Kwaito is a genre of music that emerged from South Africa during the 90s. Characteristically, it is very similar to what we know and love as house music, but its distinction comes from its rich feature of African sounds and samples. Kwaito was born during a time of great change for oppressed South Africans in an urban township called Soweto. Nelson Mandela was democratically elected as the president of the country and the removal of economic and political sanctions allowed the South African music industry to flourish.
The same way hip-hop culture in America liberated and gave African Americans in urban cities the chance and mediums to express themselves, Kwaito did the same for South Africans. It was more than just a music genre, it was a way of life, it influenced fashion, slang and culture. Although house music had already existed in South Africa, a democratic government allowed citizens greater access to international styles of music, allowing aspiring musicians to hone their music to suit the tastes of Johannesburg’s youth. The name is derived from the Afrikaans word ‘kwaai’ which directly translates to ‘angry’ in English. The language of Kwaito is Isicamtho, South African township slang. The goal was always to truly represent the lived experience of the ghettos, in order to empower the youth. Some would consider the whole movement to be a rebellion against the order considering that townships were created to keep a steady supply of cheap labour by the apartheid goverment.
As the genre evolved, it became purposefully apolitical, it reflected the interests of the youth rather than being used as a political tool. While older South Africans saw this as a sign of the youth losing touch with the importance of political struggles that plagued the country, it could also be seen as a statement to not let oppression and injustice define you, instead to define yourself by your skills, interests and passion. After years of oppression and disempowerment, South African youth just wanted to have fun. Curfews lifted meaning that they could go to nightclubs and they did just that, danced, laughed and did what young people should do.
Today, the evolution of Kwaito isn’t so clear to track, some consider it to have died out, and others believe it just evolved and took on new forms. The original sounds that were staples in tracks may no longer be in use, but its spirit still lives on. After all, the nature of music is to constantly evolve, and Kwaito is no different.