How Johannesburg's Young Black Artists Are Shaping The Future They Want
Twenty-four years after Mandela’s election, South Africa’s first post-apartheid generation is now coming of age.
Mthembeni Ndevu clamped onto the wheel of his black Mercedes GLE truck and mashed on the gas with reckless abandon, periodically reaching toward the backseat to grab a double cup of codeine mixed with Mountain Dew. The 25-year-old rapper known as eMTee was driving down Johannesburg’s M1 highway toward Soweto, and I was scared for my life.
I couldn’t see the speedometer from my seat, but judging from the trees and cars whipping past, we were damn close to the 100mph mark. From time to time, he’d feel around the overhead console for a new pair of sunglasses, swapping between his dark shades and a circular yellow pair that complimented his baby blue tee and pink cap. At one point he took a call.
A native of Soweto, Johannesburg’s biggest township, eMTee is one of South Africa’s most popular emcees. He’s signed to Ambitiouz Entertainment, one of South Africa’s leading labels for rising rap artists; labelmates Sjava and Saudi recently appeared on the Kendrick Lamar–curated soundtrack for Black Panther. He’s known for his uniquely South African take on trap music, a genre he uses on songs like “Manando” and “No More” to describe things specific to his township upbringing, like losing a friend who taught him how to play marimba to gun violence or witnessing smash-and-grabs as a kid. After spending time with him, though, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his biggest influence, both musically and culturally, is American hip-hop.
eMTee started writing raps as a child—back “when Bow Wow was popular,” he said, and around the same time he fell in love with basketball and wearing Jordans. In 2008, he released his debut mixtape, called The Introduction, which helped him gain a name around his township. Though he lived over 8,000 miles away from his heroes, eMTee says hip-hop liberated him from abject poverty and was the only music that spoke directly to the realities of growing up in Soweto.
“I got on the trap wave and I rolled with it because this shit talks about what we go through,” he told me. “Just in a different way: My nigga’s auntie not selling dope, but she’s selling alcohol. I don’t have a trap house, but I got a shack. That’s the African trap movement.”
Today eMTee is a platinum-selling artist who lives in Midrand, a quiet suburb of Johannesburg 25 miles from Soweto. His house is decked out with a drive-in garage, a recording studio, and multiple paintings of himself on the walls. Still, the world where he grew up never seems very far away. As we entered Soweto, eMTee directed my attention to the view from the car’s left side. “You see those shacks?” He pointed to the multicolored line of barely standing homes in the near distance. “Every time I see those shacks I get angry. These white folks, man. They done fucked the world up.”
Johannesburg is a city divided, intentionally. Under South Africa’s apartheid regime, the government forcibly displaced millions of black citizens in order to enforce its ideology of racial segregation. The Group Areas Act of 1950 designated specific residential and business zones for each race in urban areas; in Johannesburg, blacks were moved out of the inner city and into townships like Soweto, which were miles away from many people’s places of employment in the city’s Central Business District.
Apartheid officially ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, but its legacy remains. The country was recently named one of the most unequal countries in the world by the World Bank. An earlier study from 2014 found that nearly 60 percent of the country’s unemployed citizens lived in townships, which are still overwhelmingly black. According to a 2016 economic working paper, the top 10 percent of the country (which is disproportionately white) controls at least 90 percent of the national wealth, while a majority black 80 percent owns virtually nothing.
My trip to Johannesburg, South Africa’s most populous city, coincided with the city’s first edition of Afropunk, a festival in Brooklyn that has grown over the years into a congregational space for black creatives with installments in Atlanta, London, and Paris. Afropunk’s arrival on the African continent held a special resonance: it gave many black people living in different corners of the world a curated introduction to their ancestral place of origin.
“I got on the trap wave and I rolled with it because this shit talks about what we go through,” he told me. “Just in a different way: My nigga’s auntie not selling dope, but she’s selling alcohol. I don’t have a trap house, but I got a shack. That’s the African trap movement.”
