During a period marked by distress and anguish, Amapiano created many transient moments for people around the globe. At the turn of 2020, and throughout countless hellish months locked indoors, it was South African duo Major League DJz who began introducing the fledgling genre to the world through their Balcony Mix series, an uplifting hour-long mix premiered weekly on YouTube, and a driving force for a genre still in its infancy.
“Because of those mixes, more and more attention was being paid to [play] Amapiano,” UK DJ and producer Fiyahdred tells NME, as they discuss the genre’s initial boom. “They were shining an additional light on the genre and wanted to, as they say, bring Amapiano to the world.”
It wasn’t long before they would achieve this, but not without the help of those pioneering the sound, famed for its iconic rolling log drum, pitched-up piano melodies, and slow tempo. MFR Souls, who were suspected to be the first to coin the genre in the mid-‘10s, were soon joined by artists including Kabza De Small, DBN Gogo, and DJ Maphorisa in revolutionising Amapiano and taking it to global dancefloors by 2020.
Even to this day, there’s a real toss-up over where Amapiano first originated, with the usual storytelling its start in the townships of South Africa – whether that be Soweto, Gauteng, Katlehong, or even more rural areas – and a name that took from the Zulu language. Following in the footsteps of dance genres such as gqom and Bacardi, both also South African-born, Amapiano was beginning to look like it could break the small townships and hit the big time elsewhere.
Now, artists like Fiyahdred are at the helm of the sound here in the UK. But while it wasn’t rooted here, it’s the accessibility of the genre that has helped it to reach recent global heights and connect with audiences across the world. “It’s groovy, not too fast-paced, but also not too slow,” Fiyahdred explains. “It’s inspired people to actually have patience with music, because Amapiano tracks are often quite long, so it allows people to just enjoy the journey of the song.”
As Amapiano found its way to UK dancefloors with the help of Boiler Room’s first London showcase in late 2021 or Piano People’s UK debut earlier this year, there was a moment of reflection on those who helped to spearhead the sound. “People would say that dance music is quite whitewashed which I would agree with, but because of that, we can now see people who are making this music that sounds inherently Black,” Fiyahdred tells NME, contemplating the movement.
“It was birthed from them needing a voice, and they use that voice in music. There’s this idea that dance music isn’t represented properly – not seeing the Black or Brown or queer people. We often think that dance and electronic music is over here when really, it’s always been there.”
First cutting their teeth in the UK Funky and house scenes, London’s Fiyahdred was initially drawn to the sound of Amapiano after hearing it online during the first lockdown. “It made me feel like the first time I heard UK Funky about 10 or 11 years ago, and I just couldn’t get enough of it,” they beam. “I just loved the energy”
At the producer’s sold-out Boiler Room show at London’s KOKO, in which they played alongside the likes of South African Amapiano giant Felo Le Tee and UK stalwarts Ikonika, Mixolis, OK Williams, and DJ Neptizzle, these sounds coming together were a sign of what’s to come: it was the formula for a new strain of pop music here, in the UK.
“There was such a diverse crowd, and the energy was electric,” recalls Bulawayo-born, London-based DJ Mixolis on his Boiler Room showcase. “From start to finish, it was just incredible. The crowd were responding really well to Amapiano – it’s a very positive genre that forces you to move. He echoes the words of vocalist Sha Sha, lovingly named ‘queen of Amapiano’ by fans, who recently told NME that it’s “impossible to just sit still and look pretty,” in an interview. “No, you have to get up and move. It is so contagious!”
The universal nature of the genre is just that: contagious energy, how easy it is to dance to, and its inclusive fanbase. But as with every sound that makes its way to the UK, when played and produced here, Amapiano adapts to fit the stylings more commonly associated with UK music. “There are more basslines in UK Amapiano, and you’ll often get MCs speaking over the top to get the crowd hyped up. For the first few years, Amapiano used a lot of vocals, but now it’s more percussive and instrumental. On an international scale, it’s met with collaborations from big artists too, like WizKid and Tiwa Savage,” says Mixolis.
“It’s a wider scope of Black music,” Fiyahdred insists. “But most importantly, it’s music coming from Africa. We’re looking away from the standard sonics of pop music and what sounds hot on the radio – it’s pop music because it’s so popular and resonates with a lot of people around the world. I think that just speaks volumes, and it’s a huge moment for everybody here,” they tell NME. “Especially because, for a while, people were only taking note of artists like Black Coffee and Culoe De Song in South Africa.”
As it begins to pick up more and more traction in the UK, just the name Amapiano can sell out a show in seconds, while the genre generates billions of streams across TikTok, YouTube, Spotify, and other major platforms. “What I love most about South African artists is that they’re so collaborative,” says Fiyahdred. “You’ll see about five people listed in the credits of almost every Amapiano song ever made. It shows that they want to create, but they want to create because they want to shift the narrative of music, and shift the narrative of their lives. They want to make sure everyone around them is supported and leading a better life than they may be had in the beginning.”
Spoken from the perspective of an Amapiano-adoring DJ looking in, both Fiyahdred and Mixolis agree that the genre has bridged the gap between countries and continents, and put South Africa firmly on the map as a dance music capital along with its musical predecessors and recent genre iterations. “Amapiano has truly cemented its place as an African dance music genre, worldwide,” Mixolis asserts. So, where does Amapiano go from here? After breaking out from the townships of rural South Africa, the beautiful success story of Amapiano continues around the globe as it attempts to defy the test of time – but as it stands, nothing is stopping the insatiable flow of Amapiano.
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