The first lines of the popular American musical Rent ask: “How do you measure a year?” One possible metric is through the songs that define that time.
Speaking to a particular moment – through the strange, seductive alchemy of lyrics, tempo, melody, danceability and message, among other variables – the music made over the course of a year becomes a time capsule that enables us to traverse history through song.
As the first notes sound, we remember with remarkable immediacy where we were when they entered our consciousness. They come to define a particular time in our lives, triggering the senses with that magic that is unique to art. It is an effect that is deeply personal, even as what makes a song of the year is its communal culture.
In December, New Frame writer Fezokuhle Mthonti took us through Ukhozi FM’s Song of the Year, saying that the radio station’s annual SABC Summer Songs of the Year segment is a significant artistic and cultural phenomenon.
Tracking the winning songs – from Mroza’s Sobulala uVan Damme to Nathi Mankayi’s Nomvula, Big Nuz and DJ Tira’s Umlilo and Distruction Boyz’s Omunye – Mthonti considered how “gqom and house sensibilities” generally dominate with a few departures (and controversy over listeners’ personal picks). She captured the powerful place these awards hold in our cultural imagination.
Generally, the song of the year is the sound of summer.
Claiming the space for the scorching sensibilities of Cardi B’s I Like It as the anthem of 2018, The Atlantic magazine’s Hannah Giorgis writes:
“The perfect song of the summer doesn’t always identify itself on first listen … There is no foolproof algorithm for discovery. But one barometer never lies: the distinct boom of the speakers outfitted on to the cars driving down your block with windows open and stereo blaring. Administering the test is simple: Step outside on any balmy Saturday afternoon … The pulse of that year’s song of the summer will course its way to you.”
The South African Music Awards (Samas) take place on 1 June and they, too, will ask and seemingly answer which artists and songs defined the year.
Inspired by The New York Times list of “25 Songs That Matter Right Now”, we asked New Frame’s culture contributors to pick their song of the year from the longlist for the Record of the Year category, an award for which the public votes.
While only one of the tracks that our contributors picked – AKA ft Kiddominant’s Fela in Versace – ended up making the shortlist for this category, their selection ranges across genres, capturing the pulse of the music that defined the year through politics, poetics, rhythm and relevance. These songs speak to the present state of our musical landscape and cultural consciousness.
Drive – Black Coffee and David Guetta
By Binwe Adebayo
Every year, you have to have the quintessential summer song. The one you play until the windows reverberate and everyone knows you’ll play it if you get hold of the AUX cable. When Black Coffee teamed up with legendary EDM DJ David Guetta and songstress Delilah Montagu in August 2018 for their now classic track Drive, I knew I had found the song for the season. Fresh, frothy and perfectly produced, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the contenders for the coveted Record of the Year at the 2019 Samas.
And it seems I’m not the only one who thought so. The club bop received massive airplay at home and abroad, and the DJ duo scooped up a Clubbing TV Award for Best Going Deep Music Video for the visuals. There’s no doubt that the record has stiff competition from other nominees, but there’s something about Drive that is quite unlike the others.
Pairing the best of Parisian Guetta’s head-bump EDM energy with Black Coffee’s inimitable skill for contagious basslines, the track has aged like a fine wine, despite it soon reaching its one-year anniversary. Between Guetta, Montague and Black Coffee, no one’s influence dominates, resulting in a perfectly balanced listening experience. If you need a pre-game anthem it works, if you need a tune to track love lost, it works, and if all else fails, the track presents a subtle, energising backdrop to even the most banal 9 to 5 job.
But of course, this is what we expect from Coffee. The South African powerhouse counts Diddy, DJ Khaled and Wiz Khalifa as peers and friends. Black Coffee has continued to make music like Drive, which lives expertly between his exceptional understanding of popular, mood-boosting music and clear South African and African influences. Drive is deep house to some, bubblegum pop to others and undoubtedly a classic that I’d be comfortable spinning years from now.
It doesn’t have searing, haunting vocals, nor does it feature a 20-piece orchestra. But if the criteria for Record of the Year is one that encompasses large-scale resonance, sonic integrity and one that is owned by its audience, Black Coffee wins this round. From teeny bopper gatherings in Camps Bay to boot bar jols in rural Eastern Cape, it’s a feel-good, fun winner that brings together South Africans the way only house(ish) music can.
