What Happens When South Africa’s Gqom Underground Goes Global?

Sihle Mthembu

Disenfranchised kids and a desire to dance gave birth to the broken beats of gqom, but with the genre's ascent came drugs and major label cash-ins. We explore what's next for the scene.

It's just past 7 AM on a weekday and the taxi drivers and conductors of Durban, South Africa are hustling for the morning rush, picking up commuters from the side of the road and packing them into the city's many minibus taxis. With his fingers pointed in the air, one conductor leans out the window and issues a familiar call: "Market, Berea centre, Nanda rank." As he lists the benchmark stops on his route, his voice is engulfed in the broken beats that emanate from the taxi's speakers—all drums, no treble. I'm en route to work and an older woman in a white blouse and navy skirt is going the same way, but she refuses to get in. "I can't stand that gqom noise," she says, before she waits to flag down another ride.

Derived from the Zulu word UkuGqoma—meaning to make a persistent rhythmic thud—gqom was initially conceived to describe the process of grinding maize. Later it was utilized to define tribal drum beats, but most recently it's been appropriated by a new generation of Durban's music-makers to communicate the broken sounds that are part of gqom music's DNA. According to 26-year-old KingIce (one half of the Nakedboys and one of the scene's pioneering groups), the anatomy of the genre is complex: "People assume it's all just a mashup of broken beats and drums, but when we started this sound we made a conscious choice to do something that didn't exist before and part of that meant the tempo and the layering of the sounds had to break every rule."

In part, breaking the rules is what's getting gqom noticed—this music is the restless sound of Durban's ghettos. It is the soundtrack of panicked young people who have been rendered voiceless by an inability to get education or participate in the country's economy. Gqom unites the youth, often by showcasing how they are divided from everybody else. While older artists renounce it and South African conservatives even go so far as calling for it to be banned, younger people are embracing the genre—they are putting together events, distributing the music, and building a DIY music circuit from the ground up.

DJ Lag

When I talk to 21-year-old Lwazi Gwala, a.k.a. DJ Lag, he tells me he's run out of airtime on his phone and is trying to send some kids to go buy it at the shop near his house. Lag, who has been making gqom music since he was 16 and is the genre's experimenter-in-chief, points out: "Gqom is an escape first and foremost. If it doesn't make you dance or forget your problems then it's not gqom and that song has failed. We often felt alienated by deep house music that was slow. We are creating a sound that matches up to the way we dance and move."

Durban is a textbook example of the contradictions that exist within South Africa. While the city is currently lauded as an international travel destination, many of its youths are unemployed. In some areas, corrugated iron sheet shacks stand side by side with multimillion rand complexes with double garages and G-Class vehicles. The disparity has visibility and it's this inequality that's served as the point of departure for many artists making gqom, many of whom have grown up poor and make their beats with Fruity Loops on 64bit computers in their back rooms. According to 21-year-old Que, who is one half of the hit-making duo the Distruction Boyz, people are always surprised by the circumstances that have forced artists in the genre to innovate. "Almost every DJ and producer making gqom started in a back room in their parent's yard using cheap software and I often see a lot of the international guys are surprised by where we come from but we are not ashamed," Que explains. "We have pride in that and we have pride in our music."

Distruction Boyz shot Saaiqa Ebrahimr

Unlike previous incarnations of South African house music such as those represented by the likes of Black Coffee, DJ Oskido, and DJ Mbuso which were built on a foundation of keys, strings, and tribal drums, gqom is modern in that it is made entirely from programmed sounds. Most of the DJs working in the genre don't play any instruments—something which just a decade ago was unthinkable. This generation of kilobyte troubadours possess an entirely different kind of genius. "The primary difference between bad gqom and good gqom is the ability of the DJ to listen," says DJ Lag, "because most of us are self-taught, it's trial and error and often people try do too much, but learning to edit and pick sounds that work takes time."

Gqom is a young genre—it's first strains can be traced back to late 2009 via the broken beats that were being traded on the Durban underground. It wasn't until the Naked Boyz started doing the rounds mid-2010 that gqom not only had a name, but some faces attached to it. Since then the genre has had a string of cult hits ranging from Bhizer's Gobisiqolo (below) and the Destruction Boyz's "Shut Up and Groove" to Rudeboyz' "Mercedes Song" and Sbucardo da DJ's "Umsebenzi."

In gqom there is no singing per se—the emphasis is not on what's being said, but more how it's said. The vocals are short, repeated phrases and sentences, some appropriated from conversation and others improvised on the fly. There have even been cases where artists even use nostalgic African nursery rhymes and games, but update them to fit the debauchery of the day. "When the music started there were hardly vocals so artists noticed that people would always add their own vocals and sing stuff in the club," says KingIce. "When the DJs saw that, the music changed and vocals became an important part of the genre."

