How leaks are helping to power South Africa’s Dance music scene
a part and parcel of SA House Music
a part and parcel of SA House Music
Days before its official October 1 release, pioneering Amapiano producer/DJ De Mthuda announced the impending arrival of “Wamuhle,” a collaborative effort headlined by singers Boohle and Njelic. Shortly after, the comment section of that Instagram post was flooded by fans who blamed him for not releasing the song much earlier. These criticisms weren’t induced by anticipation, they were the opposite. For those in the know, “Wamuhle” had already been available for public listening months prior to its official drop. Initially released through Boohle’s former management and making multiple streaming playlists before being pulled, the song was illegally uploaded to several YouTube pages—one upload dating back to eight months ago—inspiring an uncommissioned music video, and has inevitably made its way to music piracy sites for free download.
This isn’t the first time De Mthuda is being affected by this sort of widespread leak. “Emlanjeni” and “Jola,” two songs recently released in the lead-up to his coming album The Landlord, were available to illegally stream on YouTube, months before they would officially end up on DSPs. This trend is not limited to De Mthuda, though. In the past year, leaks have become hugely prominent in South African Dance music. Many Amapiano, Gqom, Afro-house and Afro-tech songs have leaked onto the internet, with a significant portion becoming hits in the streets, on dance floors and social media, before properly making their way onto streaming services, radio and TV.
We live in an era of instant gratification, where fans demand constant access to new music, a craving that intensifies once they know the music is ready. South African Dance music is being profoundly affected by this trend, especially with many prominent artists premiering songs on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and several other digital platforms as part of their rollout—or just a way to consistently engage their audience. While this tactic, in practice, dates back to the early days of the respective genres, last year’s coronavirus-effected lockdown—and artists having excess leisure time—has led to a ubiquity of the gambit.
The lockdown’s hindrance on public events heightened the use of social media platforms to play music, or any other digital spaces that helped with live streams. Take Major League Djz’ Balcony Mix, which started as a pre-COVID showcase of the twin brothers and producer DJ’s skills and latest Amapiano tunes, for instance. The Mix series is currently on its third season and has seen twin-duo play back-to-back with the fellow ‘Piano heavyweights including DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, Mr JazziQ, and DBN Gogo. Having ballooned in popularity during the period we were cut off from dancefloors, the Balcony Mix has become a go-to place for producers and artists to promote their already released music and tease unreleased ones.
Now, while these DJ/performance live streams have ensured that artists remain sharp during this period and have helped soothe fans’ lockdown blues, they’ve inadvertently contributed to the growth of leaks. Playing, performing and previewing new and/or unreleased music (affectionately known as “exclusives”) is constant with many producers and vocalists. In addition to market sampling, a popular habit of sharing unreleased songs amongst DJs, tenacious and savvy enthusiasts find ways to access music that’s not been scheduled for release, and even share them with a perennially anticipating audience.
So all the biggest songs on piano rn are all exclusive 🙆🏾♂️damn!😂😂🔥🔥💪🏾
— CHAMELEON (@DaliWongaSA) August 19, 2021
At the turn of the millennium, the global music industry had to reckon with the growing ubiquity of the computer as a ripping tool, the internet as an archival library and downloading device, and the continued ease of file sharing as the years rolled by. In the aftermath of the booming CD era of the ‘90s, artists and record companies had to deal with online music piracy, which was partly fuelled by the rampant nature of leaks. While the finer details are quite different, the same trajectory applies to the African music terrain. Where streaming has significantly stemmed the tide of illegal downloads and the hunt for leaks, the low to moderate adoption of streaming as the primary means of music consumption on the continent means we’ve not fully shed the hallmarks of the blog era.
Internationally, unfinished demos and reference tracks occasionally find themselves on the web, with little to no consequences or care from the artists. (A Kanye West album leaked a few years ago, parts of Drake’s latest LP made its way to the internet before officially dropping, a portion of the internet comprises hundreds of leaked Young Thug songs, and many more examples.) In South Africa, however, it has become regular for mixed and mastered versions of songs to make their way onto people’s speakers, before their intended dates. Most leakers rip the songs from mixes or otherwise manage to get their hands on exclusives, which they then share with the public. For many years, popular local blog Fakaza has been the biggest culprit, and the many other leakers have re-uploaded content that the site initially shared.
