South Africa: Jorja Smith song brings global interest and worries about Amapiano appropriation

By Shingai Darangwa
Posted on Friday, 27 August 2021 19:28

Assistant barman Vincent Nhanga takes a break as the Cause Effect bar prepares to reopen after coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown regulations were eased, in the Waterfront district, normally teaming with foreign tourists, in Cape Town, South Africa, 25 August 2020. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

When African music hits the global scene, it can lead to mixed emotions: joy over long-deserved recognition for the continent's talent, but also worry that the artistes at the heart of musical scenes will not get their dues.

Back when MTV Base Africa was launched in 2005, there wasn’t a clear indication of where African music was headed. The platform was introduced to help grow the African music scene and help it find its voice. Hip-hop ruled the day while artistes like MI Abaga, Naeto C, P-Square and Sarkodie were hybrids who integrated different sounds and added their own flavour.

By the time P-Square’s Chop My Money Remix and D’Banj’s Oliver Twist landed in 2012, Afrobeats was starting to find its voice; penetrate beyond Africa and into the UK.

Nigerian, Ghanaian and other artistes from across the continent and the diaspora were beginning to embrace their accents, merging their mother tongues with English more boldly than ever before. By 2014, Afrobeats was so visible that Drake – one of the biggest artistes in the world – and British grime torchbearer Skepta, hopped on WizKid’s Ojuelegba Remix, helping propel the Nigerian singer and, in turn, the genre into the international spotlight.

Since then, there’ve been numerous highlights for the genre, not least Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall album winning a Grammy for Best Global Music Album a few months ago. Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift album, which she dubbed “a love letter to Africa”, helped extend Afrobeats’ reach across the globe while simultaneously paying proper homage by enlisting a host of star West African producers, writers and collaborators like Wizkid, P2J, Shatta Wale, Tekno and Yemi Alade.

Africa’s next global sound export

As a result, today, Afrobeats is one of the hottest genres across the world, with West African artistes leading the charge. Wizkid’s Essence is blazing a trail across North America and the UK. Davido’s latest single Shopping Spree, featuring Chris Brown and Young Thug, is gaining traction on US radio. Burna Boy is an on-demand collaborator with guest appearances on recent albums by the likes of Justin Bieber, Yung Bleu, Pop Smoke and Sam Smith.

With the emergence of South Africa’s Amapiano genre, it looks like we may very well be in the middle of the rise of Africa’s next global sound export. Much like Afrobeats is less of a style per se and more of an umbrella that encompasses the sounds that come out of Ghana, Nigeria and West Africa, Amapiano is a proudly South African genre that encompasses not just a sound, but also a South African lifestyle.

There’s a certain lingo attached to it, dances associated with its music, and distinct technical elements embedded. Much of this lifestyle borrows from the South African genre of Kwaito, while the music itself blends elements of Kwaito with jazz and deep house.

Two weeks ago, British singer Jorja Smith posted “Piano to the World” – a popular catchphrase used by South African Amapiano artistes to symbolise a desire to take the genre global – on social media, as a caption to her latest single All of This, which features Ghanaian producer Guilty Beatz.

After an initial collective burst of excitement that a global artiste had endorsed the Amapiano movement, this joy quickly dissipated when South Africans pressed play. All of This is a watered down and ‘Westernised’ version of the so-called Amapiano. It more closely resembles deep house, save for some trademark Amapiano log drums.

Since then, a debate has raged across Twitter as to whether or not to embrace the moment. Many have chosen not to, viewing Jorja Smith’s decision to enlist a Ghanaian producer with no experience in the genre as a misstep.

South African DJ, DBN Gogo, who’s been at the forefront of the movement, said on Twitter: “Amapiano hasn’t even tasted the top 10 in global charts but we must allow people to come dilute and run with the sound so it can grow? What then happens to the pioneers?”

DJ Maphorisa, arguably South Africa’s most prominent producer, also weighed in with a stern warning. “If you don’t involve us, it’s not Amapiano. Then trust me you can’t eat alone on Amapiano, it’s a community movement but we don’t mind sharing though.”

Jorja Smith, with her superstar status, could be a vessel to expand Amapiano into the UK, which is its next market for expansion, and beyond. She’s not only one of those rare artistes who connects with an eclectic pop audience, but also one who reaches out to the African continent as well as the diaspora and forms a connection.

Her star-making moment came in 2017 when she was the voice behind Drake’s remake of South African DJ Black Coffee’s hit single Superman, while her biggest hit to-date – 2019’s Be Honest – features Burna Boy; so we are well acquainted with her in Africa.

The immediate backlash from prominent South African Amapiano artistes has made it crystal clear that it’s unacceptable at this point in time for anyone, even a globally recognised artiste like Jorja Smith, to co-opt the genre without ‘paying dues’.

This is a genre in its infancy. As the originators, we need to be afforded the opportunity to shape the narrative of the genre before exporting.

This means not only crediting its originators accordingly, but also reaching out and collaborating with its producers and artistes who know the intricacies and technicalities of the genre better than anyone else.

South African producer Kooldrink, who produced one of the biggest Amapiano songs of 2020 – Getting Late – for South African newcomer vocalist Tyla, felt All of This was a lacklustre attempt at Amapiano.

“It’s always difficult to put an opinion out on something so subjective,” he tells The Africa Report. “But personally, I want to love the song because I’m in love with what it could have been. As it is – I’m not a fan. It feels and sounds like an attempt at the work that 100s of South African artistes and producers call their bread and butter. This is not/was not amapiano. I’d love to give it to them, but I can’t.”

Shaping the narrative

Getting Late, with its English vocals (which is a rarity for the genre) and pop sonics, had much of the crossover appeal that Jorja Smith would’ve aimed for, and made some strides with, in Europe and beyond.

A couple of weeks ago (a day after Jorja released All of This), Kooldrink released an official Amapiano remix of Ed Sheeran’s smash hit Bad Habits. That process and outcome has earned plaudits for unfolding the way many local artistes would’ve hoped All of This had unfolded.

For what it’s worth, it does appear that Jorja Smith and her team have sought to remedy the matter…

“Ed and his team heard Getting Late when that storm was happening, and it was said that he wanted a similar sound. His team got in touch and let us know that they were looking to be vessels for the Amapiano sound. My only job right now is to get the sound to all corners of the world, and that means collaborating with more international artistes and being at the forefront of this movement.”

Of course, any artiste is free to make whatever music they want to make, but as with Afrobeats, the expectation is that the originators are involved in taking the music to the world. Kooldrink shares similar sentiments. “This is a genre in its infancy. As the originators, we need to be afforded the opportunity to shape the narrative of the genre before exporting.”

“In my eyes, being an artiste with the scope and reach of Jorja Smith, the decision to employ a producer without the right credentials was made in ignorance. It [takes] one phone call to South Africa to get the right artiste on the job. It does also show this contorted idea that the West has [about] Africa being this one big, vast land where everything/everyone is the same. Ghana, South Africa, Amapiano? The same.”

This should serve as both a wake-up call and a call to action for South Africa’s Amapiano artistes – sleep and the genre will be exported and appropriated by Western artistes without your involvement. For what it’s worth, it does appear that Jorja Smith and her team have sought to remedy the matter after DJ Maphorisa said on Twitter that the files to the song had been sent to him and he would be “fixing it”. Not all is lost.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options