“South Africa is a dance nation. Partying is part of the culture,” laughs Sha Sha, real name Charmaine Shamiso Mapimbiro. The 28-year-old Zimbabwe-born singer-songwriter is one of key players at the forefront of amapiano, a house-hybrid genre that is now taking over the globe. We meet on Zoom a day after her triumphant debut gig in London. “It shocked me, seeing people mouth the words of every one of my lyrics!” she beams. “Amapiano is global now and it’s amazing!”
Amapiano, which translates to ‘the pianos’ in Zulu language, originates in the Johannesburg and Pretoria townships of South Africa’s Gauteng province, where dance music intrinsically connects to the country’s political tensions and inequality. Evolving from the hip house beats of kwaito, amapiano’s relentless playfulness of log-drums and distinctive bursts of piano soundtrack the hedonistic escapism and resistance that comes from partying, transforming woes into a new frequency of joy.
“Dance is everything. It’s an escape from all the drama, the endless work, the noise,” Sha Sha explains. “The list is long. That moment where you can lose yourself; it’s healing. I hope that my music is healing in all its forms”. Sha Sha fell in love with amapiano when DJ Maphorisa, the powerhouse producer of the genre, first played it for her in 2018; “I was instantly captivated and wanted to jump on it,” she recalls.
On her new album I’m Alive, Sha Sha pushes the diversity of her sound, seamlessly combining slower R&B ballads with the earth-shaking rhythms of amapiano log drums. Written during the pandemic, the album documents a period of introspection that followed the chart-topping success of her debut EP Blossom, which earned her a BET Award in 2020 for Best International Act. “It was quite an important time for me, the last two years. I had these crazy moments… being recognised for my music, and the not-so-amazing things that came with it,” she explains. “The album is about going through a period of change, of how some things had to die for new things to materialise. It’s about finding my direction.”
“I hope that my music is healing in all its forms”
On I’m Alive, Sha Sha takes us on a joyride of sounds, weaving through numerous lanes with her hands firmly on the wheel. She accelerates in the track ‘Fast Car’, immersing us within its staccato percussion that emulates the sound of a rushing heartbeat caught in the throes of desire. On ‘Holiday’, she slows down, cruising with the windows down on a summer’s day, singing with self-assured swagger, I’d travel hell and back for you / and I know you’d do the same. On single ‘iPiano’ she pulls up to the party, amping up the energy with the rumbling drums and the electric dynamism of fellow amapiano heavyweight Kamo Mphela. “I was intentional on working with women on this album, I didn’t feel like there were many female artists coming together in South Africa, so I wanted to make it happen,” she says.
I’m Alive is one of this year’s most anticipated releases, so it’s hard to believe that only a few years before Blossom‘s 2019 release, Sha Sha was considering quitting. “Pursuing music was a leap of faith,” she says. She travelled to South Africa to build her career in the country’s flourishing music scene, working three jobs during the day before heading to the studio at night. A serendipitous drive steered Sha Sha onto a path that set her career in motion. “My cab driver, Blessing, had this fatherly vibe about him – he was from Zim too,” she reminisces. “I told him I was going for studio sessions, and he was like, ‘Oh really? I know DJ Maphorisa, and I can connect him to you’.”
Maphorisa introduced her to legendary artists including Samthing Soweto and Kabza de Small. “I’m just jamming with so many different South African artists, seeing what comes out of it. We are always trying to make new sounds,” Sha Sha says.
Amapiano’s strength is its fluidity; its different styles branching off into different sub-genres influencing music all over the world. “There’s now people making amapiano music in Nigeria, and they’re adding their own vibe to it!” she smiles. “Seeing how people are listening and vibing with amapiano everywhere shows how it’s evolving into something bigger.”
On I’m Alive, Sha Sha is a master at making the genre all her own, combining her yearning soprano melodies with hypnotic synths. “I pushed myself to explore how I could fuse different genres,” she affirms. The album traverses its way from the thick-thumping slickness of ‘Ungowami’ to the more pared back verses in ‘Save Me’ that bare Sha Sha’s internal struggle as her crescendoes climb with the lingering tremors of the keys. Each forking path that Sha Sha takes leads to a verdant landscape, rich in its freshness.
Now that the album’s out, Sha Sha is set on going full-throttle ahead. “I want to perform on a big stage, with a huge production. That’s something that would be sick as a female artist just owning her stage.” She cuts the air with her sleek stiletto nails, motioning out to the stage she envisions before her. Firmly in control of the wheel, Sha Sha is looking forward, paving the route of her reign.
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