“It’s evolving. It’s bigger than us. Look at us now, we’re in Australia. At Promiseland last year, we had our own dance floor and it was pumping.”

Amapiano powerhouse DJ Maphorisa speaks on the genre’s growth during his Pardon Me tour and third visit to Australia. Drawing its origins from the early 2010s, amapiano emerged as a vibrant musical style born from the heart of South Africa’s townships in the Gauteng province – a rich melting pot of style, music, hustle, and culture. 

Rooted in the storytelling tradition of kwaito, a local house subgenre that resonated across the airwaves in the 90s, amapiano loosely translates to ‘the pianos’ in Zulu. The music narrates the perspective of South Africa’s diverse townships, like Soshanguve near Pretoria where Maphorisa was raised. 

From the pulsating rhythms of kwaito to the soulful melodies of jazz, and the hypnotic beats of deep house, amapiano embraces a rich spectrum of influences. Central to its trademark sound is the log drum, a raw bassline partnered with a resonant heavy-kick drum. The distinctive genre is a profoundly spiritual and sensual sound that conveys a meaningful and universal message. 

“The lyrics say a lot. It really touches the heart. So it’s very spiritual. The music takes you on a journey. It takes you somewhere else. Amapiano is really about the feeling. When you listen to the music, and if you don’t know the lyrics, but you understand.”

Maphorisa (2024).

The emergence of amapiano has attracted the attention of Afrobeat artists like Burna Boy, Davido, and Wizkid, who are seamlessly integrating its infectious rhythms and unique sonic elements into their hits. Davido’s track ‘Unavailable’ and Asake & Olamide‘s fittingly titled ‘Amapiano’ underscore the genre’s burgeoning influence in the global music scene. Both of which were nominated in the newly introduced Grammy‘s category for Best African Music Performance. In another first, South African artist Tyla won the Grammy for Best African Music Performance in the first year of the category’s existence for her amapiano-R&B infused song ‘Water.’

The origins of amapiano defy a singular point or individual attribution, with impactful releases such as Mlindo The Vocalist’s 2016 hit ‘AmaBlesser’ featuring DJ Maphorisa, and 2019’s ‘Labantwana Ama Uber’ by Sami Tee featuring Miano and Kammu Dee playing significant roles in bringing it to a larger audience. When Amapiano began, it was primarily instrumental and devoid of vocals, but with its evolution, Kabza De Small pioneered the incorporation of vocals, catalysing significant changes in trends.

Notable acknowledgments are to be made to Scorpion Kings – DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small, renowned for their distinctive production and sound, to MFR Souls with their infectious balcony mixes, and DJ Stokie, carving out a unique niche in the underground scene. Additionally, JazziDisciples stand out, the Johannesburg duo who embody the ethos of the genre with their infamous tagline “Amapiano is a lifestyle”. Together, these figures are pivotal pioneers within the genre’s landscape alongside many others.

Known for almost a decade’s worth of collaborative projects and production credits for hits like Drake‘s ‘One Dance’, there are two faces to South Africa’s powerful hitmaker DJ Maphorisa. Madumane is his alter ego, a name conjured up to separate the producer/DJ from the vocalist. Being the former leader of the group, Uhuru meaning freedom in Swahili, his influence now also extends to the role of mentoring and collaborating with emerging talents within the scene. 

Grounded in gratitude for life, talent, and community connection, he draws from his life experiences and teachings to cultivate his sound and exemplify the storytelling tradition of amapiano. The experience of being on stage and witnessing people react to and appreciate his music remains a major source of inspiration to his creative process.

“I feel everything like, my upbringing plays a big role with the inspiration. Also, I’ve got a daughter, she’s just turned 15, so being responsible. I feel like I get inspiration around everything and travelling helps me a lot in building my sound. I’ve been changing, I’ve been changing with the seasons,” says Maphorisa. 

He recalls how being a DJ was considered the pinnacle of coolness during his upbringing, an esteemed profession in the community that symbolised triumph over challenges and adversity. However, amapiano was initially undermined and deemed as ‘inferior quality’ by mainstream radio stations.

