Kwaito's PromiseMusic and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa

Kwaito's PromiseMusic and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa

Gavin Steingo

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226362403

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book examines kwaito, a form of electronic music that emerged alongside the democratization of South Africa in the mid-1990s and came to represent the voice of the black youth in the post-apartheid period. It investigates the often contradictory relationship between political processes and musical processes during the first twenty years of South African democracy (1994-2014)—a period that began with a euphoric and hopeful moment but that quickly led to disenchantment and even despair. Contemporary South Africa is marked by high rates of unemployment, extreme inequality, and endemic crime. Politicians and cultural critics have called kwaito immature, apolitical, and disconnected from social issues, and have complained that it has failed to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction. Its practitioners and listeners have been accused of irresponsibility in the face of major social ills and of ignoring the actual social conditions in which South Africans—and black South Africans in particular—live. I argue, however, that these criticisms harbor problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Based on extensive ethnographic evidence, I show that if kwaito musicians and listeners ignore actual social conditions they do this intentionally in order to forge another body and another way of hearing. I argue, in other words, that kwaito is less a form of escapism or illusion that hides reality than an aesthetic practice of multiplying sensory reality and thus generating new possibilities. This book is dedicated to kwaito’s aesthetics of freedom, to kwaito’s promise.