The role of South African dance music during apartheid | Resident Advisor
“Nelson Mandela emerged from his long nightmare as a simple man.. walking his way to freedom.. accompanied by his wife Winnie.” The 1980s were turbulent times for South Africa.. but also one of the most fertile periods in its musical history. Some of that music might have caught your ear on dancefloors lately: old records like V.O.’s “Mashisha”.. Don Laka’s “Stages of Love”.. and Chicco’s “I Need Some Money”.. have been rediscovered.. and played out by festival favourites like Hunee and Antal.. as well as native South Africans like DJ Okapi and Esa. So how did this vibrant music end up disappearing for decades? The bubblegum / afrosynth sounds of South Africa.. was chewed.. consumed.. and spat out for the next. Apartheid was one of the cruellest regimes of modern times. Segregating society by race.. was a method of regulating national thought.. identity and freedom of movement. Police would beat black musicians.. launch teargas into live gatherings and jail people for years simply for owning Mandela branded shirts or coffee mugs. “We have no option.. but to continue.” It wasn’t all about violence, either. The government’s South African Broadcasting Corporation.. used its “Radio Bantu” as a further way to re-enforce tribal identity. Music was one of the vehicles that the government used to divide people, really. South Africans were led to believe that.. if you’re Zulu speaking, you can only listen to Zulu music. If you’re Shangaan, you can only listen to Shangaan music. If you’re Sutu, only Sutu music So everything was compartmentalised. But music found a way to thrive in this suffocating atmosphere.. inspiring efforts to resist repression, and encouraging a newfound national pride. Yet this was no typical protest music. The most popular sound of the day was homegrown, colourful and had a multi-racial appeal.. a slap in the face to apartheid’s creed of “separate development.” Bubblegum had a different message: that better days were just around the corner. With newly available electronic instruments flooding the market.. hits were relatively simple to churn out. The new sound was an extension of the glossy.. aspirational feel of American boogie and funk. It caught on in discotheques and semi-legal drinking spots known as shebeens.. where cover bands would run riot. There were some pretty brazen knock-offs at the beginning. Take Brenda Fassie and her band the Big Dudes.. whose debut single “Weekend Special” was an enormous smash hit in 1983 Compare the bassline to that on the BB&Q Band’s “All Night Long”.. and the chorus structure to Sharon Redd’s “Never Give You Up.” You get a sense of the homage being paid to overseas imports. Yes it was influenced by American music, because I play records out now.. and DJs are pulling out.. American synth-pop records, or Chicago house records and it was almost a carbon copy.. but with a South African flavour. The carefree nature of this hybrid style.. had critics and established musicians of the day turning their noses up. Legendary jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela was especially damning: “Disco is a social tranquilizer; you don’t recognize other things.” Probably a lot of these South African serious jazz musicians.. they probably thought: “What is this cheap music?”.. that’s where the bubblegum context comes from.. it’s cheap, it’s not so serious. However the messages that they wanted to put across were serious. Music was becoming a cultural battleground. The ruling National Party poured millions into “Operation Optimism”.. trying to ride the success of Band Aid with pro-government singalongs. But audiences saw through these tactics. Instead, they turned out in their hundreds of thousands to rallying events like “Concert In The Park”.. held at Johannesburg Ellis Park Stadium. The South African people were rejecting the indoctrination.. that separate is always better. As the tide began to turn.. the government clamped down on dissent.. calling a national State of Emergency in 1986. Stars had to devise ingenious methods of promoting oppositional consciousness.. while escaping censorship. Bubblegum was used as a Trojan Horse.. to get coded statements circling round the ears of the young fans. Radio favourites in the late ’80s like Q-Tex’s “My Della”.. and Chicco’s “We Miss You Manelow”.. appear innocent enough at first glance.. but if you read between the lines.. they encourage explicit support for the struggle movement. “I’ve been waiting.. for so long. Time is moving on.. so speed up, speed up.” Mandela’s release no longer seemed like a distant dream. The soft power of music had been converted into hard resistance.. and was helping to crack the edifice of apartheid. “Power to the people!” 1990 was a line in the sand.. following the shock announcement on February 2nd.. that apartheid was to finally end. The recent past was treated as a distant memory. The divide between blacks, whites and coloureds.. did not magically close, but newfound harmony was in the air. Everything got changed. Our national anthem.. they took three different languages and put it together. Our national flag got changed.. with the Rainbow Nation you know? So there was a lot of optimism and positivity. With the trajectory of the nation now irrevocably altered.. bubblegum lacked purpose, and its popularity cratered. In its wake grew a sound that bolted a hip-hop bump into slowed-down house. This was the irresistible vibe of kwaito. People were tired of singing these political songs. We started putting on our own lyrics, you know, on those records. You know, this is where kwaito was born. We’re not writing about political things – we felt like it’s time to celebrate now. Kwaito’s groove carries on to this day in South Africa’s love of deep house When it came to bubblegum the country simply moved on.. leaving much of it undocumented. Prominent artists fell into poverty.. while stacks of second-hand records gathered dust in warehouses, garages and attics. Following such a historical schism.. bubblegum simply fell between the cracks. It wasn’t until recently that interest began to bubble up again. Over time, DJ Okapi’s Afrosynth blog and record store.. was setup to help join the dots of this undervalued golden era. Defunct distributors like Music Team.. have been connected with contemporary labels.. like Soundway and Rush Hour.. to authorise reissues and compilations. Now these tunes can light up a dancefloor anywhere.. whether you know the political intent or not. But that baggage remains a challenge for South Africans to leave at the door. I think there’s a lot of psychological scars.. that people carry around with them.. and the ‘80s was a terrible, brutal time.. but out of this major pile of bullshit.. a flower came out.. and that was the music of the time. Even as it captivates audiences abroad.. at home, interest in bubblegum and other danceable styles of the ’80s.. looks likely to stay niche. Perhaps the context is too familiar and too raw for now. But the freedom and vitality captured in South Africa’s glorious apartheid-era pop.. couldn’t stay trapped forever.