Appropriation vs Gatekeeping: The Amapiano Conundrum

For at least two weeks now, there has been intense and polarising discourse around the South African house music sub-genre of amapiano pertaining to what some feel is a deliberate act of appropriation of the sub-genre, whereas some have called the disgruntlement a form of gatekeeping. This  was sparked by British vocalist Jorja Smith’s release of her new amapiano inspired song “All Of This”, which was produced by Grammy-nominated producer DJ Guilty Beatz. The new song and video, released on August 6th, is Smith’s first release after her Be Right Back eight-track EP that was released in May this year.

Jorja Smith is traditionally a R&B and pop singer/songwriter whose music has demonstrated influences from various genres. She has made songs with hip hop, grime, electro as well as reggae sensibilities, therefore her foray into amapiano isn’t all that  surprising. The issue stems from the fact that amapiano, as a genre originating from South Africa, is by all estimations still in its infancy stage, particularly from a worldwide perspective, this is why seeing an international star of Jorja’s stature wear it on her sleeve and position herself as its torch bearer didn’t go well with the majority of the South African amapiano demographic – artists and fans alike.

When Jorja released her song, major digital streaming platforms were quick to place her on the marquee of amapiano, with tags and captions that were a variation of the  quip, “Amapiano to the world”. This was also seen as her general marketing plan for the song and this is the first problem. Given her standing as an international world renowned artist, Jorja quickly became the face of amapiano – whether by her own making or not. This is not only irresponsible but it is downright unfair to the scores of talented and innovative artists of South African origin who have worked tirelessly in creating and establishing the genre.

Granted that amapiano has made major strides from its humble beginnings to now being a staple sub-genre in South Africa that has taken the music world by storm, it does  matter who is on the forefront accruing the acclaim and the benefits of being put on the marquee. It surely can’t be Jorja Smith, with all due disrespect. Especially because her song “All Of This” does not even feature a South African artist or have any connection to where the sub-genre originates.

This is not an indictment on Jorja Smith or anyone for that matter. It is not an attempt at instituting a moratorium on non-South Africans from dabbling in amapiano. Music is universal and every musician and artist has every right to be influenced and to express themselves in however way they feel like doing. The biggest issue remains – when you posit, matter of factly, that you as an entity who is not a pioneer or a custodian of amapiano, are bringing amapiano to the world, and as a result receiving the benefits and acclaim, given the stature of your celebrity, that should rightfully go to the rightful pioneers, then it is not fair.

This criticism also includes artists like Cassper, who are traditionally hip hop artists but dabble in other genres, particularly amapiano. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Cassper doing amapiano, but when he puts on a cape and becomes a crusader for amapiano, there’s something disingenuous about that. His success in that lane is owed to his star power that’s established in hip hop and if anything it helps his star status more than that of amapiano and its custodians.

It is very easy to see this dissatisfaction as a form of entitled gatekeeping but given the history of amapiano, it’s really not. When the subgenre first emerged, it was scoffed at as a confused and inferior township sound, largely because it was just championed by ordinary people. Finding expression mostly in townships, from Alexandra, Soweto and Katlehong (Johannesburg) and Atteridgeville, Mamelodi and Soshanguve (Pretoria) the subgenre was spearheaded by the innovative minds of DJs such as DJ Stokie, MFR Souls – who themselves were standing on the shoulders of veterans such as DJs Clock and Bekzin Terris, in building this experimental sound. The lineage would naturally expand to include trailblazers such as JazziDisciples and Kabza De Small, amongst others.

The sound itself evolved and was never singular, even going by different names at different junctures. It finally received its name from the Zulu language for a word which means “the pianos”, and it is itself, by design, is an amalgamation of various influences that range from kwaito and local ‘90s deep house basslines to traditional percussion and jazz-inflicted piano/synth line. And because music evolves, amapiano has evolved and keeps evolving into more distinct sub-genres within the sub-genre itself, with the likes of dust/street, private school and techno amapiano enclaves being formed.

In light of this history, that illustrates how the evolution of amapiano was reliant on innovation and borrowing from other pre-existing genres, it ought to prove that the dissatisfaction does not stem from a place of entitlement or wanting to preclude other artists from participating. It is simply a legitimate concern that a sub-genre as precious as amapiano should not be hijacked or appropriated under the guise of worldwide expansion by artists who are merely tourists cashing in, because in that exercise, the origins and value of it may be lost or seen as expendable.

If history is anything to go by, we have seen countless times music of Black and/or African origin form the basis, inspiration and stepping stone for other cultures to build and benefit from. For people who  never cared for Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley is seen as the founder and face of rock n roll. There are scores of people who see UB40 as the face of reggae music or Bob Marley as the founder of the genre, which inadvertently leads to the erasure of the likes of Lee “Scratch’ Perry, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Black Uhuru et al. It is also important that we avoid the pitfalls of a localised genre, which is not in the best interests of the amapiano community. Of course music is universal and everyone ought to participate, locally, regionally and internationally. But there is an ethical and just way to do that, which should not disenfranchise the custodians of the genre.

Watch SHAYA! A documentary about amapiano music, lifestyle and culture below:

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