Kwaito is more than a music genre. It is a sub-culture that has had an impact on many black people in Southern Africa and beyond. Kwaito is a lifestyle, music genre and a stamp of black people’s transitional urban evolution. It is also one of the genres that blacks can exclusively refer to as their own.
In the book, Born to Kwaito, the authors, Esinako Ndabeni and Esinako Ndabeni unpack the impact of the kwaito culture, and merge academic theories of music, culture and lifestyle, and journalistic excellence in a captivating manner.The collection of essays tackles the relevance of kwaito as a sub-culture and interrogates its artistic autonomy, the politics of language and explores what kwaito reflected in transitioning African societies.
This past Saturday at the inaugral Gaborone Book Festival, I facilitated a book discussion featuring motivational speaker Kgomotso Jongman, sports journalist Bogani Malunga and Ndabeni.Before the session I asked to meet Ndabeni (I wanted her to autograph my copy).
Her publisher Thabiso Matlhape pointed to a petite fair skinned young woman who was dragging on a cigarette in a corner and said: “That’s her...” Ndabeni wore a brown leopard print bucket cap, summer top, three-quarter pallazo pants and yellow block heels. We hit it off like a house on fire.Our discussions went on during the panel engagement as I asked questions that the attentive audience and anyone else interested in popular culture and kwaito would want to hear her learned views on.
Kwaito and self-identity
Like many of my contemporaries, I was exposed to books and music from a very young age. Music to me is life and while I have electic tastes in music, my tastes lean more towards kwaito, house and hip-hop and its variations. Born in the late 80s, I was raised at a time when Africa was going through the transitional phase of the 90s, marked by the changes happening in South Africa. Urban culture made its mark. We were proud to be black and rooted.
Black consciousness was the new religion and there was self-awareness around being African and black in the modern world. I have come across many black people who want to disassociate from black culture and associate being “advanced” with seeming and sounding white, and having interests that correlate with the West.
This inferiority complex and identiy crisis are strongly deep-seated and it is always tragic to observe how some black people loathe their blackness. Ndabeni says that this is because historically, blacks went through colonialism and were taught to dislike themselves. “Kwaito challenged that and brought a sense of freedom and unique self idenity.”
Re-defining the kwaito narrative
Kwaito has always been controversial. The beats are loud, the lyrics repetitive and carefree but the subculture has always been associated with sex and promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse, crime, delinquency, gross materialism and other anti-social behaviour. Ndabeni concedes that this is the case but points out that there were positives as kwaito reflected a beacon of hope and freedom, and was a form of not only escapism but also storytelling.
“The artistes could regale their experiences and lives with a beat in the background. It is no wonder that kwaito has for long existed side by side with hip-hop, particularly motswako.”
Kwaito and the women’s movement
Ndabeni says that women in kwaito played a major role in advancing women’s liberation. “These women were not confined to kitchens and bedrooms: they took their loves and passions outside. Women in music were treated badly but they defied the odds and made good music.
They challenged stereotypes, pushed boundaries and broke beyond the proverbial glass ceiling. They owned their sexuality and identity. Women such as Lebo Mathosa and Brenda Fassie were different and considered “bad girls” but they inspired other women positively. They were a part of new phase of beckoning for African women.
Kwaito will never die
It is often said that kwaito is dead. Ndabeni refutes this passionately. “How can a people’s culture die?” Those who think kwaito is dead never understood kwaito to begin with. In musical terms, when you look at your gqom and house, they all derive from kwaito.
So kwaito is the root of the variations of our urban music.”