Is kwaito an old thing yet?


Whenever I get the odd interview on Born to Kwaito: Reflections on the Kwaito Generation, interviewers ask me, “Is kwaito dead?” — a question I know is often posed to kwaito artists as well. The question never interests me. If anything, it just irks me. A more interesting investigation would be into the kind of infrastructure that makes it difficult for many genres and subgenres to thrive sustainably in South African popular culture.

Between my and my co-author Sihle Mthembu’s work, and the people who ask us if a genre we have recently published a book on is dead, somebody has failed. As long as kwaito remains fixed in people’s minds as a song and a clothing style, there is going to be a constant struggle to make sense of its life and cultural significance. It should be clear by now that kwaito lives on as a kind of heritage — not only as a popular mainstream sound — and the investment should be in preserving this crucial part of history and black identity. But what does it mean to think of kwaito as heritage? 

An undergraduate qualification in anthropology later and the meaning and idea of “heritage” seems more elusive to me than it did when I was a first-year student who routinely wore umbhaco to campus, feeling identifiable as a proud Xhosa girl.

The ability to connect to paper the idea that kwaito is heritage is evading me. A site I stumble on after  googling, “What is heritage?” says, among other things, “Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.” It also throws up the questions: “What is worth saving?” and “What can we, or should we, forget?” 

That seems like a great point of entry. It makes heritage a space that is not fixed: one that can be debated and, therefore, constantly created and recreated. In essence, heritage is the culture, the traditions, the monuments inherited from the past and preserved for future generations. 

The site I stumbled upon makes mention of “old things” and then I struggle. Is Kwaito an old thing yet? Or is it rendered old by the fickle nature of the South African dance landscape? Kwaito is almost only as old as our democracy, which is still so contested, subject to active public reflection, debate and discussion. 

What is worth saving? The statue of Brenda Fassie at the Bassline comes to mind as it enters the world of Nelson Mandela statues and materialises the argument I have tried to make. The sometime kwaito star is memorialised in one of South Africa’s longest enduring cultural hubs, acknowledging her place in heritage-making as an artist. In a country that typically creates monuments to colonialists and freedom fighters, Angus Taylor’s sculpture comes to embody the idea that our popular cultures also form part of our heritage.

Perhaps the strongest argument I can make for this inheritance, this tradition, is that, more often than not, we do not have too many monuments that we have inherited as black South Africans. We have had to battle with Cecil John Rhodes statues, Voortrekker Monuments and apartheid flags and, because of our material dispossession, in most cases we have to rely more heavily on heritage as culture and tradition — not buildings and objects. 

In that world, we have a beloved music that is known for its footwork, its lazy, localised approach to rap, its ability to reflect our history (and the present) and its undeniable, unforgettable beginnings as the soundtrack to one of the most crucial points of South African history. New question: Is kwaito worth saving?