How Amapiano Conquered The World
How Amapiano Conquered The WorldMay 3, 2022
In just a few years, the genre known as Amapiano has gone from a local South African trend to an international phenomenon, finding its way onto dance floors across the globe thanks to widely recognized artists like DBN Gogo, Focalistic, Major League DJz, and more.
To celebrate the creation of Beatport’s new Amapiano genre page, we take a deep dive into the sound’s history and evolution — presented in partnership with the Black Artist Database.
Start exploring Beatport’s new Amapiano genre page here.
Since the 1980s, South Africa has been a hub for electronic and dance music — from “bubblegum”/township pop to kwaito, bacardi, soulful, deep, tribal, Afro house, gqom, Afro tech, and many other variations in between. Each generation has pioneered a new subgenre that emerges either locally, or one imported and adapted for the local market. Amapiano, or “‘piano” as it is affectionately known, is the country’s latest explosive take on house music.
“Amapiano is a form of expression and getaway for the youth of South Africa,” shares DJ/producer duo Major League DJz. “It expresses the struggles and enjoyments that the youth go through on a daily basis. The music, dances and style is a way for them to showcase to anyone that cares to watch the pure essence being youth in South Africa.”
Debates about the genre’s exact origins are ongoing, but most artists generally agree that it was born in the townships of Johannesburg and Pretoria in the country’s Gauteng province around 2012. Much like its predecessors, amapiano was initially a byproduct of the manipulation of house tracks, through slowing them down to a lower BPM.
As an unorthodox offshoot of soulful and deep house in its infancy, many purists used to shun the sound and its sonics. Some argue that the term “amapiano” arose to mock the squeaky piano/organ solos and licks that were omnipresent in the genre’s early days. Before the name stuck, fans of the sound used to refer to it as i-number (which loosely translates to a ‘great track’).
Against the odds, amapiano became popular around the neighbourhoods of Katlehong, Soweto, Vosloorus and Alexandra. And soon after, forward-thinking producers began to craft their own syncopated, mid-to-down tempo broken beats. The compositions were often underpinned by rattling shakers, luminous synths, throbbing percussion, jazzy chord progressions and woozy basslines.
DJ/production duo MFR Souls (Maero and Force Reloaded, who are widely regarded as the genre’s pioneers) then became known not only for their seminal Musical Experiences mix series and performances (which included live keyboard improvisations), but for their original compositions as well. Alongside them were other equally talented and inventive producers such as Calvin Fallo, Josiah De Disciple, Gaba Cannal, Kota Embassy, and Kabza De Small.
Photo: Major League DJz by Young Stilo
Through local venues and events, amapiano became the soundtrack of the township during the mid-2010s. DJ Stokie, who is hailed as being one of the DJs to popularise the genre, used to travel between townships collecting to buy music directly from producers. In addition to playing these exclusive songs at shows, he also made mixtapes (CD mixes) which he sold to eager fans. Mixtapes, together with DIY, peer-to-peer methods, YouTube and file sharing sites, is how the music was distributed earlier on.
The release of the House Afrika-curated compilation Amapiano Volume 1 in 2016 marked the beginning of the commercialization of the genre, as it was widely available on all digital streaming platforms (DSPs). A handful of acts then followed suit, and mainstream media and the general public gradually started paying attention.
By 2019, amapiano had evolved to include the now-customary pulsating log drum (credited to have been first introduced by Mdu aka TRP) as its core bassline, and had scored national hits in Kabza De Small’s “Umshove,” JazziDisciples’ “Long Lasting,” De Mthuda’s “Shesha,” Vigro Deep’s “Untold Stories,” and Kwiish SA’s “Iskhathi,” amongst others.
Signature dance moves like the “pouncing cat” and the phrase “amapiano is a lifestyle” went viral. The music won over the hearts of many South Africans and became part of popular youth and urban culture. More tracks blew up, more names emerged, and the genre began to dominate.
Fast forward to the early 2020s, and amapiano is undoubtedly the biggest genre in the country. It’s been ruling the streaming charts and is highly popular on social media platforms. ‘Piano is inescapable, and even creators of other genres have been incorporating its elements into their sound.
