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The Women Shaping Amapiano

by Rofhiwa Maneta
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The last few years have been nothing short of seismic for South African DJ and producer, DBN Gogo. “It’s amazing what I’ve been able to achieve in the last few years,” says the Khuza Gogo hitmaker. “It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve also just curated my first ever Boiler Room line-up and the experience was different from anything I’ve previously done. If I’m not mistaken, I’m the first black South African woman to do so. That’s a big deal.”

Born Mandisa Radebe in Kwazulu Natal, DBN Gogo started DJing in 2017 and has quickly become an omnipresent figure in the South African club scene and a figurehead in the nascent amapiano genre. In the short amount of time that she’s been a DJ, she’s become one of the most booked DJ’s in the country, performed at Afropunk South Africa and was the first South African artist to be chosen for Spotify’s Equal Music Program.

Half a decade into her music career, she has already cemented herself as one of amapiano’s most visible DJ/producer’s.

“The funny thing is, at the beginning of my career, I used to play old school house,” she says. “I wasn’t always an amapiano DJ but as the sound grew, I also grew into it. It also helped to have people around me who were part of the scene. Like my debut EP, Thokoza Cafe, was a collaboration with Dinho [a local producer] who’s well acquainted with the sound and the scene. But we’re always trying to push boundaries. French Kiss, for example, is an amapiano song we did. It’s the first francophone amapiano song to ever be released.”

The Women Shaping Amapiano

It’s been a long and demoralizing trek for women to get their dues in electronic music and, by extension, amapiano. But DBN Gogo’s success shows a glimpse of what the genre could be if women were given their dues. Take a look at a good percentage of charting amapiano songs and the large number of them feature female vocalists. Ngixolele, a song by amapiano producer Busta929,  features Boohle (a female vocalist currently staking her claim as the queen of amapiano. The chart-topping single features Boohle’s (whose real name is Buhle Manyathi) characteristic high-pitched vocals over thumping log drums and chord progressions. Her 2021 EP, Sifikile, (which translates to “We Have Arrived”) is a four-track showcase of her sound. Boohle never sounds out of place next to the genre’s heavyweights (the EP features amapiano heavyweights Busta929, Ntokzin and the late Mpura) and the restrained piano melodies give her ample room to flex her vocal range.

In spite of being a permanent fixture on South Africa’s charts, the South African vocalist has had to fight for every inch of her success.

“Like what I have learnt in the industry, it’s a fight,” said the vocalist in a recent interview. “You have to make sure you have your weapon ready, you have to be smart and focused.”

Despite this, the 23-year-old still harbours ambitions of breaking out of South Africa’s borders.

“I want to be international. The whole world needs to be calling out ‘Boohle’. I want to work with Nasty C, Tiwa Savage, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran and H.E.R. But now, the amapiano album is in the works,” she told South African publication Sowetan.

A star is born

There’s no doubt Boohle has the ability to be an international act. With amapiano currently occupying the prime position as South Africa’s most in-vogue genre, it’s only a matter of time before one of the genre’s biggest vocalists becomes an international star. The success of DBN Gogo, who has featured in a billboard on Times Square and regularly tours in the UK, should be more than encouraging.

One of amapiano’s most recent exports has come in the form of Uncle Waffles. In October 2021, the then-unknown DJ (whose real name is Lungelihle Zwane) posted a 27 second video on her Twitter account of a set she was playing. The video features her behind the decks, dancing to Young Stunna’s amapiano anthem, Adiwele while the crowd dances in sync with her. By the end of that week, the video had more than a million views. The 22-year-old DJ was now a household name and had Drake following her on Instagram.

In an unsurprising turn of events, a wave of criticism followed the viral moment. On one hand, online misogynists claimed Uncle Waffles’ success had strictly been down to her looks. Others labelled her an ‘industry plant’ and a certain quarter of the internet believed her success would be short-lived.

Six months since her viral moment, the DJ has toured Nigeria, Ghana and most recently played a sold-out show in the UK.

“I don’t want to only be remembered as the girl for the viral videos, that’s always going to be my start but that’s not going to be my finish,” she said in a rare interview. I’ve been working with a lot of producers and have been listening to a lot of music daily to find my sound. Initially, the sound I wanted to go for was something slower but as I am growing into my brand, I am realising that maybe not. But I will be releasing some stuff [soon],” she continued.

What the future holds

Of course, this only represents a fraction of the strides women have made in amapiano as a whole. But the success of DBN Gogo, Boohle and peers represents what tomorrow could hold for the genre.

“The thing with being a woman is you can’t get away with half of what men get away with,” says DBN Gogo. “I’m a DJ, executive producer, music producer and a record label owner. I have to wear all of those hats out of necessity and be good at what I do.”

Recently, she founded a record label called Zikode Records with the aim of discovering and nurturing new talent. Part of DBN Gogo’s own success has been down to the network of people who helped her when she was an upcoming female DJ playing graveyard gigs. “If I can make someone else’s journey easier, then I’d love to.”

If 2021 was anything to go by, DBN Gogo and her peers will continue to break barriers as the women shaping amapiano.

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