Mostly, though, I was there to explore the connections between the black experience in South Africa and the black experience back home, and how young black artists on both sides of the pond are responding their traumatic subjugation under people of European decent. Twenty-four years after Mandela’s election, South Africa’s first post-apartheid generation is now coming of age; they are able to choose what to study at university, and to express themselves creatively without the strict censorship laws that harried their predecessors. I wanted to find out how artists in Johannesburg were shaping the city’s present, and grappling with its turbulent political past.
Under apartheid, artists protested against the country’s racial disparities, but they had to be calculated about their delivery. In the 1950s, black musical artists were outspoken about their oppression. Activist and singer Vuyisile Mini wrote a song in the 50s whose lyrics translate to “behold the advancing blacks.” (Mini was executed by the government in 1964 for political crimes.) As apartheid continued, increasingly strict censorship laws drove artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela into exile, where they could express themselves freely. Artists who stayed home coded the language in their songs of protest so they wouldn’t be banned. An international boycott of the apartheid regime, supported by the UN, also shaped the country’s music scene.
On the surface, the South African industry is different now: In 1997, Universal Music Group launched its South African branch, which has become a home to mainstream black South African musicians, most recently rising rapper Nasty C. Prominent local labels like Ambitiouz and Family Tree have signed some of the country’s most promising rap artists. The Black Panther soundtrack—which featured four South African artists, in addition to others from throughout the African diaspora—has afforded international exposure to the local hip-hop scene, and artists like Black Coffee and Die Antwoord have made names for themselves across the globe. But the local artists I spoke to said they felt like international record companies, instead of trying to nurture South African artists, set up shop to push international acts onto the country.
South African artists, no matter how big their following online, still struggle to get the airtime they need to expand their fan bases at home. In 2016, the South African Broadcasting Corporation announced it would adopt a 90 percent South African music quota for its radio stations, but the implementation was widely considered a failure and soon reversed by the SABC. According to artists and young people I spoke with in Johannesburg, stations faded right back into playing majority international music after showing a few months of promise. German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that one station abandoned the 90 percent quota within two weeks.
“That’s still a struggle that we’re under,” eMTee told me. “Not so long ago, they promised us 90 percent local music and all we hear is American music.”
Faced with this lack of support from the mainstream music industry, local artists are forced to create their own platforms.
On New Year's Eve, a few nights before meeting with eMTee, I circled around Ellis Park Indoor Arena trying to find The Tennis Club, a venue tucked inside of the large sports complex. Eventually, my Uber driver realized that we should try entering the park’s gates, which led us down a dark roadway to a huge tennis court. Once inside, I wondered if I’d arrived at the right location, but a woman behind the counter directed me upstairs to an open space with glass windows that looked out onto the tennis court below. Scattered groups of people drank and talked amongst themselves. Judging by the preppy-looking, majority-white crowd—some dressed in polo shirts and khaki shorts—I got the sense that not everyone was there to see Moonchild Sanelly like me.
“This is the after-after- after-hours spot,” said Lady Skollie, a local visual artist and DJ, who detected me sizing the place up. Clad in a bright red kufi and Nike training gear, she was sitting in a booth packed with about seven other people, taking a few moments to relax before her set later that night. To her left was Moonchild, whom I recognized from her big blue hair. She was going over her setlist with her boyfriend and DJ, discussing which song would make the most sense before the New Year countdown.
Twenty minutes before midnight, Moonchild stepped onstage wearing a see-through plastic dress with fishnet stockings. After the crowd erupted in cheers and toasted glasses of champagne, she jumped into a rendition of her standout single “Thirsty,” which pairs Moonchild’s light voice with the forceful, high-octane sounds of gqom, a South African club music that originated in Durban in the mid 2000s and is now breaking ground beyond the country’s borders. During the shortened screams worked into the song’s hook, she hopped on top of the DJ table, simultaneously twerking while bellowing bars that switched between English and Xhosa. The energy was so high I forgot for a second that there were fewer than 50 people in the space.
“I’m the only black girl and electronic musician in the white spaces that gets respected and gets main stage and headlines,” Moonchild explained over drinks the following night.