Ask any ‘piano enthusiast what they love most about amapiano and many will tell you it’s because it “doesn’t have gatekeepers.” Most often, the streets deem what they feel is hot or not. Any burgeoning act or talented up and comer can score a hit, almost overnight. For instance, DJ Karri was a little-known artist before his single “Trigger” took off. He, together with the other producers of the song, join names like Q-Mark & TpZee (“Paris”), Sfarzo Rtee (“Tales”), Nkulee501 & Skroef28 (“Sgija”), Unlimited Soul (“Break Through”), Yumbs (“Vula Mlomo”), TNK Musiq (“Bells”), Musketeers (“Danko”), Djy Zan SA (“Century”), ReaDaSoul (“Tick”) and many others who have received looks and co-signs in the past few months.
With many artists opting to operate independently, distribution companies like Ingrooves’ Electromode, Africori and Platoon have been home to some of the genre’s mainstays. As of late, though, major record companies have increased their market share and control. Sony has inked deals with DJ Maphorisa’s New Money Gang Records, Mr JazziQ’s Black Is Brown Entertainment, and Kabza De Small’s PianoHub, which are influential stables renowned for churning out hits and providing a stepping stone for emerging talent. Universal recently signed DBN Gogo, and has De Mthuda and DJ Stokie in their roster.
Amapiano has unlocked many ways for the youth of South Africa to express themselves, providing opportunities for everyone from curators and compilers to dancers and club and event promoters. Today, there are hardly any venues or spots that don’t play ‘piano or cater to ‘piano lovers.
The prominence of amapiano has also directly improved and changed the lives of the artists who mostly come from middle-to-low-income backgrounds. Initially, they were paid with alcohol or exposure — the industry sidelined them. Today they are getting paid gigs, endorsements, better studio equipment, houses, designer clothes, expensive cars, and most importantly, are being recognised and appreciated for their talents and art.
Photo: AMA Festival by Kamo Mphela
Like the pantsula dance with kwaito music, sbhujwa with house and ibheng with gqom, dancing forms an integral part of amapiano culture and movement. “Dancers have contributed to a lot of songs going viral because of the dance moves around them,” says Pabi Cooper, who started out as a dancer before becoming a fully-fledged artist. “Most of the challenges and routines I’ve made on my TikTok page have landed on the discover page, and it made the songs trend. One of the reasons why my songs are big is because of TikTok and my following on Instagram.”
Music is a reflection of society and amapiano lyrics, which are often in South African vernacular languages and dialects, detail stories and narrations about partying, fun, life, love, beauty, struggle, pain, and various other themes that are explored with no limitations.
Though the inclusion of vocals increased the genre’s popularity in recent years, amapiano still remains a producer-driven genre. The producers are also DJs/artists, and are often acknowledged by vocalists and credited as a featured artist on the collaborations they work on. This collaborative nature and selfless spirit is where much of the movement’s power lies. As producers continuously spearhead the genre, they, in turn, morph it into various sonic facets and make it wide-ranging. Today’s amapiano songs sound nothing like those from three-plus years ago.
Photo: Pabi Cooper by Sfundo “Ok” Majozi
In some songs, saxophone riffs, guitar strums, and soulful, loungey sounds take precedence. This iteration is commonly referred to as “private school amapiano.” In the South African context, private schools are presumed to be more sophisticated and expensive, making them less “mainstream.” Producer/DJ Kelvin Momo has been heralded as one of the frontrunners of private school ‘piano; his last two releases, Momo’s Private School and Ivy League, were well received and have amassed millions of streams.
Over the past year, production duo Mellow & Sleazy have been at the helm of making what’s known as ‘bacardi house’-influenced amapiano. “Rekere” or “nkwari,” as they refer to it, is characterised by distorted, hard-hitting percussion, which is characterised by whistles, siren shrills, brittle snares and wobbly, euphoric synths. These two styles sit on opposite spectrums of the sound but can still co-exist and be regarded as one.