Gqom also taps into the oral tradition of call and response. It's not uncommon for artists to layer the vocals and then leave some bars empty for the crowd to repeat what's being said. The music is deliberately open-ended for the audience to insert themselves. In the clubs this creates an infectious, ceremonial feel where DJ and crowd merge, improvising purely from shared joy. That's the thing about gqom, it doesn't end when the DJ makes a beat, rather, when the song is done, that's where the music begins.

Nakedboys shot by Tseliso Monaheng

However something else has also inserted itself into gqom culture. Of course dance music and ecstasy have had a many decades long international love affair, but in the townships that surround the city such as Inanda, Clermont, and Lamontville, gqom is also the soundtrack to drug binges. Here, the different strains of ecstasy have peculiar names that  evoke the surreal—superman, rice, and Zeus are just three that stick out. It's not unusual for partygoers "top up," popping enough pills to maintain their high for an entire weekend. "It's unfortunate that gqom has been so associated with the drug culture cause that is not what we're all about," points out Que. "But it's also true that those things happen so you have to take the bad with the good. It boils down to personal choice and you can't hold artists at gunpoint for the decisions other people make when they wanna have fun."

Critics of gqom have been quick to lash out at artists in the genre, insinuating that the music encourages the use of psychedelics, meanwhile the exponential popularity of the music has also meant that police crackdowns are now part of the cost of doing business. But it's not just the club owners that are getting push back: self-proclaimed gqom queen Babes Wodumo (who rose to fame for her Destruction Boyz-produced hit "Wololo") recently had her song "Mercedes" banned from national radio because listeners complained it encouraged drug use among her young fans. An infectious minimalist mix of gqom drums and offbeat breaks and glitches, Mercedes is also the name of a popular Durban brand of ecstasy that's left at least four teens dead and 32 others in hospital since the start of 2016. Babes has denied that the song is about the drug, insisting it's about the car she wants to buy her father. How true that is remains unclear.

The rise of gqom has caught record companies and promoters by surprise. The insular nature of the way the music is made and promoted makes it difficult to track. Typically, if a gqom track becomes a hit, its architects will often remain anonymous. Because of the DIY nature of the scene, the genre is completely disconnected from the South African music economy. The music is often distributed from hand to hand, via bootlegged CDs, bluetooth on phones and shared on whatsapp groups made up of fans of the genre. As a result it's been tough for labels to cash in, but that doesn't stop them scrambling. "A lot of people now want to cash in on gqom and exploit the culture and it's good for artists who have been hustling to get money in their pockets," says Massive Q, one third of production trio the Rudeboyz. "But we also need to protect the culture and the music. Cause if we don't what we've built will be exploited and die out fast."

Some compilation DJs have also seen a gap in the often disorganized noise that is the gqom music scene. These DJs help curate the sound, making it accessible to outsiders who want to sample the best the genre has to offer. One such compiler is Ben Myster, the creator of the Gqom Fridays initiative. Each week he puts together a selection of the hottest gqom tracks and mixes to share online. He is trying to bring gqom to an audience that enjoys the music outside of the confines of Durban. "I started as a fan of the genre but noticed there wasn't anywhere that I could find a single curated source of the best new music," Myster explains. "So I just tried to fill that gap and what has been interesting is seeing the artistic progression of artists week after week as well as seeing new guys come through and blow the scene always. It's amazing."

Last year Italian label Gqom Oh! released a sampler of gqom for the European market. According to KingIce however the attention the music's getting abroad is bittersweet. "We are shut out and ignored a lot in our own country and that can be disheartening," he says. "Seeing the love we get overseas yet we can barely get radio play or interviews in our on radio stations, it's a hard pill to swallow. We have to blow up outside and then later will South Africa love us."

Que also raises another point: "It can hurt you to sign to a label too early because you haven't refined your sound and it just stifles your creativity," he says. "We are lucky to have found links and mentors outside the genre that are helping us navigate the music industry. So now the plans are becoming bigger and we are not just thinking about releasing mixes we are building Destruction Boyz into a credible brand."

DJ Lag shot by Georg Gatsas

The DJs and artists at the core of the genre now find themselves at an artistic impasse. The continued explosion of gqom in the South African mainstream means that they face a brave new world. One in which they have a choice to either stay local and be relevant to their core audience or branch out and seek success and expansion further afield. DJ Lag has chosen the latter. Working with London-based label and DJ collective Goon Club Allstars, Lag is now making electronic music that is informed by gqom, but not confined to it. "I think working with artists who are in different headspaces opens you up artistically and it has definitely challenged me over the last year," he says. "I feel like I am ready to take it to another level and I am just inspired by seeing my peers do the same."

The change in Lag is visible, since he's stepped outside of gqom the image is sharper and the output consistent. With his new found connects he's already released a four track EP titled GCA006 and there are further plans to release more music. But right now, well, he isn't thinking about that, he just wants to recharge his phone.

Sihle Mthembu is a writer living in Durban. Follow him on Twitter.