This CAI paper explores the rising popularity of African house music, within the context of this genre as a global phenomenon, and links it to the narrative of the rise of Africa that has recently dominated debates. It offers a brief overview of, and investigates the reasons behind, this development in music. The paper seeks to evaluate the symbolic value of an African presence in the global mainstream of popular music, and finally turns to the question of economic opportunities that could arise from this development.
The rise of African house music
On 16 December 2011, more than 10,000 people gathered at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, to attend a house music event sponsored by South Africa’s public broadcasting station SABC1.(2) While filling stadiums with their music is usually the domain of world-famous American musicians, in this case the crowd came to see a Durban-born young man named Nkosinathi Maphumulo, also known as Black Coffee. Playing his electronic tunes, inspired both by global musical trends and typical South African rhythms, he was joined by a range of other celebrated South African artists and a 24-piece live orchestra. The title of the event, Africa Rising, reflects what has been a dominant theme in the public debate about Africa in recent years, and also holds true for the music industry.
Black Coffee is at the forefront of a genre that has dominated the vibrant South African music scene for years; a genre usually referred to as Mzansi House. Mzansi, a Xhosa word that means South Africa, emphasises the local influences that the musicians blend with global trends in popular culture. Other artists within the genre who have brought it to fame – nationally and beyond – include Liquideep, Bucie and DJ Cleo.
What Mzansi House is for South Africa, Afrobeats is for West Africa. The Nigerian artist D’Banj is one of those people who have successfully contributed to the ‘Africa rising’ narrative within the global musical mainstream. His hit Oliver Twist has been on heavy rotation on radio stations and in nightclubs across Africa and Europe throughout 2012 and reached number two on the United Kingdom R&B charts.(3) The responsible record label is GOOD Music, an American firm founded by the American mega-star Kanye West, who also features in the Oliver Twist video clip.
The name Afrobeats derives from the original term Afrobeat, which symbolises a genre of music created in West Africa in the 1960s. Fela Kuti is one of its founding fathers, bringing together traditional African music and modern genres such as jazz, funk, rock and the earlier Ghanaian High Life music. One is compelled to mention South African Hugh Masakela as one of the most popular musicians who represents the musical talent of Africa. Masakela has recently collaborated with Black Coffee to create the song We Are One, which conveys a call for further reconciliation and unity in the political context of post-Apartheid South Africa.
Today, Black Coffee, D’Banj and many others carry on the tradition set out by the artists described above, albeit in their own innovative way: they blend the local with the global in a particular way, not by merely perpetuating stereotypes of Africa as the exotic ‘other’, but by integrating it into a globally constituted popular culture. As the Ghanaian hip-hop artist Sway has told the British Guardian, “Fela Kuti is obviously a massive legend in the game, and what he was doing is not too different to what D’Banj is doing now – taking Western influences and adding them to African culture, and coming up with something new, that appeals to everyone.”(4) We can find further affinities between the earlier wave of internationally successful African artists and the recent upsurge of African house music when we link it to the resurgence of ‘Afro-optimism’ in recent years.
‘Afro-optimism’ and the symbolism of music
An oft-cited illustration of Afro-optimism is the conversion of the influential Economist magazine’s cover for the African continent, which changed from “Africa. The hopeless continent” in 2000 to “Africa rising” in 2011.(5) Robert Bates argues that the narrative of ‘Africa rising’ might not tell us as much about the transformations that are taking place on the ground, but it does emphasise the West’s unease with its own perceived decline and Africa’s rise as its logical counterpart.(6) Nevertheless, Western listeners show increasing interest in house music from the African continent and we must therefore acknowledge the reciprocal influence between the Western and African music spheres.
Black Coffee’s Africa Rising is evidence that the perceived rise of Africa also resonates with African musicians and audiences. Despite the grave inequalities in South Africa, Mzansi House music is widely popular throughout all different strata of society. One simply needs to spend an afternoon at Mzoli’s, a highly popular butchery-braai restaurant and music venue in the Cape Town township of Gugulethu, to see how people of different racial and social backgrounds, both South Africans and tourists, can come together to the local sound.(7)
African house music may at once offer the world a more positive image of the African continent and help to foster a more hopeful outlook amongst Africans themselves. There is a powerful symbolism conveyed by the growing popularity of Mzansi House and Afrobeats.
The house music industry as a driver for growth
As the electronic music culture grows across the continent, nightclub culture in African cities has in recent years produced a number of local and regional hits. Instead of simply relying on musical imports from elsewhere in the world, growth in local music industries reflects growth in other spheres.(8) It is furthermore evidence of the growth of African middle-class and their increasing purchasing power.