Unlike other dance music genres, where women have been historically underrepresented, women are equally at the forefront of amapiano releasing music under their own labels and are leading DJs and vocalists. Names such as the BET award-winning Sha Sha, DBN Gogo, Kamo Mphela, Lady Du, Boohle, Pabi Cooper, TxC and Uncle Waffles have been right on top with their male counterparts. And many managers, booking agents, PR practitioners and executives who work in the scene are also women.
Photo: Abidoza by Khaya Bhengu
The coronavirus and its subsequent global lockdowns proved to be a blessing to amapiano, as its soothing, up-beat sound found new audiences around the world through platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
“Listening to amapiano and watching the dances associated with it via music videos made me fall in love with dance again,” says John Junior, the brainchild behind AMA Fest, an amapiano festival that launched in 2021 with events in the UK and Ghana. “It was this excitement that led towards the passion to be associated with the genre in the best way possible. We wanted to host a large-scale event for 5,000 people because we realised that all current events were being held for smaller pockets of amapiano music lovers, however we believed there was room for a greater platform.”
In the past two years, ‘piano has transcended beyond the borders of its birthplace and has made an impact in the UK, Europe and other major African music markets like Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. This has sparked a series of collaborations between artists and producers from these respective countries, which expanded the appeal of the sound and its lifestyle.
The continental and subsequent international interest has come with its own fair share of difference in opinions and controversies, with some people feeling like every time a major artist experiments with the sound, a South African has to be involved to protect it from being diluted. “It goes without saying that he who sows should reap but that is not always the case,” says Katlego Malatji, Head of Legal and Business Affairs at Sony Music Entertainment Africa. “Our local artists who are at the root of amapiano creation need to understand that true success will only be truly realised once they are part not only of the growth of the genre but the commercialisation thereof. If they do not proactively guide the growth, it will be done without them.”
During this period, acts such as the Major League DJz have been heavily advocating and working towards taking “‘piano to the world.” They believe that “it’s so important to export the sound because the more people love it and know about it the better it will be for the genre to stay alive, grow and evolve.”
With gigs and numerous sold out shows under their belts, amapiano artists touring and getting bookings abroad has become a norm. For John — who has 15 years working in events — and his team, it was vital to include South African DJs and performers on the line up of AMA fest as “they make up an integral part of the sound as it originated from there.”
“The global impact of ‘piano has created a few segments,” Malatji adds. “With some looking towards a bigger global picture and others holding steadfast to purism and refusing any suggestion that deviates from this. What is likely to result is that those with commercial ambition will define a new global iteration while the purists maintain local control. As global deals become more prevalent in Piano, this will play itself out more clearly.”
With the Major League DJz having just announced their signing to Atlantic Records, it appears global expansion and dominion are the next step for the genre. “In the near future I would love to see more artists become international, doing their own shows abroad,” says Abidoza. He suggests that the music will always take precedence or be bigger than individual acts, but says he hopes for the gap to be reduced.
Global icons such as Usher, Swizz Beatz, Fat Joe, Diddy and Drake have publicly shown love to the sound and its stars. There are international collaborations in the works and remixes of songs by artists such as Ed Sheeran, Masego and Jorja Smith.
“We need the youth of South Africa to know a South African genre can be played on the world stage,” adds Major League. “It just gives hope and certainty that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. We need to win Grammys for amapiano, so the kids continue to dream.”
Listen to our ‘How Amapiano Conquered the World’ chart below or check it out on Beatport.
Black Artist Database is a community-based entity, centred around their artists’ database, which hosts a wealth of Black-owned record labels, artists, producers and bands. In addition to the database, B.A.D. undertakes various projects and initiatives to uplift Black voices within the electronic music community & industry. Black Artist Database also recently launched a Creative Database hosting an even broader range of Black creative professionals across various disciplines. Find them on Instagram and Twitter.
“Listen here for a special edition of the B.A.D mix series with DJ SENHORÂ sharing the depth and breadth of South African electronic music.”
Madzadza Miya is an avid music lover, listener, observer and commentator. As a writer, he has contributed to reputable online publications, writing extensive pieces on popular African music and emerging scenes. Find him on Twitter.