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The rise and rise of Young Stunna

by Rofhiwa Maneta
young stunna true music studios boiler room johannesburg portrait scaled aspect ratio 16 9

Johannesburg doesn’t know it’s summer yet. A large sheet of slow-moving clouds moves above the blue expanse of sky, with the occasional sound of traffic sounding off in the background. Young Stunna (whose real name is Sandile Msimango) is inside True Music’s Johannesburg Studio in downtown Johannesburg. All around him are a sea of expecting faces decked in jackets, high top sneakers, slides and accessories. There is a weird sense of anticipation in the air.

The South African vocalist assumes the stage, dressed in a plain white tee, a chain and a pair of shades.

“I’ve got an exclusive for you. Are you ready?” he asks. The crowd nods in agreement and the Adiwele hitmaker breaks into song. Watching Young Stunna perform is an exercise in tension and release. The vocalist, who used to be a rapper, will break out into his trademark machine-gun flow at times, before engaging the crowd in a call-and-repsonse. Wherever he performs, the crowd is thrall of him, swaying this way and that as he simultaneously issues lyrics and commands from the stage.

From rapper to amapiano star

Last year was defining for the 21-year-old vocalist. In February 2021, a friend introduced him to Kabza De Small and Dj Maphorisa (the most popular figures in the amapiano genre). Two songs came as a result of that meeting: Icamagu and his breakout hit Adiwele.

“I didn’t think my fame would come so fast. I wanted it to be gradual, but I have Kabza and Maphorisa grooming me and they believed God’s time was now,” he said in a recent interview

The intervening months saw the rapper releasing a string of music that took him from a promising newbie to the most recognizable amapiano vocalists. Of those releases, Bopha, was the most popular. The song, by Mellow and Sleazy, sees him rap in his characteristic near-falsetto voice. His stop-start verse and anthemic chorus helped the song generate more than two million views on YouTube. Listening to him perform live, it’s evident that he used to be a rapper. He still carries the swagger and machismo of a rapper.

“I sang, rapped, R&B. I did everything all under the Hip-Hop umbrella,” he’s mentioned. “But I hardly got paid for it. I used to get a lot of free gigs and favours. I didn’t care about the money that much. I didn’t know I had to be paid to perform. I did music as a passion and I knew one day If I push hard enough, my big break will come. But I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly and so aggressively,” he says.

A kaleidoscope of influences

Young Stunna’s magnetism is clear from the first second of Notumato. Adilwele, the album’s opener, with Kabza De Small and Maphorisa, features a throbbing bassline and sparse drum work. Sithi Shwi sees him employ the cadence of the maskandi genre over racing drums and a propulsive bassline. Throughout the album, he captures the emotional tenor of what it means to be a young black and on top of the world. On Bayeke, his rap and kwaito influences are worn on his sleeve while Egoli is a meditation on what it means to leave home in search of a better life.

Notumato is an album of pleasant surprises. While songs like Shenta, Camagu and iRecipe are typical Young Stunna, S’thini iStory draws on the log drums and the restrained flow of kwaito.

Part of the reason for his success is how easily he merges diverging genres. He’s often made mention of the fact that, to him, rap and amapiano aren’t that dissimilar. It’s all the same thing to him.

“When I listen to Hip hop and then listen to amapiano I don’t hear a difference”, he says during an interview. “Now it turns into this sound that you think you haven’t heard before but it’s always been there. When you listen to Hip Hop, you can see that you can actually do what you’ve been doing on Amapiano. I can actually rap on amapiano beats”

Moving beyond time

An artist as prolific as Young Stunna seems to move beyond the constraints of time. At times it feels like his mind is constantly bursting with ideas; and once he’s released them to the public, he’s happy to move on to the next. Impumelelo, his latest collaboration with Kabza De Small features the ever-present percussion associated with amapiano but isn’t exactly what one might call amapiano. The song sounds more afrotech than anything and Stunna uses his verse to deliver a prayer asking the heavens to bless him with success.

And who can doubt that this has happened? It’s been twelve months of nothing but wins for the 22-year-old. From his pre-fame days to a critically acclaimed album that’s made him one of the hottest properties in South African music: it’s all come together so beautifully for Young Stunna.

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