The past decade (2008-2018) has seen an explosion of global interest in South African popular music — specifically popular black dance music — produced during the late stages of Apartheid (1970s through early 1990s). Amid the ongoing frenzy of authorized label re-issues, compilations, remixes, online auctions, unauthorized digital file sharing, and DJ festivals, something has gone missing: context.
The rush to find, rediscover, and re-release rare South African dance music seems to have caused us to overlook the direct influence of Western dance music on South African disco. This is a connection worth exploring, especially since American disco contained a subversive political subtext that was not too dissimilar from South African disco. In both cases, what the mainstream could dismiss as “party music” had to also provide cover for political, cultural, and social aspirations.
South African party records were in many ways acts of political subversion that used upbeat themes to quietly advocate for unity among tribes, civil rights, urbanization, greater social consciousness, and economic empowerment. Western disco, mis-characterized at the time as artificial, superficial, or just plain fluff — was actually driven in large part by its own social and political ideals — for racial integration, gay rights, religious diversity, and gender equality.
Samples and covers in South African dance music
Thanks to the glory of YouTube and Discogs, we now know that American and European dance records were being heard, reinterpreted and directly sampled by South African producers and artists at the time of their release. This was an impressive feat given the strictness of SABC cultural censors who controlled everything that got in and out of the country.
At the time of the music’s original release date, most listeners would have had no way of knowing that these songs were sampling others — nor could anyone blame them for not knowing this. South Africa was a cultural island unto itself due to the embargoes in place during Apartheid.
But today, as more and more of this bygone music gets shared with the world and sold in record shops, it’s worth pointing out the many ways in which Western dance music influenced South African dance music
It’s a little odd that a number of re-issues have come out that have failed to credit the original sources, despite the fact that the labels repressing these tracks are all from the US or Europe.
It is my sincere belief that we should celebrate all of the artists, sing their praises, and try to appreciate the full, complicated lineage of this amazing music. It’s the least we could do as we enjoy the pop music of South Africa once again, or for the first time.