Fela in Versace – AKA ft Kiddominant
By Tseliso Monaheng
A few days before the Fela in Versace video shoot, myself and fellow soldier-in-arms Sabelo Mkhabela went to speak to Kiddominant, the Nigerian-based music producer who is responsible for songs by the biggest Afrobeats and dancehall stars in the world. He’s worked with Davido on the Simi-guesting Maga 2 Mugu and on 2017’s My Story, which boasts a guest spot from Jamaican dancehall innovator Popcaan.
Down south, the Lagos State native is known for producing and guesting on AKA’s Fela In Versace, which has to fend off stiff competition in the Record of the Year category of the Samas. Lady Zamar and Black Coffee are among the artists who have also been nominated.
While the Mzansi massive will relate to the “big shot, superstar, punisher, finisher” refrain from the self-proclaimed Super Don Mega, AKA, it is parts of Kiddominant’s verse at the beginning that might fly over party people’s heads. Bar from the Tupac reference – Jiggy jiggy/ heavy heavy/ All Eyez On Me, Makavelli – how many know about the Lekki-epe Expressway in Lagos?
The master on the boards broke it down this way: “Lekki-epe is a popular place in Nigeria, it’s a highway. Usually, when you’re leaving the club, if you live on the island, you have to go through it. This part of the song is based on realistic stuff; so, doing 240 on Lekki-epe, but I wasn’t [driving at 240km/h],” he says.
And what about the other part?
“No do gra-gra basically means don’t act crazy, just be chilled.”
To summarise: There’s a lady in the driver’s seat of his drop-top Lexus. She is hyped and Kiddominant is asking her to cool it down a bit, lest she fall out of the convertible.
The video, filmed a few days after our chat, shows scenes where the two are cruising through inner-city Jozi in a Ferrari. What may go unnoticed, though, is the street art. The opening scene is a rendition of photographer Bob Gosani’s portrait of a younger tata Nelson Mandela’s training session. It decorates the west-facing end of the 10-storey Access City building in Maboneng Precinct. A Freddy Sam mural, the portrait is but one of the many pieces littered throughout the five minute-plus montage.
Among the artworks are legendary Myza420’s signature characters. He is a prolific writer whose work decorates the majority of Jozi’s outer reaches, from Brixton and Newtown in the west to Jeppestown and Troyeville in the east.
Fela in Versace is Shaku-meets-Vosho on a dancefloor at Taboo during hip-hop nights. It’s inner-city grime and northern suburbs excess wrapped in a wholesome offering of pop royalty. And with reckless abandon, giving not a single dose of a damn, party people are still grooving and jamming to the familiar Afrobeats pattern many months after its release.
It’s cool that Lady Zamar, Sun El Musician and the extra-prolific Kwesta have been nominated. Whether they will win, though, is questionable. AKA and Kiddominant are taking it this time around.
Banomoya – Prince Kaybee ft Busiswa and TNS
By Sabelo Mkhabela
Gqom is known for its percussive bass-heavy beats and repetitive lyrics. Fans don’t expect much but danceable songs from gqom. It may seem, then, that if artists want to speak about pressing issues, a gqom beat probably isn’t the best idea. Unless that artist is Busiswa. Using her background as a poet, Busiswa’s approach to gqom beats is more lyrical than that of any other artist visible in the mainstream music scene.
In Prince Kaybee’s hit song Banomoya, Busiswa appears as a guest alongside the singer TNS. She dominates Banomoya with the same amount of confidence as the women she sings about in the song.
On the track, Busiswa dispels the damaging stereotypes that women normally go to clubs without any money of their own and trade favours with men who will finance their fun time.
Busiswa’s girls, who she sings about on the song, intimidate problematic men in the club. In the video, Prince Kaybee depicts a man who tries his luck on a group of women who won’t give him the time of day, but instead tell him to “talk to the hand”.
In one of her verses, Busiswa tells the story of women who are so independent they will pay their own lobola. They are dressed to the T; it’s assumed they must get the money from a man and that a man will easily convince them to come home with him. “Ungabhud’ uthi, ‘nas’ islay queen’/ Ngendlel’ ase stylini ngayo uChomam (You could mistake her for a slay queen the way my friend is so stylish),” sings Busiswa. The joke is on the man, of course, as “kungaphela le party, uyahamba enga win-wanga (At the end of the party, she’s going home on her own).”
It is how she teases you on the last quoted line before adding that the woman she’s singing about will go home on her own (enga win-wanga). The silence creates a suspense to a situation that has a stereotypical ending, before she reveals the twist in the plot.
Her lofty delivery makes her story convincing, as she utters every word with innate conviction.