The underground sound paying homage to its roots, persisted and gained popularity as it started making its way to the masses. Maphorisa’s vision for amapiano’s success has now become a manifested reality. “It always gave me a feeling, somehow I saw it. It’s kind of like you see it in your dreams, you know.”

The real deep connection of Amapiano holds roots in the urban community culture with its language and lingo reflecting the lifestyle. Phrases like ‘dankie,’ an Afrikaans term for thank you, are colloquialized into ‘danko,’ illustrating the fusion of languages within amapiano culture. It’s a necessity to ensure that the music stays connected to its inaugural supporters, as it fosters a sense of community and loyalty to its roots, which are crucial to its continued growth and sustainability. Maphorisa details that he balances persevering in the authenticity of amapiano while also embracing experimentation and innovation in his productions and collaborations. 

“Weekly, I would make sure that I go to the hood and DJ there and connect with people. But also taking it to arenas where it’s like 10,000 people, 20,000 people. So that’s the balancing of it and making sure that you feed all of them,” Maphorisa adds. “Also not to lose amapiano,  make sure that the sound’s still the tradition of it, I also don’t forget to go back underground.”

Maphorisa acknowledges the role that social media has played in the advancement and dissemination of amapiano. With addictive dance challenges taking over platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, the dance moves are as high-spirited as their origins. Amapiano dance moves are renowned for their emphasis on legwork and expressive body language, which aligns with the genre’s lively sound.

Further showing his advanced repertoire of creativity, Maphorisa was one of the first pioneers to combine South African house music and the Nigerian sound with ‘Sponono’ featuring Wizkid and Burna Boy being the first amapiano song with Nigerian artists on it.

“I knew something big was going to happen after that song,” Maphorisa reflects. “Imagine watching Kabza De Small, an amapiano artist, now he’s got Burna Boy and Wizkid on it. Me being in that, I knew what was going to happen. And look at now, look at Asake, everyone is doing it.” 

Kabza De Small and Maphorisa have shaped the genre in South Africa as solo artists and under their duo moniker, Scorpion Kings. Having won the 2023 South African Music Award for Best Duo/Group of the Year, the pair have been instrumental in raising the profile of the sound across the home country and internationally. 

Kabza initially introduced Maphorisa to amapiano when he was merely a fan of the genre, and together, they have elevated it to new heights with their collective expertise. As they continue to collaborate, their shared vision is to further expand and innovate within the amapiano space, fostering its ongoing growth and evolution.

This is further underscored by their esteemed joint projects, with the upcoming Scorpion Kings sequel poised to deliver exciting surprises. Amidst the evolving landscape of amapiano, there’s a captivating narrative intertwined with its sound, ripe with the potential to explore diverse genres and subgenres.

“It’s the right time to do it, You see the impact that it has in Africa, I love it. Everyone now is doing amapiano. It’s taking care of the whole of Africa and for me, that’s what I love. That’s what I saw when I started investing in amapiano, I was like, ‘actually this music is going to touch everyone. Because of the way it makes me feel, I know there are thousands and tons of people that it’s going to make them feel’.”

Maphorisa (2024).

During a sit down with Kenyan interviewer Peter Nzeki, the hitmaker emphasised dedication, respect, hard work, and love as crucial ingredients to success. Additionally, he underscores the significance of patience in navigating the complexities of the music industry, adding another essential dimension to his approach. “Patience. Okay. Take it easy. You know what I’m saying? Trust the process,” Maphorisa says.

These values coupled with his exceptional talent, has enabled him to maintain his leading position for nearly a decade. Just when you believe you’ve deciphered Maphorisa’s approach, he surprises you by reinventing himself time and time again.

Amapiano epitomises the resilience and creativity of South Africa’s musical landscape, transcending borders and uniting diverse communities through its irresistible soundscapes. It is the sound of a young South Africa, it belongs to the township and the dance floor, and now the world is watching. Amapiano to the world.

Photography by SLIKI.

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