While sub-Saharan Africa acquainted itself with the mundanity of lockdown last year, amapiano music travelled across the continent. With smooth rhythms and pleasing melodies, the genre provided a soothing listening experience to people going through a lot of confusion and uncertainty.
Mutating from the Johannesburg-born genre kwaito, amapiano (which translates from Zulu to “the pianos”) originated from areas in South Africa like Mamelodi, Soshanguve and Ga-Rankuwa in the early 2010s. The genre gained popularity in the latter half of the decade, thanks to the work of DJ Maphorisa, young hybridisers like Vigro Deep and Tyler ICU, and super-producer Kabza De Small. Tracks such as Vigro’s Blue Monday, Kamo Mphela’s Nkulunkulu, and Kabza’s Sponono represent amapiano at its best.
In West Africa, producers like Rexxie, Altims and Niphkeys have merged the amapiano’s bright piano chords with the infectious bounce of Afropop music, crafting euphoric anthems that have made African music lovers pine for the dancefloor and the days of live music. Now, with much of the continent opening up back up, ampiano artists see an opportunity to flourish.
Check out the new work of ampiano icons DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small, alongside other key African releases, below.
The Scorpion Kings and Tresor – Folasade
Fusing deep house with elements of jazz, airy synths and wavy basslines, amapiano has navigated its way from the townships of Johannesburg to become the sound of the moment. While the influence of the sub-genre exploded across sub-Saharan Africa in 2020, the blueprint for its execution remains decidedly South African and super-producers DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small – collectively known as The Scorpion Kings – remain at the forefront of the culture.
Joined on their latest album, Rumble In The Jungle, by Congo-born South African vocalist Tresor, The Scorpion Kings take a pan-African approach to amapiano and no song bears evidence of that more than the tender Folasade, where elements of Afrobeats find their way into the mix. “Folasade the way you kiss me, the way you touch me/Baby we go die o,” Tresor dreamily warns as the song’s pace quickens, giving a panoramic view of amapiano’s future.
Naira Marley and Busiswa – Coming
Naira Marley’s controversy-fuelled run in 2019 spawned a number of hits – from the provocative anthem Am I a Yahoo Boy to dance craze-inspiring singles like Soapy and Tesumole – making him Afropop’s biggest anti-hero. Any doubts about his staying power were done away with after 2020 drops Aye, As E Dey Go and Koleyewon, which saw him please his hardcore fanbase, lovingly known as the Marlians, while fine-tuning his lyrical content to avoid radio censure and bans.
On his latest single, Coming, featuring gqom powerhouse Busiswa, Naira reminds us of his bawdy, mischievous streak. Using a double entendre of the word “coming”, Naira drawls melodically over Rexxie’s hip-shaking beat. Busiswa’s vocal flourishes buffer his lascivious lyrics, before she delivers her own raunchy verse. True to form, Coming was temporarily banned by the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission – and it’s inspired yet another viral dance craze.
Jae5 – Dimension ft. Rema & Skepta
UK producer Jae5 – who’s most known for his work with J‑Hus – is a key architect of the blend of Afrobeats and rap that’s often been referred to as “Afroswing”. By uniting grime legend Skepta and young Nigerian star Rema, Dimension arguably represents the cultural ties that bind Britain and West Africa together. It is fitting then, that the song acknowledges the structural issues that affect Black people in both their countries, across generations. “Some my brothers dey weh they serve time/They wanna be free, they all wanna see the sunlight,” Rema sings on the song’s somber-but-melodic hook. Skepta opens up about the trauma of seeing so much violence (“PTSD will leave permanent scars /Can’t lie, man, I ain’t the same brudda that I once was”), also preaching the need for healing: “bruddas ain’t seen no love, they need cupid.”
Tay Iwar – Love and Isolation
While Odunsi (The Engine), Santi, and Amaarae make some of the most innovative music from west Africa’s alté community, Tay Iwar has always been recognised as the slick soul of the sub-genre, establishing a reputation for gliding over polished beats. On his latest project Love & Isolation, Tay expands his soundscape to make poignant R&B cuts about attraction and affection, tunnelling into feelings of want and desire.
Tony Allen – Stumbling Down ft. Sampa The Great
Together with Fela Kuti, Tony Allen pioneered Afrobeat. Not to be confused with ‘Afrobeats’ (a term used to describe the style of contemporary African pop music which emerged in the 2010s), Afrobeat was a complex amalgam of jazz, funk and highlife, performed with traditional instruments. After leaving his role as the music director of Fela’s band in the late 70s, Tony Allen sustained a fruitful and innovative career for decades, working with the likes of American techno pioneer Jeff Mills, Damon Albarn and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, before he passed away in 2020.
Tony Allen’s first posthumous album, There is No End, is scheduled for release on 30th April. On single Stumbling Down, a collaboration with Sampa the Great, the old master serves up a mix of heady grooves and frenzied percussion that compliments Sampa’s vocals. “Always trying to take my pride/Wanna try and change my mind/Never wanna see me shine,” the Zambian-Australian Artist raps. Clearly, she has no time for her haters.
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Headie One and the the asakaa boys
Long before Ghana’s asakaa scene attracted global attention, the UK kept the fire of drill music burning globally. Tottenham rapper Headie One is an avatar of UK drill and his recent trip to Ghana saw him head to Kumasi to make music with members of Life Living Records. Eagle-eyed drill fans will have spotted that Headie and the crew also shot a video in Kumasi’s open-air market, Kejetia.
Jay-Z’s African album hoax
Even with African music gaining more ground in western markets, the prospect of an American rap legend like Jay‑Z making an African-themed album is still exciting. On 1st April, word spread that the Brooklyn-born mogul was planning to release an album titled Ascension, featuring African heavyweights like Olamide, Sarkodie, Nasty C and Femi Kuti. A few hours later, it was confirmed that the news was indeed a hoax. Suffice to say, plenty of people cringed when they realised they’d fallen for a prank.
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Wande Coal – Bumper To Bumper
At the peak of the Mo’Hits dynasty that defined most of the 2000s Nigerian pop music, Wande Coal was an undisputed dynamo, capable of transforming any song with a shriek or his signature falsetto. On Mo’Hits Records’ critically acclaimed compilation album Curriculum Vitae, Wande work was inspired, crafting some of the most iconic hooks in contemporary Nigerian music history.
In 2009, almost two years after the release of Curriculum Vitae, Wande Coal dropped his eagerly-anticipated debut album, Mushin 2 Mo’Hits, spawning a number of hits that dominated radio waves. Even among a deluge of sun-splashed anthems and rowdy party starters, Bumper To Bumper stood out on the project. Over Don Jazzy’s production, the singer recounts the struggled that plagued his early years, sharing details about life in the hedonistic Nigerian pop scene. Bumper To Bumper is an essential Afrobeats track, setting a high bar in terms of flow, cadence and rhythmicity, and inspiring almost every Afrobeats pop star that has broken through since then.
Revisit March’s Best new African Music column here