The sound of Amapiano is like prolonging moments when, in South African townships, the sounds of everyday living merge with the music that forms the bedrock of daily life there. Before dawn, a hymn sung while sweeping might match the rhythm at a nearby lala vuka (all nighter). One afternoon, the rain overhead might intensify to match an aunty or uncle’s favorite part of a jazz song. Nobody’s dog could bark an ad-lib to the bassline playing in a passing car. Amapiano plucks what is almost in the township air and originates sound, dance, fashion, lingo, and overall culture from that.

Amapiano was invented in the townships at the outskirts of South Africa’s towns and cities. Known as kasi in slang (derived from the Afrikaans lokasie), the township was created by apartheid spatial planning to house Black people. Dikasi (plural) were designed to be barren places where nothing would grow. But instead, South African townships became greenhouses for culture—especially music—to germinate, take root, and become sources of life for the oppressed people living in them. 

Amapiano borrows its keys and melodies from jazz and gospel, its drums and tempo from house music and diBacardi, while Kwaito loans Amapiano its basslines and harmonies.

Jazz music grew in South Africa in step with its popularization in the United States. It became not only a source of entertainment, solace, and escape, but also an instrument with which Black South Africans fought against apartheid. You need only look at the names of some current and past Amapiano acts to make the connection between jazz and Amapiano—Jazzi Disciples, Mapara A Jazz, and Mr. Jazziq are a few. One of the other ways Amapiano borrows its melodies from jazz is by reworking South African jazz standards. Focalistic does this to great effect by using the melody from guitarist Jimmy Dlulu’s Winds of Change” on his Tiya Mfana release with DJ Tshegu.

Gospel music, especially choral, has been composed and sung in churches, homes, at funerals, celebrations, and anywhere else a higher power needs to be summoned in South Africa. Some of Amapiano’s most popular singers developed their voices in the church. For example, vocalist Babalwa M, who frequently collaborates with Private School Amapiano Dean of Faculty Kelvin Momo, told True Love magazine, “I lived in a Christian house, I obviously used to go to church. So, we used to have youth services and we’d have an opportunity to showcase your talents.” 

Kwaito music was the sound of a generation both witnessing and creating a nonracial, democratic South Africa. The slowed-down dance songs from across the world matched with young South African vocalists in the 1990s, and together they created Kwaito, the iconic sound of the country’s liberation.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Afro, Deep, and Tribal House became popular as access to records from outside the country became increasingly available and affordable. This helped to develop South African dance music’s groove sensibility. And when diBacardi entered the scene, mushrooming from Pitori, the greater Pretoria area, it also grew into an important influence on the South African dance music scene.

The styles of music that Amapiano borrows from are still popular in South African townships and continue to cross-pollinate, influencing each other while remaining firmly grounded in their own respective histories.

“The last time we saw a uniquely South African genre paint a clear picture of the state of South African groove culture was with Kwaito spearheaded by youth. What Amapiano has managed to bring with it from the ground up locally and eventually globally,  is admirable, not only from a music point of view but also cultures’’, says Phiona Okumu, Head of Music at Spotify Sub-Saharan Africa

At first, Amapiano had a divisive ethos. Little was known about this movement and the music at the center of it by observers outside its circles of initiates. Generally, Amapiano punters were notorious for brazenly pursuing epicurean excess. Kabza De Small and Lehleza released the “Amabele Shaya Remix” music video as the tide began to turn for this style of music. For outsiders, that music video was a glimpse into a culture that was seductively inaccessible. “Amabele ebusweni bendoda / Amabele ebusweni bendoda / Amabele ebusweni bendoda / Amabele ebusweni bendoda” (roughtly translated to “breasts on a man’s face”) a tank-topped, sweaty Leehleza repeats the song’s refrain to partygoers in a nondescript warehouse. Many wanted to be in that video, while also happy to be a safe distance away.

The greater South African population had another taste of this sweet taboo in Semi Tee, Miano, and Kamu Dee’s “Labantwana Ama Uber, in which the chorus is a thinly veiled reference to drug use and sex. Amapiano music was being lapped up and danced to by all South Africans and creeds by the time Mapara a Jazz, Colano, and Ntosh Gazi’s “John Vuli Gate became a hit single, dance trend, and the reason for the most modest and upright citizens of the Rainbow Nation to collectively clutch their beaded necklaces and kiss their teeth in disapproval.

Since then, the Amapiano movement has evolved in different directions. Its dominance of mainstream music in South Africa and entry into the global dance music arena made it necessary for producers and vocalists to consider different styles of Amapiano to fit different occasions. 

Over the past decade, Amapiano has watered and warmed the wildest dreams of its artists, most of whom come from the underserved townships at the outskirts of the Gauteng province’s cities. And where there were scraggly shrubs of careers not so long ago, there is now a forest of artists, managers, choreographers and dancers, stylists, content producers, and other professions beginning to thicken all thanks to the Amapiano movement.

And while Amapiano developed musically, it also sprouted branches in dance, fashion, lingo and overall culture that have made Amapiano a movement. This is what is truly exciting about the movement, is that while the music continues to spearhead it, the Amapiano movement is fast becoming a way of living founded on the idea of making something from very little, backing dreams with hard work, and having the time of your life while doing it.