela" made a serious dent in the charts, expanding her international reputation and even attracting bookings in the UK – a clear indication that Simmy’s on the cusp of global recognition.
Sjava is kind of a big deal. Last year he contributed a song to the Black Panther soundtrack, and he even teamed up with fellow musicians Saudi and Emtee to found record label ATM ("African Trap Movement") whose roster features established artists and breakout stars like Rank and J-Smash. Despite scoring a No. 1 with genre-bending album Umqhele (meaning "crown" in Zulu) he admits being frustrated with the work, describing it as some of his weakest. That’s debatable – from the infectious trap drums of "Abafazi" to the smooth guest vocals on "Eweni," the album is solid whether or not you understand the Zulu lyrics.
Trap currently reigns supreme on the South African rap scene, but uSanele’s feature-heavy new EP Gangular shows he can switch between genres effortlessly. From high-octane closer "Bhansela" to the lighter, more melodic opener "Bekezela," there’s a continuity to the EP that recalls his previous work with Boyzn Bucks and Spova Gang, the rap collective so influential that even car campaigns hijacked their slang. Past tracks like "Amabhodlela" are proof of his abilities, but after a tough 2018 it seems uSanele is back and ready to win over new fans worldwide.