Emerging out of South Africa in the mid-2010s, booming around the turn of the decade, and taking over the music industry in what has to be the fastest come-up of a genre in the country, Amapiano has become a household name, dance floor staple, and export. Distinguishing itself with style inspired by a plethora of loved genres yet, creating a brand new phenomenon, it has been inescapable in the last three years.
Sources state that the genre was first created around 2012 and became extremely popular in Gauteng townships. The exact locale of its birth is arguable as various townships claim it. The sound was distributed and developed through Johannesburg in places like Katlehong, a town east of the city, Soweto, Alexandra, and Vosloorus. The elements of Bacardi music (“a subgenre of house music that infuses elements of house, kwaito and electronic founded by the late DJ Spoko of Atteridgeville”) found in Amapiano raises the point that the genre may have originated in Pretoria.
Another ambiguous fact is the origin of its name. Amapiano means ‘the pianos’ in isiZulu, isiXhosa, and isiNdebele. Some believe that the name is directly inspired by the piano/organ solos and licks in the genre’s early days. Amapiano can be described as a mix of deep house, jazz, and lounge music, features that heavily influenced the initial sound. Characterised by synths, airy pads, and a wide percussive bassline famously known as the ‘log drum.’ This bassline makes the genre stand out and is one of the essential features in creating the quintessential Amapiano sound. The creation of the log drum is credited to MDU, aka TRP.
“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how he figured out the log drum,” commented Kabza De Small, one of the genre’s pioneers. “Amapiano music has always been there, but he’s the one who came up with the log drum sound. These boys like experimenting. They always check out new plug-ins. So when Mdu figured it out, he ran with it.”
The genre soon entered the mainstream. Around 2017 and 2018, Amapiano grew in popularity outside Gauteng’s borders. At that time, another distinctly South African genre was at its peak: iGqom. iGqom originated around the same time as Amapiano in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, and quickly rose to prominence nationally from 2014 to 2017/18. Amapiano has since overtaken iGqom in the mainstream.
Amapiano has become the defining genre of the 2020s and that of millennials and Gen Z youth. The popularity of dance music in South Africa has always been measured through its impact on the younger generations. From Bubblegum music in the 80s to bubblegum/township pop to Kwaito, Bacardi, soulful, and afro house, sub-genres have found their way into the mainstream and dominated for decades at a time.
“Amapiano is a form of expression and getaway for the youth of South Africa. It expresses the struggles and enjoyments that the youth go through on a daily basis.” shared famous Amapiano DJ/producer duo Major League DJz. “The music, dances, and style is a way for them to showcase to anyone that cares to watch the pure essence being youth in South Africa.”
Major League DJs are counted as some of the people who have contributed significantly to the success and international recognition of the genre. Their popular Balcony Mixes that took off during the pandemic in 2020 have amassed millions of views on Youtube and opened the overseas market to Amapiano. In addition, this year, they were nominated for a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award.
One can’t speak on Amapiano without mentioning the likes of DJ Stokie. He is credited as one of the DJs who popularised the music through his mixtape and DJ sets. In addition, Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa, Njelic, and many other DJs have contributed to making the genre huge in the country and taking on international gigs in America and Europe, where the sound is enjoyed.
In contrast to the original sound of Amapiano, more mainstream versions of the genre have included what has become an essential factor: vocals. As a result, the genre has birthed a new class of vocalists who lend their voices to tracks that have become smash hits. As a result, Samthing Soweto, Sha Sha, Daliwonga, Boohle, Sir Trill, and many other singers have created careers for themselves as recognisable voices on the airwaves.
Another vital element of the genre is dance. Dance is a large part of South African culture and nightlife. Much like ibheng with iGqom and isipantsula with Kwaito, Amapiano songs tend to spawn dances that become larger than the song itself and even turn to challenges on social media platforms.
The phrase ‘Amapiano is a lifestyle’ has helped describe its impact on youth. The Amapiano lifestyle is an amalgamation of various styles and influences. It is what you want it to be. The current climate in South African pop culture is a mixture of Hip Hop fashion and House music culture, and Amapiano freely finds itself in the middle. There is no one way to express Amapiano as it includes so many moving parts and constantly evolves, with each artist seeking to stand out from everyone while infusing something new. The decade is in its early stages, so we’re yet to see how far Amapiano goes within the next 2 to 3 years. However, the genre has changed lives and the media scope and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.