Encouraging women to live their lives fully and unapologetically is a prevalent theme in Busiswa’s music. In her collaboration with rapper Tumi Molekane on the song Visa, she plays the role of a woman standing up to a man she is convinced is cheating on her. On DJ Maphorisa’s Midnight Starring, she vocalises her sexual desires and flaunts her sexual prowess unapologetically, without any audible or visible care for your thoughts.
Busiswa is able to sing about women’s issues without relying on big words that are inaccessible to the average South African listening to her music. She does this by adding an element of storytelling in her writing. She tells less and demonstrates more.
Shekhinah – Different ft Mariechan
By Ntombizikhona Valela
RnB conjures distant memories of five-CD changers and the smell of Mr Min against the oak of room dividers. It is the soundtrack of spring-cleaning across many homes in black South Africa, the genre of choice for easy Sunday afternoon radio listening.
South Africa’s love for RnB has seen the artists of the genre’s golden age, like Tevin Campbell and Tamia, return time and again to our shores for encores of their most iconic hits. However, the South African variant of RnB has arguably not enjoyed as much success as its kwaito, house and hip-hop counterparts. This rings particularly true since the Black Butterfly, Tsakani “TK” Mhinga, lent her stunning voice to some of the biggest house and kwaito hits, leaving us with brilliant ballads I Find It So Strange and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
While there have been hints at the genre making headway through Brian Temba’s Dominoes and Jamali’s stellar Butterflies, it is safe to say that, through Shekhinah bursting into the industry with triumphant debut album Rose Gold, South African contemporary RnB is taking up its rightful place, for good this time.
Perhaps this is in response to the global phenomenon that is trap soul, whose RnB roots are undeniable. Or because of how artists like Bryson Tiller and SZA have reintroduced a fresh and youthful take on a genre associated with “grown folk”, without alienating those partial to the “traditional” RnB that defined much of the 1990s.
DJs the likes of Kaytranada have produced bottom-heavy remixes of classics from Janet Jackson, Brandy and Destiny’s Child that have seen younger people become more receptive to the complex and nuanced, yet basic structure of a classic sound that built the careers of All-4-One, Deborah Cox and Joe.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the almost two-year-old album that saw Shekhinah clinch Best Newcomer, Female Artist of the Year and Album of the Year at the 2018 Samas is represented by the single Different in this year’s Record of the Year category.
The song is a collaboration between the Idols alumna and Mariechan, formerly one-third of Jamali, the Coca-Cola Pop Stars runner-up group whose success saw the female trio outlast the winners, the all-male Ghetto Lingo.
Two women with different approaches to RnB come together for what is easily one of the strongest collaborations between songstresses since Zonke roped in Thandiswa Mazwai for Uzondilinda almost a decade ago. With Shekhinah’s resonant middle register comparable to Adele and Mariechan’s crisp fluttering mezzo soprano, they collaboratively create a song peppered with harmonies reminiscent of vocal trio SWV.
Not only is the song a declaration of independence and an ode to our right to self-style ourselves on our own terms, the accompanying video (which at last count had racked up 2.4 million views on YouTube) is a celebration of gloriously diverse bodies and identities defining the terms of their existence in a world that shows disdain for uniqueness.
By Fezokuhle Mthonti
Zonke Dikana’s Tonight seems an unlikely candidate for record of the year.
It is a clear departure from the gqom, house and hip hop anthems that dominate the charts throughout the year, but it is worth making a case for this up-tempo jazzy track as a real contender for Record of the Year.
Dikana’s sultry plea for her lover to make the most of their one night together is sung over a track driven by bass and percussion. Off of her sixth album L.O.V.E or Living Out Various Emotions, which was her first full-length album in three years, Tonight received significant airplay in 2018. This is owing, in part, to Dikana’s immaculate ear for production and thick and syrupy voice which falls atop the opening drum and snare of the song with cool ease.
With a 23 year strong career, Dikana’s musical oeuvre has been littered with high production albums and singles. Chief among them being her 2011 single Jik’izinto, 2013’s Viva The Legend which she dedicated to her late father Vuyisile Viva Dikana, the now classic and every prolific Feelings and Say Now, all the way to kwaito artist Thebe’s Groover’s Prayer.
In conversation with Rhode Marshall on Channel 24, Zonke said that Tonight was reminiscent of her time at Kalawa Jazmee Records. “It’s upbeat and I’m not going to say happy, as if all my other songs aren’t happy, but I think we associate tempo when it’s up with happiness and when it’s slow we associate it with sadness. Tempo is everything. It’s happy and young” she said.