The genre world of Amapiano, house music from the townships of South Africa

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Secret Obsessions is the new chronicle of Atlas Obscura in which we ask wonderful people to take us down a rabbit hole. As said to Sarah Durn, member of the editorial staff of Atlas Obscura.

Oh, this is an atmosphere.

It was as if the whole crowd was moving in unison. The dance was joyful, expressive, with a bit of bravado, as if the dancers were telling the story of the music with their bodies, their faces. And the music, it was both distinct and familiar, like this incredible fusion of traditional South African township music, but set to extremely technical and super melodic electronic beats. From the grit and essence of the townships comes this beautiful endless melodic space for electronic music. This was the last iteration of the form, it was amapian. And it was fire.

Tantalizing smells of street food wafted through the crowd of dancing bodies. It was December 30, 2019 and I was at Johannesburg AFROPUNK festival with friends, some of whom had never been to South Africa before. The music of the festival is at the intersection of all South African music, from more traditional music to punk rock, electronica and even American artists. And it’s all happening in downtown Johannesburg – 10,000 South Africans all dancing and rocking in one place.

In 2005, AFROPUNK organized its first festival in Brooklyn. It has since become a global phenomenon: Paris, London, Atlanta, Johannesburg and many other cities around the world. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The first time I went to AFROPUNK, a global pop-up festival showcasing art, fashion, music and films by black artists, was in Brooklyn. I was dazzled. I remember how liberating it was to be in an environment that showcased black music and black culture, but not in a monolithic way. The media often puts black music in very specific boxes: there is R&B, hip-hop, rap. But the great thing about AFROPUNK is that it’s all the things in between, all the different layers between the boxes that people think black culture exists in. It allows for the wholeness and wide range of our diverse and unique interests as human beings in the midst of our Darkness.

So I was in Joburg AFROPUNK watching these kids dance; I mean, you can’t listen to amapiano and not movement. But after the end of the set, the festival continues directly with the next artist. I had no idea who or what I had just heard. I didn’t know what it was called or if there were other artists doing the same thing.

AFROPUNK - seen here in its 2017 iteration in Johannesburg - is a global music, art, film and fashion festival featuring black artists.
AFROPUNK – seen here in its 2017 iteration in Johannesburg – is a global music, art, film and fashion festival featuring black artists. © Red Bull Media House

After the festival, I looked up the DJ on Spotify and started digging similar artists on Spotify. It was then that I began to realize that this was not an isolated case. It was not just an offshoot of kwaito, a genre of South African house music from the 1990s. All of these songs all had this distinct beat with these instrumental tracks overlapping the beat. All lyrics are sung in traditional South African languages. And artists layer beats upon beats upon beats but somehow, in the end, it’s all good.

Months after AFROPUNK in Joburg, I asked my young South African cousin, who is really into the music scene there. “Hey! I listened to that. What is it?”

“Oh yeah. No, no, man, it’s the novelty. It’s the next thing. He was born from kwaito. It’s amapiano.

It had a name, I was hooked. I searched for “amapiano” on Spotify and found hundreds of playlists. That’s always how I find different artists or songs. There’s a song called “Bella Ciao“- that’s my current obsession. There is this other song by Kvng Vinci which takes up the theme of squid game and in fact the hook of this song called “Amapiano Game Squid.” It’s fire! Then there’s this other artist that I love right now called Musa Keys. I’m sure instagram and seeing the way kids lose their minds at his shows, the way he performs, the dances he does, it’s just super cool.

Just two months ago, someone sent me a DM and was like, “Yo, you gotta listen to this song. It’s got your name in it! That’s how I discovered Musa Keys, through his song “Selema (Po Po).” I was like ‘Wow! My name is the hook of this song. And it’s a huge song on the continent and in South Africa. There was like a ‘Selema’ dance challenge at one point. And my name is not common. The only people I know who have my name, other than my grandfather who died, is my cousin. I don’t really know if the song is about me, but I do know nor who else she could talk about.

In 2012, Selema Masekela and her childhood friend Sunny Levine released their first <a class=album as a group Alekesam. ” width=”auto” data-kind=”article-image” id=”article-image-89644″ src=”https://img.atlasobscura.com/lvMwlxqBcMtCHCjE3YwZnJmwEx3gNODJuEktmLwzQzk/rs:fill:12000:12000/q:81/sm:1/scp:1/ar:1/aHR0cHM6Ly9hdGxh/cy1kZXYuczMuYW1h/em9uYXdzLmNvbS91/cGxvYWRzL2Fzc2V0/cy8wZWFjMjk3YmUx/YTQ0YzJiZjlfQWxl/a2VzYW0uanBlZw.jpg”/>
In 2012, Selema Masekela and her childhood friend Sunny Levine released their first album as a group Alekesam. Courtesy of Jackie Kronick

It’s so inspiring to witness this movement. I take immense pride in knowing that this is where I come from. I didn’t grow up in South Africa, but my dad named me specifically so I could have a South African name to be proud of. And hearing all of that come back to me in a song is like an acknowledgment that this place, its people, and its culture will always be part of who I am and what I am.

Selema Masekela is an Emmy-nominated producer, TV host, sports commentator and one half of surf R&B group Alekesam. His passion for surf culture led him to become a co-founder of South African surf clothing brand Mami Wata, which launched in the United States in the fall of 2021. Under the Mami Wata brand, Selema co-published the Amazon bestseller, Afrosurfinga superb book celebrating African surf culture.



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