A modern history of Johannesburg in 11 songs.
Johannesburg, an epicentre of South Africa’s diversity and multiculturalism, can be confusing and overwhelming for the first-time visitor. Everyone is different—we all sound, speak, and move differently. But there is one thing that binds us—the desire to be part of defining and making a world-class African city. Through the ages, music has remained the force that unites all of us, no matter who we are. Johannesburg is the biggest city in a nation of dancers. There is a reason the Gwara-Gwara dance move (as seen in Rihanna’s 2017 Grammys performance and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video) went international. And this is perhaps what best describes best describes Johannesburg—a culturally aware, world-class city. These are the songs that shaped Johannesburg.
Miriam Makeba, “Ndodemnyama (Beware, Verwoerd!)” (1965)
By the 1950s and 1960s, the apartheid regime—the governing Afrikaner nationalist party’s formal segregation of races and the subjugation of the black population—was fully entrenched. Resistance to the rule of law was crushed with impunity and thousands of arrests were made daily, but that didn’t stop people from organizing underground, and of course, this included artists in general and musicians in particular. Miriam Makeba, or Mama Africa as she became affectionately known, inadvertently became one of the pioneers of this first generation of anti-apartheid struggle music.
“I’m not a political singer; I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us—especially the things that hurt us,” she once told the New York Times.
On the song, Makeba warns Africans about apartheid’s mastermind, then-Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed, an authority figure who hurt millions of black South Africans.
Hugh Masekela, “Bring Back Nelson Mandela” (1987)
The father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, was once briefly married to Miriam Makeba. Masekela passed away in January 2018 after a battle with prostate cancer. He too protested the apartheid government with his music. This song was released in 1987, when thousands of political activists were languishing in prison and exile.
At the time, Nelson Mandela was the leader of Africa’s oldest political party, the African National Congress (ANC). This song calls for Mandela’s release from the prison on Robben Island, where he and many other political prisoners were being held. Released during the apex of apartheid when a national state of emergency had been declared—resulting in curfews, extreme media censorship, and mass incarceration—this hit song became a hymn for the movement to free Nelson Mandela. “Bring Back Nelson Mandela” is one of the songs that brought international attention to the late statesman—which contributed to his release three years later.
Brenda Fassie, “Black President” (1990)
The people’s first black president was Nelson Mandela—who was elected in 1994—but Brenda Fassie, popularly known as “MaBrrr” or “Madonna of the Townships,” was among the first to presage this event, in 1990. Fassie was a pop megastar whose fame, spurred by her early disco hit “Weekend Special” was unparalleled in the 1980s, the 1990s, and into the new millennium. The song, a noticeable shift in the tone of her music, became the soundtrack to Mandela’s long-awaited release from Robben Island on February 11, 1990. The song is a prophetic rallying call, a prayer, and a chant that rang out in the townships of Johannesburg and the rest of the country.
Boom Shaka, “It’s About Time” (1993)
One of the country’s very first Kwaito (South Africa’s answer to hip-hop) groups, Boom Shaka’s first single was not just our introduction to the group; it was about the time that black people had officially arrived—and it was time to stand up and take notice. With our newfound freedom from apartheid in the early 1990s, South Africans were “wildin’ out”—expressing themselves in all the ways that had been repressed before.
Before that, music was closely scrutinized by the government—to the point that people would intentionally scratch their vinyl records so that the needle would skip the songs of which the state would not approve. For the first time in almost half a century, young black people felt a sense of liberation. Mandela was out of prison, political figures were unbanned, and the nation was months away from its first ever free and democratic election. Young black musicians no longer had to make politically charged music; they could express themselves however they felt.
The song thumped out of speakers the Taverns of Zola (in Soweto) and the nightclubs of downtown Joburg, which had become the meeting ground for the city’s newly free youth.
Letta Mbulu, “Not Yet Uhuru” (1993)
Uhuru is a Swahili word, meaning “freedom” or “independence.” Although Boom Shaka’s arrival in music brought with it an air of hope, the grass was not necessarily greener on the other side of apartheid. Even beneath the euphoria and jubilation over Nelson Mandela’s release in the early 1990s, many people (including musicians) were still living in the same squalid conditions they had been during the countries darkest days. It appeared the freedom they celebrated might have been a victory called to soon.
Letta Mbulu criticized the foreseeable shortcomings of our incoming government and on “Not Yet Uhuru,” laments the lack of change experienced by the poor black majority in townships such as Soweto, despite a black government being on the horizon.
