One of the biggest songs on South African radio in 2016 was Babes Wodumo’s “Wololo”. Deejays previously associated with mainstream ‘house’ music have been riding the wave since, with Euphonik’s atrocious “Tholukuthi Hey” the latest addition. Bhizer’s “Gobisiqolo” is a guaranteed hit at taverns; Busiswa’s addition onto it helped notch it up a few drunken nights into the consciousness of party-hungry Mzansi massive. He’s the only visible artist whose roots go deep in the Durban gqom scene, which has bubbled and remained ignored until Babes’ hit made it acceptable to showcase in the mainstream.
It wasn’t always like this.
On a trip to Durban in 2014, it became clear that the reason gqom wasn’t blowing up was because the right people weren’t fucking with it. And when these people — the likes of Afrotainment and their gatekeeper friends — finally saw how the scene can benefit them, they opened the gates; cut the tape; let the kids through. In a span of 18 months, gqom moved from an Internet-only obsession with a few ‘international’ fingers dipping in for their Eurocentric fulfillment, to a genre that’s played on Ukhozi FM — a radio station which wouldn’t playlist cats’ songs back in the cut because they weren’t mixed properly enough, and because they made drug references in their lyrics.
El. Oh. El!
On subsequent trips, it’s become clear that only certain types of kids have been let through; that there isn’t a unified movement in gqom; and that some of the names which kept the scene alive — Sbucardo, Bhejane, oBen10 — are less likely now than then to be acknowledged for their contributions. The positive effect of increased visibility has made it okay for unconventional artists to enter the fray. The likes of Faka, DJ Prie Nkosazana and, to a degree, Stiff Pap, Moonchild Sanelly and more, have better opportunities now than a few years back, for their interpretation of gqom to find an audience.
It’s essential to tell the alternative story; to record it, so that the instances of erasure and memory lapses so common within music scenes occur less and less. More importantly, the alternative story isn’t necessarily a single story, nor should it claim affinity to genre when, for instance, artists like Bhizer and Madanon can drop bars on a gqom beat, then ride a kwaito beat, and even dip into rap territory.
This is the look of gqom between 2014 and 2017.
RIP to DJ 031, an active member in the scene who allowed us to photograph at his party one Saturday night in July.