In the Zulu language, amapiano literally means ‘the pianos’ but it’s a genre that’s much more complex in composition than the name implies. A kind of Afro-house that developed in the South African townships of Pretoria in 2012, it’s typically a collaboration between DJs, producers and vocalists with throbbing basslines, jazzy riffs and lively percussion.
Amapiano accommodates gun-finger-throwing lovers of all things untz untz and waist-whining fans of Afrobeats and dancehall equally. This made it the perfect sound for at-home, simulated club nights in lockdown – since all the diversity and excitement of a venue-hopping night out can be found in a single, well-curated amapiano playlist. Thus, the music has been introduced to the internet as an entire dance culture, with quick-step moves and body-popping that’s just as fun to watch as the tunes are to listen to.
“Though not expressly political, the optimistic, anticipatory feel of the music, with its lengthy instrumental intros and dreamlike vocals, speaks to a need for escapism and hedonism fuelled by turbulent politics”
The buoyant and often soulful sound builds on the well-known electropop conventions of kwaito, a popular branch of South African music that emerged in the 90s, galvanised by 80s Bubblegum pop legends like Brenda Fassie. Both kwaito and amapiano represent the ever-present desire in South Africa’s townships to ease the stresses of persistent inequality in the country. Though not expressly political, the optimistic, anticipatory feel of the music, with its lengthy instrumental intros and dreamlike vocals, speaks to a need for escapism and hedonism fuelled by turbulent politics.
Despite its relative youth, amapiano has already had considerable influence outside of its country of origin. Last March, rising star and Afrobeats producer, Juls, dropped ‘Soweto Blues’, a hypnotic melody clearly inspired by the genre – the track has had almost 600,000 YouTube views since its release.
The number of amapiano dance enthusiasts is also increasing rapidly all over the world, with more and more social media dancers getting involved in viral trends – including TikTok-famous twins, Lauren and Lara, their fellow TikToker Matthew Power and YouTube dance sensation, Sweet Lemonade.
Below are some of the hottest amapiano artists that you should get to know:
Born and raised in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, Samkelo Lelethu Mdolomba is a singer/songwriter and former member of the acapella group, The Soil. In 2019, he made the transition from soulful acapella to Afro-pop and amapiano with his second album Isphithiphithi.
Kamo is a 21-year-old amapiano singer and dancer from Durban. She became an internet celebrity after posting a viral dance video on Instagram and her sophomore album Nkulunkulu was released earlier this year.
Major League Djz
Twin brothers Bandile and Banele Mbere were born in the US city of Boston and moved to South Africa after the abolition of apartheid. They’ve been DJing and producing music together ever since they left high school and their smash hit ‘Careless Whisper’ is now a staple of any quality amapiano playlist.
Themba Sonnyboy Sokowe is a triple-threat, DJ, vocalist and producer who has pioneered amapiano on the world stage through his work with international icons such as Wizkid, Drake and Major Lazer. His debut solo EP, Madumane, came out last month.
Kabza de Small
Kabela Petrus Motha is another amapiano pioneer, raised on the streets of Pretoria. He has been referred to as ‘the king of amapiano’ and his collaborative album with DJ Maphorisa, Scorpion Kings, is one of the most-streamed amapiano albums of all time.
One of very few women among amapiano producers, Mandisa Redebe, is revolutionising the genre through her love of experimentation. In 2020 she released Thokoza Café with DJ Dinho, the first amapiano album to include a francophone track, called ‘French Kiss’.
Singer Toshi Tikolo’s sonorous vocals are amongst the most recognisable on the amapiano scene. She’s worked with some of the biggest electro-producers worldwide from fellow South African, Black Coffee, to US dance legend Timmy Regisford.
And here are some other need-to-know musicians on the South African scene, who are amapiano-adjacent, afro-soul, Gqom and more:
Samelsiwe Twisha is another versatile vocalist, currently dominating the genre. Her debut album Nüdes, includes tongue-in-cheek explorations of social justice and feminine sexuality in a bold and unapologetic manner.
Sanele Sithole is a DJ, producer and songwriter from Mooi River, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. His rise to fame began with his 2016 single, ‘Akanamali’, which peaked at no.1 on the Shazam charts. His 2018 debut album, Africa to the World, was recently certified double platinum.
Saxophonist Nkosinathi Nkosi was born in Soshanguve township, just north of Pretoria. Inspired by the music of American jazz legend Kenny G, the smooth sounds of Jay Sax feature alongside many amapiano giants and his latest release, ‘Awulaleli’, is a silky collaboration with fellow Soshanguve native, DJ Bakk3.
This article was amended on 15 October 2021 to state that Moonchild Sanelly, Sun El-Musician and Jay Sax are “need to know musicians on the South African scene”. An earlier version mistakenly listed them as amapiano artists.