Born Sanelisiwe Twisha in the small city of Port Elizabeth, Moonchild went to college in Durban. While studying fashion, she immersed herself in the local poetry, hip-hop, and jazz scenes, but soon grew bored. Like many young people looking to make a career in music, she moved to Joburg, the most bustling city in the country and home to a growing creative class of young black artists.
“It’s where you make the money,” she said frankly. “You come here with direction. If you don’t, you’re fucked.”
Shortly after she arrived in the city, she decided to put more fun into her music, incorporating electronic, pop, and afro fusion. “In like 2007, the producer I was working with was dope,” she remembered. “I’d say, ‘I see robots. I see red beam lights. I see a cop car. I see crazy eyes.’ So then he’d tried to give me a beat in that space.”
Moonchild’s online following may be relatively small, but she’s been strategically making advances into South Africa’s mainstream, collaborating with some of the country’s biggest gqom and afropop producers, like Durban trio Rude Boyz and Pretoria native Maphorisa. And not just in South Africa. Moonchild has played SXSW in Austin and Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, and is currently working on a gqom EP with Red Bull.
As a music artist, Moonchild embodies a message of sexual liberation for women, which she says earns her praise from fans. But those efforts have also proved polarizing within the local music industry. From her perspective, gatekeepers in the scene tend to be conservative when it comes to women expressing themselves freely. “I’ve gotten rejected deals because I’m being provocative,” she told me. “There’s been so many festivals that have dropped me. But fuck that shit. I will make it happen.”
“I think often times black South Africans have an inferiority complex in comparison to African Americans or black British. South African hip-hop isn’t as well developed as the American hip-hop industry. There’s this desire we have to participate on a grander scale.”- Zandi Tisani
Though Moonchild says moving to Joburg was instrumental to her career, many of the other young artists I spoke to told me the scene can sometimes feel more competitive than supportive.
“Johannesburg is in a weird place right now, where everyone is gunning for success and everyone is trying to get there first,” said Dominique Soma, a local events organizer. “I think there’s a crab-in-a-barrel mentality where people would rather pull each other down than help each other get to the next level.”
Area artists recommended I talk to Soma as one of the most crucial figures in the city’s music scene. She owns a record shop with her partner, and for over a decade has organized hip-hop shows at venues as small as neighborhood bars and as large as festival grounds.
When Soma got into the business In the early-to-mid 2000s, South Africa’s hip-hop scene was booming. While the US was entering the beginning stages of its trap wave, artists in SA were still focused on the genre’s boom bap sound and DJ culture. Miss Nthabi was a trailblazer for women in the scene; “Reality Check,” the first song she ever recorded, got play on national radio, which is remarkable even by today’s standards for a debut. Skwatta Kamp, a seven-man rap group from Soweto, resonated with the public by using their music to report on the country’s lopsided struggle with poverty—which black South Africans still endured the vast majority of, a decade after apartheid ended. In 2003, they became the first South African rap act to have an album be certified gold (which at the time required selling 25,000 units in the country), with their sophomore effort, Mkhukhu Funkshen.
In 2007, Soma and a former partner founded the Back to the City Festival, an event dedicated to breaking South African hip-hop artists that takes place every year on April 27, Freedom Day, a national holiday to commemorate the 1994 election. It now hosts up to 25,000 attendees, and has given platinum-selling rappers like AKA and Cassper Nyovest—also known as Mr. Fill Me Up, for packing out Soweto’s 40,000-capacity Orlando Stadium—their start. Soma left the festival in 2010. A few years later, she founded WeHeartBeat, a music agency that nurtures beatmakers of all stripes and has brought international acts like Soulection and Masego to the country.
Artists like AKA and Nasty C have recently signed record or distribution deals with the South African branches of international labels like Universal Music Group and Sony Music. But they haven't matched the reach of Cape Town rap duo Die Antwoord, who over the past decade have netted a deal with Interscope Records, collaborations with Diplo, and live sets at Coachella. Their success has come with controversy. Ninja and Yolandi Visser are Afrikaners, a white South African ethnic group descended primarily from Dutch settlers, and they have boasted in interviews that racism in the country had mostly faded away, and more frequently came from black South Africans toward whites. They have also been accused of regularly appropriating black South African cultures, like the Xhosa. So while Die Antwoord have been by far the most successful at crossing over to the American market, to many black South Africans I spoke with, they do not represent a win for the country, nor the reality for most local artists.
