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South Africa's problems find their way into songs

October 17, 2003|Mariam Jooma | Reuters

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — This country's music, long associated with the anti-apartheid struggle, is changing tempo to target social issues such as crime and the effect of AIDS on the fledgling democracy.

With about 10% of the country's population infected with HIV, a 30% unemployment level and one of the highest homicide rates in the world, young South African songwriters are finding plenty of compelling material.

Where songs like "Watch Out Verwoerd," a warning to the architect of segregation, once filled township streets, today's songs carry such lyrics as "Ubani Okumule Inzinja na?" (Who let the criminals out to abuse us?).

Such singers as Mapaputsi and Zola put across their biting social commentary using a music style called kwaito -- township slang for "fierce language" -- hugely popular among the young people who make up about a third of the population.

"Kwaito wants to turn the gun into a microphone," Zola says. Kwaito performers chant lyrics over backing tracks in a style similar to hip-hop but with distinctly South African themes.

"I would totally disagree with anyone who says kwaito emulates American music," says Rudeboy Paul Mnisi, who has cut his own CD mixing a tough new beat with old classics by such South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Hugh Masekela, whose trumpet sounds became synonymous with calls for an end to white domination, has recently teamed up with kwaito singers to offer a jazz version of their songs.

"If you are concerned about what's going on around you, you will talk about it in whatever format," Masekela said.

The government has ruled that radio stations must play a minimum of 40% local content, up from 20% previously, aiming to limit the dominance of American imports as indigenous artists struggle to match their marketing might.

Zola's records have achieved platinum sales of more than 80,000 in South Africa, and he says music is not about race anymore but about a youth that needs to define itself in different ways.

"Kids no longer just listen to one radio station, they listen to music, they go to the same clubs," said Zola, who took his name from the deprived part of Soweto where he grew up.

"Today, love is the struggle -- with that comes sex, comes AIDS, comes abuse. So ours is a journey of self-identification that is nothing like what the older generation experienced."

His song "Tshi-tshilam," for example, is a message to girls not to be seduced into having sex just for the sake of having a relationship.

In 2002, about 50,000 cases of rape were reported in South Africa, one of the highest figures in the world and an acute problem when combined with the AIDS crisis and a traditionally male-dominated society.

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