NME Radar: Breakout

Sha Sha: Zimbabwe vocalist crafting a legacy as the ‘queen of Amapiano’

The pioneering African artist's boundless and free-flowing debut album proves that she possesses a riveting star quality

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

When it comes to creating an Amapiano track, there are three main components: the melodic piano chords, a simple yet infectious beat, and a sultry and vibrant vocalist. Charmaine Mapimbiro, better known as Sha Sha, is a powerhouse artist that is currently dominating the genre. Dubbed the ‘queen of Amapiano’ by a growing global fanbase, the 28-year-old’s voice features on just about every major contemporary Amapiano track; from collaborations with South African industry figures DJ Maphorisa to Kabza De Small, Sha Sha is truly commanding her space in the field.

Amapiano is relatively a young genre, having come to prominence in the late 2010s after becoming a mainstay on the radio stations of the South Africa’s Gauteng province. Recently, the sound has become a not-so silent rival to the African giant that is Afrobeats, a genre led by international superstars Burna Boy and Wizkid, who have garnered commercial and critical acclaim in recent years with their hit songs ‘Ye’ and ‘Essence’ respectively. Now, with artists like Sha Sha leading the way, Amapiano’s popularity is steadily growing, amassing billions of views on TikTok in the process.

It is hard, then, to imagine that Amapiano was not Sha Sha’s first choice when her career started – or even her second. While working in an artist development program in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Sha Sha experimented with country, rock, and EDM sounds, all in an attempt to find what style worked for her. But eventually, it was Amapiano that stuck out as the genre to focus on; she was fascinated by the expanding wider culture around the sound, and knew she had to create “music that matched that vibe”, she tells NME.

In 2020, Sha Sha made history by becoming the first Zimbabwean artist to be named Best New International Act at the BET Awards, an award that has previously been won by the likes of Tems and former NME cover star Bree Runway. It made for a pivotal moment for an artist that has spent years pioneering the Amapiano sound, and all that hard work will come to fruition on her debut album, ‘I’m Alive’ (due September 23), a collection powered by strong drum patterns blended with lively flourishes of saxophone notes and percussion.

Ahead of its release, Sha Sha meets NME to talk about her Zimbabwean heritage, the recent surge in popularity of both Afrobeats and Amapiano, and her dream of Latin superstar J Balvin featuring on an Amapiano track.

NME: How has your Zimbabwean background influenced your sound?

“I grew up listening to Zimbabwean artists like Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo, so I have always been exposed to those types of sounds. Now, when I tap into Amapiano, and when I create my own music, I bring in my Shona – my culture – because it represents where I have been. I have lived in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, and the exposure to these cultures are put into my songs. I like to play around with them and merge them into my music.

“Yet I haven’t felt any different as a Zimbabwean in the music industry. I’m just a female in the industry, trying to push my work and trying to do what I want to do. I have been accepted with open arms, and people have treated me amazingly. The fans and the industry welcomed me as their own.”

You were part of an artist development program in Harare. How has that shaped your approach to music?

“When I look back at it, I actually see how badly it was needed because back then, I was such a shy person. I was really in my shell, I was an introvert, and I used to have such serious, crippling stage fright. Through the program, I was introduced to Audius Mtawarira, a radio personality, who then became my mentor. I worked with them for a good four years, working on my energy and my presence – just getting the hang of being an artist.

“I spent so many hours in the studio working that I even lost count. I spent time without dropping any music because we were working on finding my voice and coming out of my shell. It was a very important part of my career.”

“When I look back at my career, I realise Amapiano was what I needed to grow and evolve as an artist”

Amapiano is quite a young genre, in that it has not necessarily been around for as long as some other African music genres out there. How did you first discover it?

“I discovered [the genre] in late 2018. I had just met [producer] DJ Maphorisa, and he really has a gift of just knowing what is going to be big. He was already bumping the sound, so when I listened to it I knew it was fire. It was just so crazy. I listened to it more and more, and it grew on me. Eventually, I knew I had to jump on this. It was exactly what I needed to be creating. When I look back at my career, I realise Amapiano was what I needed to grow and evolve as an artist. This is the music that I embraced as being Sha Sha.”

sha sha artist
Credit: Press

Winning a BET award must have been such a memorable moment in your career. What did it mean for you?

“It was so unexpected. At the time I had just dropped my EP [2019’s ‘Blossom’] and was still working towards that type of recognition and success. So, when I heard I was nominated? I could not believe it. I told my colleagues, “You must be joking”. I was so excited about the nomination, but I thought that’s where it would end because I didn’t think I would win it. Me? Win? That was a whole different level of joy and happiness. It was insane.”

You were also the first Zimbabwean artist ever to win the award…

“Isn’t it crazy to think about that? I remember after I won, people back home reached out  to share how proud they were of me. And when I went back [to Zimbabwe] on tour, the love I received was just insane. It was a very beautiful moment.”

sha sha artist
Credit: Press

In recent years, the biggest genre to come out of Africa has been Afrobeats, yet Amapiano is starting to gain exposure, and is becoming a clear rival. Do you think it could ever be bigger than Afrobeats? 

“I feel like it might be at a par, because Afrobeat is so timeless. That genre evolves and morphs into all these different sounds which are the same in Amapiano. They can both live at the same time. I know people will be against this, but both [genres] have that same element of being timeless. And with Amapiano, more and more people are jumping on to the sound. Imagine if J Balvin was on an Amapiano track? It will continue to grow, but for now, both genres can exist together.”

Amapiano is steadily growing outside South Africa, with a growing popularity across the globe. What do you think is attracting this audience?

“It has to be the vibe! You cannot resist Amapiano. When you hear that beat, you feel the energy. It is impossible to just sit still and look pretty. No, you have to get up and move. It is so contagious.”

The past few years have really been about ‘Amapiano to the world’. Do you think interest in the genre has peaked, or is it still growing?

“There was a point when people back at home actually thought [Amapiano] was going to fade away, and that the hype would eventually die down. But like I said before, the genre keeps morphing into different sounds and keeps growing. Amapiano is not going away – it is here to stay.”

Sha Sha’s debut album ‘I’m Alive’ will be released on September 23