Every month, THE FACE columnist Wale Oloworekende covers the most exciting releases and music news stories from across the African continent. Check out his previous columns here.
When Drake dropped his More Life LP in 2017, the smooth house sound of the Jorja Smith-assisted track Get It Together caught a lot of ears. But South African music fans were familiar with original track – Black Coffee’s 2010 hit Superman – and so were knowledgeable clubbers, as the DJ had become a fixture on the international scene after over a decade of dominance in his home country.
In the half-decade since then, Black Coffee is arguably Africa’s most celebrated DJ and a certified international sensation, popular for his tranquil, synth-laden take on house music. That much was confirmed this April when his 2021 album Subconsciously won the Best Dance/Electronic album category at the 64th Grammy Awards. It was the first time a South African artist had been nominated in the category. “The main reason I do what I do is to carry the flag of my country. To be recognised in this way outside of a ‘World Music’ category makes all of the hard work worth it,” he told the BBC.
Later in April, Black Coffee returned to Coachella (he also performed in 2018 and 2019). This recent victory lap comes at a critical time for South African house music and its various offshoots, as the amapiano buzz arguably encourages more interest in South African house and its darker cousin gqom more generally. So will more South African DJs have a chance at spreading their wings beyond the Rainbow nation?
Last year, a clip of a 22-year-old DJ dancing exuberantly to Slade’s sweltering amapiano banger Wamuhle at a show in Soweto went viral on Instagram and attracted the attention of Drake, leading to a public co-sign for her DJ-ing skills.
Less than eight months later, that same DJ, known as Uncle Waffles, became one of the most hyped names in African dance music with her project Red Dragon and a busy DJing schedule, both of which have sent her across the continent. Waffles has cited Black Coffee’s trancey style of house as an inspiration growing up and attributed her transitional skills to another female South African DJ, the amapiano artist DBN Gogo.
Similarly, Major League DJz have parlayed their cultural cachet into global prominence, releasing an acclaimed album, Outside, last year and performing at Coachella alongside Black Coffee earlier this month. Praising the icon’s Grammy win, Bandile Mbere, one half of the twin duo said: “It changes a lot of things for us because I just think for the past few years, before amapiano came in, South Africa’s been a country where they base a lot of stuff on artists and not DJs.”
Through all of this, OG DJs at home such as Oskido, DJ Kent, and Da Capo continue to innovate around South African House while Black Coffee’s knack for breaking down barriers continues to serve as inspiration for old and new generations.
Listen to THE FACE’s Best New African Music playlist on Spotify
Black Sherif - Kwaku The Traveller
In February, reports from Ghanaian media suggested that Black Sherif’s blossoming career had hit a snag due to allegations of failing to honour a contract with Ghanaian socialite, Snap Chavis Wayne. Sherif seems to be responding to the accusations of betrayal and disloyalty on Kwaku The Traveller, where he admits to having made some poor decisions over a gentle, melancholic beat – a departure from the Ghanaian drill sound which underpinned his previous hits. The reason Blacko has fast become a regional star is thanks to the candid allure of his lyrics and the refrain of Kwaku The Traveller: “of course, I fucked up, who never fuck up hands in the air, no hands?” has become a popular go-to in many circles on social media.
Boj – Gbagada Express
As a member of DRB Lasgidi – the trio at the core of West Africa’s alté scene – Boj has played a significant role in the movement, which encourages free artistic expression among young Nigerians in rebellion against the conservatism of previous generations. On his first solo album in five years, Boj collects unique totems of afropop’s amorphous soundscape and stitches them together into a vibrant tapestry. Wizkid and DarkoVibes bring new energy to their remix of the popular track Awolowo, while Boj experiments with drill in tandem with Kofi Jamar and Joey B on Get Out Of The Way, then swapping sweltering verses with Victony on Unconsciously. For more than a decade, Boj has been an inspiration to the stars, but Gbagada Express should seal his status as a star in his own right.
Listen to the album here
Kabza De Small – Ziwangale
It’s hard to keep up with the pace of Kabza De Small’s drops. The 29-year-old DJ and amapiano populariser is probably one of the most prolific artists operating in the scene. Since last year’s collaborative Rumble In The Jungle album with his Scorpion Kings partner DJ Maphorisa and TRESOR Riziki, Kabza has co-released the third instalment of Pretty Girls Love Amapiano with MDU, a deep cache containing 50 songs. He also collaborated with Young Stunna – as part of the Scorpion Kings – on Adiwele, another continent-wide amapiano hit. Kabza’s latest release, Ziwangale, is leaner than anything he has ever dropped, boasting just four tracks and a runtime of 28 minutes, making it easier to spot the highlights among his characteristically furious log drums and hypnotic grooves. On Kabza, South African two-man band, Murumba Pitch make a playful dedication to their host, layering whispery verses over the super-producer’s airy instrumental.
Check out the full EP
Celine Banza – Fa Mbi Lege
25-year-old Congolese singer Celine Banza sings about loss, companionship, and pain with the acuity and imagination of an elder griot. Her 2021 album, Praefatio, dealt with the intersection of those feelings in the immediate post-COVID-19 lockdown world. Banza’s latest project, Prayer mostly concerns itself with seeking a new direction for the soul singer, with strong influences from her spirituality as an anchor. On Fa Mbi Lege, Banza’s lays her frustrations over a wistful beat. Singing in a mix of English and French, she invites her listeners into the heart of her emotional turmoil while seeking a new lease of life.
Listen to the full project
Coco Em – Kilumi
East Africa continues to be fertile ground for futurist, dance-influenced iterations of afropop, and no city better embodies that ethos than Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Rising DJ Coco Em has tapped into the pulse of the club scene for her debut project, Kilumi, incorporating elements from trap, amapiano, gengetone and techno across seven tracks. Winyo Nungo with MC Sharon and Wuod Baba is the centrepiece of Kilumi, as both guests drop short, fiery verses in Luo.
Listen to the EP
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King Sunny Ade – Juju Music
For a young generation of listeners, the present renaissance of popular African music is being heralded as its first dalliance with western audiences. But in the early 1980s, following the tragic passing of Bob Marley, Island executives were on the lookout for the next global sensation to break in the west.
Their search for credible options landed them on the doorstep of Nigerian musician, King Sunny Ade. The juju artist was already an established star in Nigeria with his African Beats band, and Island’s proposed a deal to position KSA at the head of a generation of cosmopolitan African musicians ripe for incursion into the American markets.
In 1982, the result of that experiment manifested on Juju Music, KSA’s first worldwide release. Usually, the juju sound is heavy on percussion. But collaborating with French producer Martin Meissonnier, KSA’s instinctive reliance on talking drum – a core instrument in juju music – was subtly tweaked to give Juju Music an ambient feel that made his music accessible to non-African listeners. Evidence of this experiment is most visible on Ja Funmi, a more restrained re-recording of 1980’s Ori Mi Ja Funmi. Still, Juju Music’s most memorable moments come when KSA leaned into the party-starting invocations of Juju Music as he does on Sunny Ti De Ariya and Ma Jaiye Oni. Upon release, this album received critical praise and achieved commercial success, opening the door for future releases like his Grammy-nominated album, Synchro System.