TKZee, “Shibobo” and “Dlala Mapantsula” (1998)
When in Johannesburg, or anywhere else in South Africa for that matter, you’ll quickly realize that sport in this country is king. Whether rugby, soccer, or cricket, people of all races and creeds go wild for their favorite sports teams. So it should come as no surprise then that when TKZee came out with “Shibobo” in 1998—featuring the vocals of soccer star Benni McCarthy—the country went appropriately nuts. Adding fuel to the fire was that the song was released in time for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. It was madness.
Later that year, TKZee would release their album Halloween, a record that catapulted them to superstardom with hit singles such as “Dlala Mapanstula,” with a beat, lyrics, and music video that captures late 1990s South Africa. You have to hear it to feel it.
Bongo Maffin, “Thathi Sgubhu” (1999)
Afropop group Bongo Maffin remains one of the most successful acts in South Africa. The origin of each of the group’s members was as eclectic as the new sound they had created—infused with Afropop and rap, as well as ragga and dancehall. Bongo Maffin was comprised of Thandiswa ‘Red’ Mazwai from the Eastern Cape, Tshepo ‘Stoan’ Seate from Mahikeng, Harold ‘Speedy’ Matlhaku from Soweto, and Anesu ‘Jah Seed’ Mupemi, originally from Mbare in Zimbabwe.
With Thandiswa on mesmerizing and sultry vocals, Jah Seed bringing the Zimbabwean dancehall/reggae element, Stoan on SeTswana rap and slam poetry. and Speedy’s crooning, the group affirmed young people’s fluid and changing identities at a time when it started being OK to celebrate being young, gifted, and black.
Their first big hit, “Thath’isgubhu,” made them a mainstay in the South African music industry—their sound, and this song in particular, sparking impromptu synchronized dance numbers in our living rooms, weddings, arenas and nightclubs until this very day.
Mandoza, “Nkalakatha” (2000)
In the run-up to the year 2000—or Y2K as it became known in apocalyptic shorthand—we all thought the world was going to end, or at least that there would be some kind of widespread computer glitch. It didn’t happen. Instead, the late Kwaito artist Mandoza gave South Africans an unofficial national anthem.
At the time, racial tensions were brewing. A video of a group of white South African cops siccing their German Shepherd dogs on two black immigrants in a secluded field was on the news. This reminded me—and of course, many others—that the kind of incidents seen on grainy archive footage of the worst days of apartheid might not be a thing of the past.
And then, Mandoza dropped “Nkalakatha.” The rock-tinged Kwaito song was an instant hit on all black radio stations. And then it crossed over, and made the late Mandoza almost as big across the nation as Brenda Fassie. The song was the walkout music for ex-South African national cricket team captain, Shaun Pollock. It was the song played at gala dinners where people from opposing sides of the economic spectrum sat in self-imposed segregation, but got down on the same dancefloor when it came on. Nkalakatha blared in the dodgiest hole-in-the-wall watering holes of Johannesburg, it played in the most sophisticated bistros of the north of Joburg. “Nkalakhatha” was played so much, all the time, that it made us all love it, hate it, and love it again. And today, it is still the song that can bring everybody to the dance floor.
Zola, “Mdlwembe” (2001)
If Nkalakatha is an olive branch reminding us to calm down and all get along, “Mdlwembe” was the song that made us throw the olive branch on the floor and spit on it. (A mdlwembe is a South African township word for a man who is uncouth, vulgar, or dirty.)
While “Nkalakatha” preaches non-violent confrontation, “Mdlwembe” is an aggressive anthem seeking to avenge the murder of your close friend in the hood—even if you’ve never had one. Mdlwembe is a danceable, cathartic number that had kids going crazy back in 2001. The two songs are musically similar, but worlds apart in sentiment. (Also, Mandoza and Zola were good friends who grew up in the same neighborhood of Zola, Soweto.)
Mafikizolo (feat. Uhuru) “Khona” (2013)
Mafikizolo, is damn near a national treasure in South Africa. This band had iconic songs (“Ndihamba Nawe” and “Emlanjeni”) which elevated Bongo Maffin’s sound and mesmerized a nation. But after a dip in popularity and relevance brought on by a lengthy hiatus, Mafikizolo were able to make a comeback with a new sound—all while combining house music, Afrobeat, and indigenous South African music.
When people were slowly growing tired of dancing to the sound of the neon-lit, seaside-aromated beachfront clubs of Durban, Khona brought it back to the dusty and concrete streets of a city rich in color and diversity.