Over the past decade, singer Busiswa Gqulu, simply known by her first name, hasn’t just built a solid catalogue of albums, but also done many impactful collaborations. She has worked with the likes of DJs Maphorisa and Juls as well as singers Kamo Mphela, Kwesta, Stogie T and Beyoncé.
Busiswa ruled the airwaves and digital streaming charts in 2021 with Coming, a triple X-rated Afro-fusion and amapiano hybrid with Nigerian star Naira Marley that was released while South Africa was in lockdown. “It was number one in 10 countries and I was at home, unable to travel. But at least I gained a huge listenership on Spotify, Audiomack and all these platforms,” she said during a live Q&A session at the Music In Africa Conference for Collaborations, Exchange and Showcases that was organised by the publication Music In Africa in late November 2021.
The song was one of almost 20 that Busiswa recorded during a Nigerian trip. “You have to create more than you think you’re going to need,” she said. “That’s what Covid taught me. One of the most fortunate things that happened to me is, out of all those recordings, that one managed to move for me at a time when I couldn’t move.”
She firmly believes in music’s ability to cross any borders and appeal to many different cultures. “In the past 20 years or so there has always come a song which, no matter where you are on the African continent, that song is a hit. We’ve seen it with [Wizkid’s] Ojuelegba, [Burna Boy’s] Ye …”
Add to that Niniola’s Maradona (2017) and golden oldies such as Cabo Snoop’s infamous Windeck (2010), African Queen (2004) by 2Face Idibia, now 2Baba, and several others.
“Those songs taught us that language is not a barrier,” said Busiswa. “We were in South Africa in the 1990s singing Angelique Kidjo songs and not knowing what “Agolo, agolo” means. Similarly, with my time in the industry, I’ve found that I can go to Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya and perform a show and rock it out. Countries are very welcoming to artists who are willing to step out of their own territories and explore what the continent has to offer.”
The value of working together
With more collaborations taking place, she said, the frequency of such instances is increasing, “which then enables us to travel outside the continent as a unit and put on Afro festivals that are taking the world by storm”.
Busiswa’s collaborations certainly tend to work out well for her. “When the travel bans were so [strict] for South Africa, I got an opportunity to go do a show in the United States. And there were like 12 artists I had collaborated with, so I ended up doing plus-minus 15 shows with those artists,” she said.
The US trip also opened her eyes to how far African music has come in the world’s biggest market. She witnessed an aspect of the journey behind the “Africa to the world” catchphrase in person.
“There were at least 20 African acts on tour in the US at the same time,” she said. “There were at least 12 Afrobeats and amapiano shows I attended in different cities. As much as [African music] is not mainstream over there, it means that if a couple of artists come together and put on a show, and there’s a line-up of six artists, we can fill up a stadium anywhere in the world.” These collaborations, she added, make it easier for Africans in the diaspora to support music from the continent.
Pan-African collaborations aren’t new. But their number soared in the mid-2000s – from blockbuster singles like AKA, Da Les and Burna Boy’s All Eyes on Me and Davido and Mafikizolo’s Tchelete (Good Life) to Uhuru and Runtown’s Banger – thanks to improved access to the internet.
“Artists are meeting each other on Instagram every day,” Busiswa said. “I’ve collaborated with artists I [messaged] on IG and vice versa. If you have access to social media, you are at a much better place than years ago because we can now contact each other without the involvement of labels. And now you don’t even have to be in the same studio [owing to technological advances].”
It’s easy to see why artists love to collaborate with Busiswa. She’s charismatic, armed with accessible yet eloquent lyrics and has a combative delivery that makes songs memorable. As a result, she’s almost guaranteed to steal the show as a guest.
In response to a question about how she manages to “maintain her identity” while collaborating with such a wide variety of artists, she answered, to the audience’s amusement: “So, I did a song with a young lady called Beyoncé …” She was referring to My Power, which appeared on the 2019 soundtrack album The Lion King: The Gift.
“In terms of respecting the next person’s creativity, I got that song from Beyoncé and wondered, do I sing in English now? And the decision I took was all I wanted for this verse, when African people hear it, they must be like ‘that’s our girl’. They must be proud. They must understand it and Beyoncé just got to be okay with that.”
In all her collaborations, Busiswa said, she is deliberate in maintaining her “African and Xhosa heritage” and “remaining true to the fact that I’m a young woman living in Africa and I’ve managed to make it further than most Black African women will. And I don’t take that for granted – I take it very seriously.”
This commitment, she explained, manifests in the chants and calls-and-responses that characterise her sound. On My Power, Busiswa – together with Tierra Whack, Queen Bey herself, Nija, Moonchild Sanelly, DJ Lag and Yemi Alade – combined these techniques and quirks in a verse that recalls kwaito.
“The trick is to find a middle ground with
the other artist,” Busiswa continued. “My personal thing is I have to love the song. [It has to sound] like something I’d want to listen to because you don’t know when you have a hit.”
Even with its West African bounce subtly accented by amapiano’s log drum, Coming sounds like a song by the same artist who made SBWL and Bazoyenza and contributed to DJ Maphorisa’s 2017 gqom posse cut, Midnight Staring, and United Kingdom-Ghanaian Afrobeat producer Juls’ 2020 crossover amapiano hit, Soweto Blues. On Coming, Busiswa’s sensual brashness is met by Naira Marley’s racy sensuality.
Breaking free from pigeonholes
Surprisingly, some of these cross-national megahits never make it to the top of the charts on South African radio. Busiswa said this travesty is one of the biggest challenges for pan-African collaborations.
“Traditional radio is making it hard for multilingual and multi-country collaborations to just play. As soon as compilers hear different languages, they shy away [from playing a song]. They need to start opening up to the fact that genres and languages are intermingling so much that it’s impractical to keep compartmentalising music.”
She suggested that radio, with the help of bodies like the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (Samro) and the Composers, Publishers and Authors Association, which act as intermediaries between artists and radio stations, need to engage artists on especially the growth and expansion of South African sounds.
“Every time we have something big coming out of South Africa,” Busiswa said, “every other country that takes it is going to surpass us. We are never going to be leaders if we are not innovating within ourselves.”
She used the amapiano phenomenon as an example. “We are having a lot of conversations right now on social media about South African popular music being amapiano and amapiano only. We love amapiano, but now there’s a whole entire hip-hop industry where young Black kids are doing it really well in their languages in really original ways, but they are not getting an opportunity. Because it feels like if we are doing this, then this is the only thing we can be doing right now and there’s no conversation being had right now.”
As far as touring the continent is concerned, Busiswa said the red tape involved in getting visas remains an obstacle to the African music scene growing. “If Africans were able to travel on the continent easily, that would eliminate a lot of the challenges. Not just mainstream music, even traditional music … a maskandi artist can collaborate with an artist from Angola. Let’s be able to travel our own continent without being stuck because of visas, as stringent as they are now, and also the cost.”