Experiencing the depths of South African house music
The country’s obsession with deep house is beyond the hype
The week I spent in South Africa exceeded my expectations in almost every respect. It’s more naturally beautiful than the photos make it out to be and I was moved by the history in ways I didn’t anticipate. However, what shocked me the most was “deep house” music being bigger in South Africa than I could have ever imagined. When Resident Advisor put out the Real Scenes: Johannesburg video nearly a decade ago, I assumed the claims of house music’s popularity were overhyped and exaggerated. It seemed too far-fetched that kids in grade school would be listening to soulful and understated electronic dance music. I was wrong.
It’s not exaggerated. Deep house has been the biggest genre in South Africa for more than a decade and it’s immediately evident when you’re there. It’s playing in every restaurant and every car stereo. Each time I got in a taxi, I asked drivers of all ages if they liked deep house and who their favorite DJ/producer was. Other than Black Coffee, they always mentioned a local I’d never heard of. Hip hop isn’t nearly as big a thing in South Africa as it is in the US. The only other genre that competes with deep house is a new offshoot genre called Amapiano.
Perhaps the most visible example of deep house’s prominence and quality was my visit to Tokzen Records, which I discovered by chance as it is located in the center of Ghandi Square, the Johannesburg equivalent of Time Square. I enter the store and a young 20-something starts showing me the latest vinyl releases from the store’s own label, the majority of which were immediately placed in my “buy now” pile. He plays me a dubplate of his own forthcoming release on the label, which was absolute fire. Then his dad, who is apparently well known enough as a DJ that my driver knew of him, shows up and asks me to DJ his party the following week. Had I not committed to starting a new job the following week, I probably would have extended the trip for that! All of this from just googling “record store”.
As someone who’s always seen “deep house” as being inseparable from some degree of “underground”, it feels like an alternate universe to be in a country where top 40 is deep house. I’m not qualified to explain the exact reason behind this popularity. Some say the South African flavors of deep house tap into traditional African music, and indeed the percussion of South African deep house is distinctive from American and European house music. Others add that house has been popular there for generations and that it articulated the sense of hope and joy during and after apartheid, not unlike the role house music played during the gay rights movement in America.
I thought I had a solid understanding of how apartheid unfolded. Like a lot of things, however, the more you learn the more you realize you didn’t know. I thought of apartheid as an uplifting success story since the good guys beat systematized racism and won lasting control of the government. In many ways, it is that story. Ending apartheid should absolutely be celebrated as one of the great victories in the history of community organizing. However, since I didn’t understand the causes and fully comprehend the depths of oppression, I found myself mentally underprepared for what I experienced as I learned more.
The most unexpectedly moving experience was at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, a name previously unknown to me. Hector lived in the township of Soweto, a “Township” just outside of Johannesburg where over a million densely packed Black people lived without electricity. It was essentially a work camp that they were generally not allowed to leave unless going to work, nor were they allowed to own the poorly built structures housing them. Nobel Prize recipients Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived for a time in Soweto.
Hector Pieterson was not a Nobel Prize recipient. He was an eleven year old boy who was shot and killed by police at the age of eleven at the 1976 Soweto uprising. An astonishing 600 other student protesters were killed by police during the unrest that day. Hector became the face of this atrocity when a photo of his slain body being carried alongside his weeping sister was printed in newspapers around the world. The horrific image galvanized support for the cause in South Africa and abroad, making Hector symbolic of a turning point in their nation’s history.
The museum masterfully tells the story of the Soweto uprising, including the additional atrocities committed by the South African government. They blocked white journalists from being at the protest, claimed only 20 students were killed, denied the families of the slain students a permit for a mass funeral, and killed even more people at the 10-year commemoration demonstration in 1986. It also talked about how silent US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the US government were on the matter. Despite these maddening details at the museum, it was the memorial that really crushed me. When I walked into the memorial garden containing 600 bricks with the names of the student activists written on each one, I completely broke down.
I know those student activists. I’ve worked alongside many of them and other young people the past couple years on campaign and advocacy work. Their willingness to sacrifice their reputations and time building a career in hope of a better future for themselves and others is one of the purest forms of compassion I’ve witnessed. Hundreds of these particular South African student activists paid the ultimate cost for that compassion. The fact that this happened less than 10 years before I was born made it feel close to home. Hector Pieterson would be 57 years old now, the approximate age of some of the deep house heads I talked to in a Johannesburg record store earlier that day.
That moment in the garden memorial for me put into perspective the enormous cost of making progress in society. It showed me plainly that progress hurts the people trying to achieve it in a way that’s unjust and unfairly distributed. It sucks, yet I continue to believe it’s moral.
As I walked out of the memorial garden, along the very streets the protest occurred, well dressed children walked home from school in the sun chatting and laughing. So much has changed in the 46 since. This neighborhood, like a lot of other parts of Soweto, has turned upscale. I had the best meal of the trip eating on the patio of a resident’s nicely furnished house here. Unlike the city of Johannesburg, which has experienced white flight and has a reputation for crime, the parts of Soweto I visited seemed perfectly safe. It’s clear these former labor camps are now places of pride for Black South Africans.
It turns out townships are also where the deep house parties are at! Sadly, this is not something I understood going in and, as such, was unable to attend a proper house party. The internet told me all clubs had closed due to Omicron and there were essentially zero events listed on Resident Advisor, so I figured there was no point in looking further. Yet, the intel at the local record stores told me there was no shortage of house music events happening in the townships. Frustrating as that was, it gives me a great excuse to return, especially now that I have great local contacts.
That’s not to say the country doesn’t have it’s problems, most pressingly the 43% unemployment rate. Despite efforts made through the “truth and reconciliation” process, those responsible for the Soweto massacre were never brought to justice. And yet, the young people of South Africa seem to realize what a special place they inhabit. A local young woman I talked to on the plane out of Johannesburg who was leaving for a cruise ship gig in the Caribbean lamented leaving home in the summer as “South Africa is where it’s at”. She’d traveled the world and concluded that nothing beats her home country. In that moment, I couldn’t help but agree.
This post was adapted into a podcast / radio show produced by Rhythm Nation with music of some of the records I bought.