The ‘Africa rising’ narrative, without doubt, stems to a considerable extent from the high growth rates across the continent in recent years. There has been substantial debate about the sustainability of current growth and the distributions of the benefits thereof. Commentators have pointed out that the impressive growth rates are mostly due to the export of primary commodities, which in most cases does not create large numbers of new employment opportunities.(9)
However, the service industry, of which the tourism sector is a vital part, is another vital driver of growth. This is where the music industry can most likely contribute positively to economic development. Africa becomes increasingly attractive to travellers, and if cities manage to build a youthful image, including their authentic and original house music, this could make them appealing tourist destinations. International travel journalists have, for instance, recently found Johannesburg as “springing back to life, pulsing with energy from artists, designers and entrepreneurs” and reported the formation of “pockets of hipness” throughout the city.(10)
This certainly holds true for a range of African cities other than Johannesburg. Nairobi in Kenya can be cited as another example of an African urban hub in which nightlife, music, and arts flourish.(11) House music, as a global business phenomenon that generates large revenues, has recently received attention from a range of commentators.(12) Within this context, it has already been claimed that South Africa has the biggest per capita market for house music in the world.(13) While this particular claim is difficult to verify, it nonetheless symbolises hope, innovation and renewal. It portrays Africa as comprised of international actors who are integrated into global flows of tourists and immaterial goods, rather than as mere sources of natural resources.
The theme of the rise of Africa reverberates in the house music industry, where African artists have managed to gain a considerable amount of international recognition recently. Optimism surrounding this development is reflected on a symbolic and economic level. Symbolically, it follows in the footsteps of the pioneers of Afrobeat, such as Fela Kuti, who helped to create a picture of a modern and progressive Africa,(14) both on the continent and beyond. In terms of economic impact, it will contribute to a positive climate in which respective tourism sectors can grow and flourish.
Therefore, the house music scene can have a positive impact by bolstering belief in progress and change. Despite the problems that typically characterise African countries, Afro-optimism, inspired by the flourishing house music scene, contributes to a positive climate that inspires those who seek social and political transformation.
(1) Contact Mario Gavenda through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Optimistic Africa Unit (
). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Charlotte Sutherland and was edited by Kate Morgan.
(2) Africa Rising event official website, http://www.africarisinglive.co.za.
(3) ‘2012 top 40 R&B singles archive’, Official UK Charts Company, 26 May 2012, http://www.officialcharts.com.
(4) Hancox, D., ‘The rise of Afrobeats’, The Guardian, 19 January 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(5) Jacobs, S., ‘The Economist’s Africa’, Africa is a Country, 12 December 2011, http://africasacountry.com.
(6) Bates, R., ‘Africa through Western eyes: The world’s dark continent or capitalism’s shining light?’, Think Africa Press, 31 October 2012, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(7) Oliver, J., ‘Smokin’, Jamie Magazine, http://www.jamieoliver.com.
(8) For a list of popular house music songs from West Africa see Tucker, B., ‘10 West African club tracks’, Africa is a Country, 23 December 2011, http://africasacountry.com.
(9) Usman, Z., ‘Africa is Rising! At least its 1% is’, Think Africa Press, 31 October 2012, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(10) Downey, T., ‘A global city on the rise’, AFAR, 8 December 2012, http://www.afar.com.
(11) Pflanz, M., ‘In Nairobi’s nightlife, there’s no time to stop’, The Christian Science Monitor, 21 April 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com.
(12) Schwabel, D., ‘House music has become a global phenomenon’, Forbes Online, 9 March 2012, http://www.forbes.com; Miraj, A., ‘The economics of house music’, New Statesman Online, 12 September 2012, http://www.newstatesman.com.
(13) Jabbar, S., ‘South African house music: The distinctive sound of South Africa today’, This is Africa, 29 March 2012, http://www.thisisafrica.me.
(14) Fela Kuti’s ‘Afrobeat’ flourished in a time in which much of Africa was still under the impression of hope generated by national liberation movements and their ambitious projects of modernisation and development. Indeed, this period of the 1960s and 1970s can be connected to an earlier phase of the perceived global power of the formerly colonised world. On the level of international relations, this was reflected, for instance, in the Non-Aligned Movement and the campaign for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), in which African states asserted themselves alongside allies from the Southern hemisphere vis-à-vis the two large Cold War power blocs. It was only in the 1980s that this belief in Africa’s progress was overwhelmed by negative impressions of war, tyranny and economic failure.