THE REPETITIVE BROKEN BEATS AND RAW ENERGY OF GQOM ARE BUSTING OUT OF SOUTH AFRICA AND GOING GLOBAL.
Words by Atiyyah Khan.
Photograph: DJ Lag.
The repetitive broken beats and raw energy of gqom are busting out of South Africa and going global, writes Atiyyah Khan.
Gqom is one of the most explosive sounds to emerge from South Africa. Hugely celebrated and well established at home, now its distinct musical style is reaching the furthest corners of the planet.
Although its exact birthplace is tricky to trace, gqom emerged from the underground sometime during the course of the last eight years – specifically from backyards in the townships of Durban.
Gqom is characterised by dark, hard, repetitive broken beats, sliced vocal chanting, menacing raw energy and movement. It is hypnotic, ominous, atmospheric and best experienced loud.
UK Hyperdub label founder Kode9 described it as like “being suspended over the gravitational field of a black hole, and lovin’ it”. Gqoms roots lie in kwaito and house, but it is unlike any other sound to have emerged from the continent.
It is only in the last few years, however, that the rest of the world has caught on. Producers are being booked to play festivals all across the world; compilations have been released; documentaries are being made. Gqom tracks were included on the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther soundtrack, while online radio shows such as the one hosted by Italian label Gqom Oh! run weekly on NTS Radio.
Taxi Drivers: the new DJs
The predominant form of transport for the majority of South Africans is the minibus taxi, which has played an important role in the evolution of gqom. The word ‘gqom’ itself is an onomatopoeia Zulu word, which mimics the sound of a kick drum. Some have described it as the sound the bass makes as taxis blare the music from their stereos.
Played on their powerful sound systems, drivers had access to the latest gqom tracks because producers would hand their singles and mixes to them for free. As such, taxi drivers became the new DJs, playing the sounds first, long before any radio or club DJ.
Distributing their music through taxis was the best way for producers to reach the masses. And so the freshest and newest sounds in South Africa could be first heard on the streets, the way it should be.
One of the most prolific producers of gqom is DJ LAG. A moniker of his real name – Lwazi Asanda Gwala – DJ LAG is from Clermont in KwaZulu-Natal and is often cited as one of the genre’s pioneers.
Though only 23, he has spent the past few years carving out his sound. He employs heavy basslines and hard kicks and describes gqom as “a sound that mixes drum beats and different genres such as hip-hop, house music and electro”.
“We used to play house parties around Durban, pushing the sound because at that time it was really hard to find gqom in any club, so we would do our own gqom parties,” he recalls. “Back then we were experimenting with the sound and feeding off how it made people react on the dance-floor. That was our only frame of reference.”
LAG had started producing music in 2009 while he was still at high school, making beats for his rapper cousin. Later his sound evolved into what is now known as gqom.
“Gqom used to be just for underground clubs. It wasn’t being played on radio,” says LAG, “But over the years the sound changed. Hip-hop artists started rapping on gqom and some kwaito artists also shifted in that direction. A lot of what we hear on radio now is a more commercial take on gqom and a bit of a deviation from the original style. But I am not a purist and for me it is a celebration to hear gqom on the radio, and to witness it crossover into dance-floors across the world.”
One of the freshest voices to have emerged from South Africa’s music scene in recent years is Sho Madjozi, aka Maya Wegerif from Limpopo. Initially known as Maya The Poet, over the last two years she has shifted her focus from spoken word to rapping, music and performance.
Her rise has been almost meteoric. She came to the music scene at the end of 2016, making a cameo appearance on rapper Okmalumkoolkat’s track Gqi, and has since collaborated with various gqom artists and producers. In doing so she has infused the sound with new energy.
“I love gqom,” she says. “Gqom is life. I feel like it just bangs harder than anything else that’s out there at the moment. There’s nothing more exciting than gqom. That’s just a fact. While yes, I am a rapper, I want to rap on whatever is bangin’, and gqom is that for me.
“Gqom is like house music’s really badass cousin. Like really badass. That cousin that everybody dissed throughout, saying ‘you’re too crazy’, and then that same cousin blew up. And now the family members are coming back and asking for tickets to the show.”
Madjozi is groundbreaking in the sense that she was the first person to rap in Tsonga over gqom. She was also part of a movement that changed the music’s direction by introducing lyrics.
“We definitely changed the shape and texture of the gqom that you hear today,” she says. “Initially there were no vocals, it was just repetitive sound. And then people started putting on popular African nursery rhymes. The first gqom vocalists were not making up those lyrics. Those were existing songs that kids sang on the street that we all knew. That’s why when they came out we already knew the songs.
“So we took that and started rapping on the tracks. Now all the big gqom hits that you’re hearing have way more lyrics on them. We introduced that into gqom. Now you get people’s entire careers coming out of the fact that they put rap onto gqom, where before it wasn’t something that was being done.”
Madjozi is a natural performer and represents her Tsonga roots hard. From rapping in the language to referencing traditional elements of the culture in her colourful, fashionable style, she cuts a fine figure. Her background in poetry also contributes to the fact that she is a slick rapper.
“I generally hated and dreaded performing poetry. I would be stressed and nervous. Of course you get nervous doing this, too, but I figured out a way to calm my nerves very early on, which is to come in dancing Xibelani, my traditional dance, because it just grounded me and put everything in perspective and reminded me what everything was about. It reminded me of the fact that I have a family that cares about me, that I am part of a people, and that I come from somewhere. So doing that helped a lot, and then it turned out it was a vibe as well,” she laughs.
About to launch her debut album at the time of writing, Madjozi says it features everything from shangaan electro to afrotrap. “It’s me melding together all the different musical worlds that I belong to. I guess I’m trying to show people what I can do and not limiting myself. Everything I make I’m like, ‘wow cool!’ It’s part of a process of learning what I am capable off.”
Where is gqom headed?
“I think it’s headed global,” she replies. “I think it’s about to have its big international moment. I just hope that it happens in a way that benefits and credits the producers that make it. I don’t think anyone is overlooked more in the industry than the people who make the actual gqom beats, many of whom are very young.”
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Words by: @atiyyahkhan