“I think it’s the feeling of being so insular and so far away from the rest of the world, that we kind of feel like we’re this little island doing its own thing by itself,” local filmmaker and television writer Zandi Tisani told me. “I think oftentimes black South Africans have an inferiority complex in comparison to African Americans or black British. South African hip-hop isn’t as well developed as the American hip-hop industry. There’s this desire we have to participate on a grander scale.”
Domonique Soma is concerned that the relative newness of the industry will open up Johannesburg to outsiders who can take advantage of the groundwork she and others have tirelessly laid. “WeHeartBeat has been running a New Year’s Eve party for the past four years in Johannesburg at The Tennis Club,” she explained. Soma rescheduled her party due to the threat of Afropunk dominating local entertainment that weekend. “With Afropunk being on the same day, obviously we would never get the same amount of people. It’s concerning.” It also seemed a likely explanation for why the turnout for Moonchild at the Tennis Club looked so low.
Building the local scene is Soma’s life work, but some artists have found it necessary to find a community in the outside world.
Twenty-seven-year-old Petite Noir, born Yannick Illunga, considers himself to be an outlier to the scene. His family is originally from the Congo but left in the early 90s, after the Congolese government fell. Petite was born in Belgium, and briefly lived in France and the Ivory Coast as a young child before settling in Cape Town, South Africa’s capital and second-largest city behind Joburg.
“I’ve been on the move my whole life,” he said over lunch in the city’s Maboneng precinct, a bustling neighborhood where young creatives live and work. “We had to move. Otherwise we would have been killed. So that mentality of being a refugee—even though I hate using that word—has forced me to think this way.”
Petite was 22 years old when, feeling that he needed to branch out in order to really give music a go, he moved to London. “Because I didn’t really fit in any way, I thought maybe I’ll just go overseas or something. So I started sending my music to different people and they were like, come to London. My career took off there.”
His music is a compelling mix of indie rock and soukous, a Congolese dance music that incorporates elements of folk, soul, and rumba, which he believes means his music will never be mainstream anywhere. Still, that striking fusion of sounds has earned him collaborations with international artists like Danny Brown and Solange.
“For me, it was always about creating something completely new. And not being from here—I don’t have that mentality of a local person.”
Together with his wife, Rharha, whom he married in 2017, he’s created his own collective and way of life: Noirwave, a borderless philosophy for creative immigrants of any nation that emphasizes building your own world over trying to fit in one that already exists. In music videos and photos, Petite and his wife appear within a futuristic black utopia that isn’t clearly tied to any contemporary land. “You have to sort of create this world,” he said. “There’s nowhere in the world where I can actually fit in.”
Last summer, uninspired by London, he relocated to Joburg to record new music and to lay low until figuring out what his next move will be. “I’ve had a plan in mind that I’m gonna make it no matter what,” he said.
“Living here has taught me that in Joburg, they don’t say ‘gentrification.’ They say ‘urban rejuvenation,’ and I think that whole choosing of the words to describe the same thing is hilarious.”
In ways, Petite’s approach of navigating between worlds mirrors that of Black Coffee, a Durban-raised producer and DJ who has emerged over the years as South Africa’s biggest dance music export. For more than a decade, he’s been a household name in the country for joining house elements with the global appeal of jazz. Now his name is recognizable to the bulk of dance music fans across the globe. In 2017, he began his first residency at the prestigious electronic music venue Hi Ibiza in Spain, recognized by many as the mecca for dance music. Over the past few years, he’s collaborated with international pop stars, making the official remix to Alicia Keys’ “In Common” and having his 2010 “Superman” track sampled for Drake’s “Get It Together.” In 2016, Black Coffee was also the first South African to receive a BET Award. Occupying these different levels of the music world makes him an anomaly, but also an example of how branching out to various markets can be vital for South African artists.
