You can’t search for South African music today and not have several Amapiano artists appear in your results. The genre has surged across global dance floors thanks to collaborations, the growth of digital music streaming, and an era where viral dance challenges brought exciting snippets of its distinct sound to the world.

But how did these elements collide in an era of social distancing and get Amapiano on the world stage?

Socially distanced connections

Amapiano was already growing by the time March 2020 COVID-19 restrictions hit South Africa and the rest of the world. It more than doubled its 34 million Spotify streams in 2019 to 102 million by the end of the first year of lockdown. Pandemic-induced separation caused a countrywide craving for connection. Live-music events were banned, so artists couldn’t tour or perform.

Four years before South Africa’s first lockdown, less than half of the country owned smartphones. By the end of 2019, this number rose to 92%. More people than ever before were connecting to the internet. Even though data costs were high, mobile internet use grew as the 18-to-24-year-olds who predominantly use social media in South Africa spent more time online. This has translated to the streaming industry, too, where 84% of all Amapiano streams on Spotify are on mobile, and 18-to-24-year-olds account for 40% of all Amapiano streams. 

Youth culture goes digital

As young people in South Africa looked for new ways to connect with friends, dance challenges sparked their imaginations. The fact that they couldn’t groove didn’t stop them from combining their flair for dance, with Amapiano tracks that were trending on messaging apps. Social media gave them a way to show off their moves and get others to imitate them.

Social media dance challenges that emerged in 2020 like the #Johnvuligatechallenge, JazziDisciples dance challenge, and the #Amanikinikichallenge marked key moments when youth culture connected with and amplified the genre through social media.

This moved the genre from its underground club roots and across the country when commercial radio picked it up. Dancer and Amapiano hitmaker Kamo Mphela says, “Music doesn’t move without dance. I don’t think both can exist without each other.”

Before Amapiano entered the streaming era, artists got their music out however they could. “We were selling CDs hand to hand,” says DJ and music producer DBN Gogo. Artists tapped into social media to brand themselves, share new tracks, and sell merchandise. But monetizing their work remained a challenge.

Artists take their work online

Pandemic restrictions on live events meant many artists lost their income. Some resorted to loans or selling their equipment to make ends meet. And young emerging musicians were worse off because they didn’t have the networks or the savings to support themselves.

Amapiano artists found new spaces for their music to thrive—think Major League DJz Amapiano live balcony mix. Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa had to cancel the highly anticipated Scorpion Kings live show in 2020, so they launched PianoHub TV to keep the vibes going.

“Thank God for platforms like Spotify where anyone, anywhere in the world, can go and search the music, so it can reach the people that way,” says DBN Gogo.

Spotify also supported artists in a number of ways, including adding a feature that allowed musicians to use their Spotify profiles to raise money to support themselves. Spotify further platformed Amapiano culture by documenting the sound’s global growth through a documentary titled Music that Moves and promoting Amapiano playlists to wider audiences.

Fan-made playlists are a telling sign of the impact this had. In 2019 there were fewer than 800,000 playlists that featured Amapiano tracks. In 2020 this grew to just under 1.2 million playlists, then to over 2 million playlists in 2021.

Outside of the income artists make on streaming platforms, Spotify puts them in the driver’s seat with data tools that let them see how their music is taking off. “Technology is making things way easier to stream and download. That’s probably the reason why [Amapiano’s] moving so quickly,” says Aymos. DJ Lady Du reflects that with streaming platforms, “it becomes easier for us to get bookings outside [of South Africa].”

Lockdown era collaborations takes Amapiano international

Hits like Kabza De Small’s “Sponono” featuring Afrobeats kings Burna Boy and Wizkid made Amapiano’s explosion on the world stage inevitable. Amapiano grew its international reach even further when Davido featured on Focalistic’s “Ke Star” remix. Vocalist Sha Sha topped off the genre’s international moment in this era by bagging the “Best New International Act” award at the 2020 BET Awards.

Collaborations and accolades like these kicked off Amapiano’s fusion with genres like Afrobeats and took South Africa’s township sound to a new level.

A music movement supported by a digital revolution

Even in a country like South Africa, where many lack internet access, music lovers will find ways to party to their favorite Amapiano tracks. This is how an online culture fostered during a global pandemic, helped turn Amapiano into one of SA’s biggest exports.