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The female artists pushing South Africa’s deep house scene forward

The female artists pushing South Africa’s deep house scene forward
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Rofhiwa Maneta explores South Africa’s deep house history and the female artists pushing the scene forward.

To most house cats, deep house is often viewed as house music’s more sophisticated, elder sibling. The music often has undertones of jazz, soul and, in South Africa, draws upon local music such as maskandi and isichatamiya.

Take Black Coffee for instance.

While his recent output leans more towards a commercial electronic/house hybrid, his earlier releases are deep and soulful house, through and through. His earlier productions were always left of centre to the more conventional afro-beat, percussive-driven deep house tunes. ‘Black Coffee’, his debut, was full of jazz, as were its follow-ups ‘Have Another One’ and ‘Home Brewed’ and ‘Pieces of Me’. Along the way, he worked with legends such as Hugh Masekela and the late Victor Ntoni and Busi Mhlongo.

In a similar vein, a song like Sis n Jones’ ‘Set Your Mind Free’ (a South African deep house classic) has all the markings of what you’d come to expect from a South African deep house tune. From the propulsive drumline, to the screeching string section, the mellow Rhodes chords and poetic vocals, South African deep house is as much about the melody as it is about the music that sits behind the vocals.

A similar template is seen on a song like ‘Golden Life’, a 2005 release by local house legends Maf & So (a duo made up of Soul Candi co-founder Dj Mbuso and producer Dr Duda). It’s as much jazz as it is spoken word. But how many people would be able to tell you the name of the vocalist upon which much of the song’s emotional import is built on?

South African-based deep house musician Jackie Queens is something of an outlier. The Zimbabwean-born songwriter and vocalist is best known for both her brand of smokey, rhodes-heavy deep house and the politics that inform her work. In August, 2020, she released ‘Save Me’: a percussive, bass-heavy number that addresses the passing of Uyinene Mrwetyana (a South African student whose death highlighted South Africa’s national problem of genocide). She’s also the founder of Bae Electronica: a local indie house label focused on amplifying the voices of South African women in deep house.

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“I think everyone has the right to work in an environment that acknowledges their basic humanity,” says Queens over a cracking Skype line. “I think that’s just a given. I think what makes my work look so contentious is the fact that it’s happening under the umbrella of deep house music. Too many other people are invested in maintaining the status quo.”

In 2017, the Love Will Wait hitmaker penned an editorial about the erasure of women in house music. Women vocalists have long been the bedrock upon which deep house music has been built. Run through any catalogue of house classics and, more often than not, a woman has lent her vocals to the DJ’s four-to-the-floor drum patterns. ‘Finally‘ by Kings of Tomorrow has Julie McKnight on vocals. ‘Rise’ by Soul Providers features Michelle Shellers. Moloko’s ‘Sing It Back’ is helmed by Róisín Murphy.

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“It is not uncommon for producers to claim they own in a song in its entirety (even sometimes/often without payment or agreements in place to guarantee royalties), because their name comes first. While this can sometimes be chalked up to ignorance about how copyright works, stories about the exploitation of vocalists persist unabated and unaddressed.” Jackie Queens for Platform

All of this begs the simple question: Can women make a home out of deep house music? In recent years, it has been women have been turning the tide.

This April, Johannesburg-based deep house vocalist and poet, Sio released ‘Features’, a twelve track EP covering much ground in the short distance it travels. ‘Locked’, a track which appears in the album’s midpoint features heavily reverbed vocals and a throbbing synth melody while Sio talks about the dangers of falling in love with the wrong person. “I’m locked in beauty, you just want to use me,” she incants during the song’s chorus. Similarly, songs such as ‘Woman’ (which features Charles Webster) are slow burning, deep house joints with emotionally compelling lyrics about finding and losing love, racism, misogyny and navigating life as a woman.

Part of what makes ‘Features’ so compelling is how the Johannesburg-based artist has flipped the script on how deep house music is often presented to its consumers. In most cases, a producer features a vocalist and a song is understood to be the sole property of said producer /DJ. On ‘Features’ however, Sio enlists several of her favourite producers (Charles Webster, DUNN. and Jonny Miller and the like). In this case, the producers and their contributions are secondary to her vocals (which take centre stage). It’s one of the small ways the artist is inverting the ways we’ve come to accept women’s contributions in deep house.

In a 2019 episode of Ballantine’s South Africa’s True Music Sessions, Sio sat with local house producer/record label owner Kid Fonque. “It’s a privilege to be this sought after,” she said of her career. “There are usually quite a few people who want me to work with them and it’s always a blessing to have my voice help elevate someone else’s career.” If that statement seems at odds with the motivations she charts out on Features, it isn’t.

Sio – and the women whose musical lineage she falls under – aren’t averse to the label of vocalist. All they’re asking for is the rightful recognition of their labour.

Take a cursory look at any deep house playlist and nine out of ten times, a woman features in some or other part of the song’s success. A song like ‘Emathandweni’ by Zandimaz loses its veracity without the vocal contribution of vocalist Nokwazi. ‘El Amor’ by Layla Melodious also owes much of its appeal to the poetic free verse that features in between the song’s choruses.

On the seminal house classic ‘My House’, Chuck Roberts opens with the following words:
“In the beginning, there was Jack …” and one day while viciously throwing down on his box, Jack boldly declared: “Let there be house” and house music was born. Like so many other creationist myths, creation is brought into being by a masculine energy.

But if recent history has taught us anything, the true bedrock of house music are the contributions of the female vocalists and producers who often go uncredited. Jack might have declared house born but history suggests that women are keeping the genre alive.

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