The desire to shape a new future through creativity extends beyond Johannesburg’s music scene. Lady Skollie occasionally DJs, but today she works primarily in the city's visual arts scene. On paper sometimes as big as ten feet by 16 feet, Skollie uses ink and crayon to honor her Khoisan (the people indigenous to South Africa) lineage and to touch on the marginalization of South African women. Her work often deals with struggles particular to the coloured community—a multiracial group that was defined separately from black or white South Africans under apartheid—in Cape Town, where she grew up, and how that identity intersects with gender.
In one of her painted works called Passion Gap: a self portrait of the artist wrestling with her daddy issues; reaching misguidedly for the validation of men , two four-armed women with looks of exhaustion stretch into a dark starry sky. A similar piece titled Vroeg ryp, Vroeg vrot: in various stages of ripening, being ripe, being ready, being consumed and nothingness , shows discarded fruit floating along that same backdrop.
Skollie often draws from social experiences for inspiration. “Two weeks ago, I went to the strip club with a friend of mine and these guys came from the front, like, ‘Give me your phone,’ and I took a massive knife out and was like, ‘This phone?’ His soul left his body and my friend fly-kicked him,” she said. “I think Joburg made my work way more violent. It made me consider my own wellbeing more.”
Despite those anxieties, Skollie can afford to lead the lifestyle she desires in Johannesburg and be surrounded by ambitious young people like herself. “When I use to visit Joburg, I’d stay here for like a month and I realized there were a lot of black people here with disposable income that are my age,” she said. “It’s also one of the youngest cities in Africa. That newness and that energy to push to make things, and to get what you want—it's always beneficial to be here.”
Located just outside of the city’s CBD, Skollie’s Maboneng neighborhood is known for being an affordable haven for a young and diverse group of people wanting a curated urban lifestyle. In press, the precinct has been compared to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, but hosts a much larger population of color. According to a 2016 census conducted by Propertuity, a company that owns much of the property in Maboneng, 66 percent of the precinct’s tenants are black, while 22 percent are white, and 8 percent are Indian. Diversity in property ownership is distributed between 47 percent white, 27 percent black, and 14 percent Indian.
Maboneng was masterminded ten years ago by a then 24-year-old developer named Jonathan Liebmann, the founder and CEO of Propertuity. The company saw an opportunity to capitalize on the area’s wealth of warehouses and factories, many of them abandoned in the years following the end of apartheid as black South Africans flooded back into the city and white business owners relocated their companies to the northern suburbs. Liebmann took advantage of the decrepit area by buying buildings and renovating them into live-and-work spaces for artists, cafes, and restaurants, drawing an influx of young people to the area, hoping to make inner-city Joburg their new home. But, as gentrification goes, the construction of Maboneng is driving rent up and as a result, forcing some into homelessness.
“Maboneng is a place of contradictions,” Skollie said. “It’s this weird architecture of poverty on the fringes and new money in the center.” For her, the precinct is a beautiful mixture of Joburg’s beauty and chaos wrapped into one. “Living here has taught me that in Joburg, they don’t say ‘gentrification.’ They say ‘urban rejuvenation,’ and I think that whole choosing of the words to describe the same thing is hilarious.”
While in Joburg, I made contact with Shruthi Nair, who had worked with Propertuity since 2010. “It may seem like we just want to build,” she explained over the phone. “But if you've been through the neighborhood, you'll see there is a slight difference between us and developers who want to just build and move.”
When I asked her about the public’s concern for Maboneng hiking up prices in the area, Nair responded that Propertuity offers options to people of all income brackets. "The criticism is needed because Joburg has special politics and weighted history. You have to understand, this country is still about black and white, but it's also about rich and poor,” she said, breaking down the precinct’s tenant diversity. “People get it wrong by thinking it's based on income to live here. Our rent spans from 2,000 to 20,000 ZAR [$158-$1,578 USD].” That R2,000 figure is specific to two of the company’s affordable housing buildings, which Nair estimates is 10 to 15 percent of Propertuity’s total offerings; the rest, she says, mostly rent for R3,500-4,000 or more. According to a crowd-sourced cost-of-living database, the average monthly salary in Johannesburg is currently R20,754 ($1,639 USD), while a single-bedroom apartment outside of the city center typically costs around R5,261 ($415 USD).
As gentrification continues in the city, local artists are leading more grassroots initiatives to put resources into their own communities. Domonique Soma’s work with WeHeartBeat is aimed at enriching the community by orchestrating collaboration between local and international artists. Collectives like Petite Noir’s Noirwave and NON—which was started by Nigerian-American artist Chino Amobi, London-based Nkisi, and Cape Town native Angel-Ho for artists of the African diaspora to, their website says, “articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power”—give a platform to creatives who don’t identify with any nation in particular. Even eMTee, who operates more within the traditional music industry, is giving back in his own way.
After our nerve-wracking drive down the M1, eMTee parked outside a nondescript building in his old Soweto stomping grounds. It looked like a school or hospital, but up a few flights of stairs and around the back of a building, we arrived at a pop-up shop for the sportswear brand Styla Gang, which is owned by his friends. If you ever catch him in a music video or interviews, he’s likely to be wearing their T-rex logo tees or hats—an intentional strategy to get more eyes on the brand.
Empowering one’s community by supporting their entrepreneurial efforts is a textbook principle of hip-hop culture, and in Styla Gang’s case, it’s working. Last year, Styla Gang opened this pop-up shop, won “Best Local Brand” at the South African Hip-Hop Awards, and secured a collaboration with Afropunk to design merch for the Johannesburg festival.
The overwhelming majority of young people I spoke in Johannesburg were honored to have a festival of Afropunk’s stature come to the city, but the festival’s arrival in South Africa isn’t a random act of kindness. It’s proof that the hard work of people like Domonique Soma, Petite Noir, and eMTee is paying off, turning Johannesburg is a potential hotspot for brands to claim their stake in.
“A lot of us have been laying down the foundation and it’s only because of that foundation that organizations like Afropunk are able to come here now,” Soma told me with a tinge of frustration.
The festival is billed as a music event, but the service it provides transcends the exceptional diasporic talent put before its crowd. Over the years, it’s become a global meeting point for black people of all nations to come together and celebrate their existence, affirming their beauty and individuality while celebrating their togetherness.
The Joburg edition of the festival, which took place at the city’s Constitution Hill during New Year’s weekend, included local artists like Petite Noir, Nakhane Touré, and Thandiswa Mazwai. On the surface, it looked similar to other Afropunks in Brooklyn, Atlanta, London, or Paris, with people dressed in outfits that seemed to be from 2050 and dreads that were done up into horns. Still, its sheer presence on African soil provided a much more enriching experience. People walked up to me recognizing my Africanness before my Americanness, assuming, from my appearance, that I was straight from Ghana—a needed reminder that, as a black American, I don’t always consider my genetic ties to the West African region in particular. Having these encounters with black people from South Africa, Brazil, London, and elsewhere elevated the feeling of a genuine black utopia tenfold.
Zandi Tisani, the local filmmaker, said the festival is a step in the right direction for young black creatives, globally. “The more we create a conversation around blackness across the diaspora,” she said, “the more we’ll have that kind of exchange and the better I think it’ll be for culture here.”
But the reality is that those two days at Constitution Hill are not everyday life for the vast majority of South Africans. Of the elaborate looks people were wearing, Tisani observed, “Women don’t usually feel that comfortable being dressed that way in Johannesburg without being bothered.” South African artists are unlikely to play in front of a crowd as massive as Afropunk’s on a regular basis, and the fight for regular play on the radio is still ongoing—not to mention regular employment for black citizens, creative or otherwise.
What Afropunk did affirm is that South Africa, and Johannesburg in particular, is a place that the rest of the world is paying attention to. By positing as an alternative reality, however fleeting, it also affirms the value of creating a world that caters to your needs instead of existing in a world that thrives off of taking from you. The most promising prospect of this cultural shift is that now, as the American mainstream enters a new phase of looking outside of its own borders to see where global culture is headed, Johannesburg’s artists have a greater chance of their messages traveling farther than they’ve ever been allowed to go.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.
Andile Buka is a photographer based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Instagram.