“I don’t care how many followers they have and how much they help in pushing and making sure the music is out there. If something is illegal then it is illegal,” Amapiano superstar Lady Du declares. “You can’t take my song and release it before I want to release it because you have an application that can do that. If we as artists do not fight that certain platform, then who is going to fight it? They are the ones that are making us struggle. If we didn’t have those platforms, we wouldn’t be worried about COVID-19 lockdown implications. If those platforms were not there, then we would be making more money. The reason a lot of people are not making money is that we allow such things. We don’t speak against it and come together to figure out who is the owner of this thing. “
Historically, leaks have always been without the consent and sometimes knowledge of the artists. Once a song leaks, most musicians would rather rework it, or scrap it entirely, but with most Amapiano/Gqom/Afro-house songs, what fans get to hear prematurely is ultimately the final version. With this, and the added pitfalls of expensive data prices to legally access music, illegal download sites still have a significant market share. Fakaza and file-sharing sites like datafilehost are thriving. In fact, many artists use these sites to release music. DJ Maphorisa, acclaimed producer and one half of Scorpion Kings alongside Kabza De Small, infamously and deliberately used these channels to release several projects from his label in 2020, sometimes a week or two before they were available on DSPs.
While there are financial impacts and lost royalties attached to leaks and copyright-infringing uploads, a handful of artists don’t seem to be bothered, as most of their immediate revenue comes from performance and DJ gigs. They believe that if they have enough freely available music, then more shows will come their way and they will remain relevant in the much-saturated scene.
the thing with amapiano is that if you have an unreleased song that people love and you don’t release it soon, IT WILL LEAK!!!
— 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐁𝐈𝐆 𝐃𝐄𝐀𝐋 🏳️🌈 (@ReaDaSoul) May 2, 2021
Amapiano is the most affected genre. So many unreleased ‘Piano songs are just YouTube search away. The YouTube channels that upload these songs, without clearance from the artists, have millions of combined views and thousands of subscribers. One such channel, with over 152K subscribers, is the aptly named The King Of Amapiano. “My inspiration for my channel were popular channels that were already on YouTube,” shares the administrator, who asked to remain anonymous. “Channels like Masnic Entertainment, Worldwide News, Maravha Shaka, House Sanctuary and Mr Luu De Stylist’s channel. I could see that those channels were consistently growing, especially with Amapiano content.”
After initial organic attempts to grow his YouTube channel proved to be unsuccessful. He decided to name it after Kabza De Small because “Kabza’s own channel was not active”. “I was only focusing on songs that Kabza was on. For the first two months it was not growing, then I uploaded “Woza” by Mr JazziQ, Lady Du, Boohle and Kabza De Small, which got a lot of views. From there my channel took off.” The track is currently the most viewed on the channel, followed closely by Tyler ICU and DJ Maphorisa’s “Banyana” and Mellow & Sleazy’s “Bopha,” with these songs having been uploaded onto the channel before their official release dates. “The sole purpose is to promote the music and grow my channel as huge as it can be,” continues The King Of Amapiano channel admin. “It is an important role because music which is uploaded in our channels reaches more people and the artists also benefit financially.”
While these YouTube user-generated content (UGCs) and illegal websites play a major role in these leaks, artists have aided them by just previewing the music. It has become the norm for ‘Piano artists (mostly) to give fans a front-row seat into studio sessions or previews of unreleased music, mainly via Instagram Live. Many artists test out new music at shows and take into account the crowd’s reactions to particular songs. Most venues-clubs in the townships are known as the hotspots for exclusives.
SNK, a club in Soweto, which has branded itself as the “house of the exclusive yanos”, hosts “Exclusive Thursdays”—where billed DJs are expected to debut new, unreleased music. Depending on the audience, newer music usually gets more love. A DJ that spins older songs is sometimes looked down upon. And because of this judgement, most DJs then strive to get their hands on exclusives. Before its release, a couple of DJs had Cassper Nyovest’s eventual smash hit “Siyathandana,” and they would include it on their sets. The appetite for the song grew so much that Cassper had to drop it earlier than planned. The song has gone on to be one of the superstar rapper’s most successful singles in his decade-long career and his first number one song on national radio.
The influx of DIY distribution platforms and companies has also made it relatively easy for fans to spin and groove to their favourite jams, sometimes with incorrect metadata information. Mas Musiq’s latest singles “Uzozisola” and “Inhliziyo” lived on the internet as Kabza De Small’s songs for a while before they could be taken down. Surprisingly, Mas would still repost stories soundtracked by these songs on his IG page, even before their official release.
Despite the leaks and wide availability, many of these songs still do well upon release. Zakes Bantwini recently followed a similar route with his latest single, “Osama,” which became ubiquitous even before its official release. The song’s anticipation began brewing after being premiered by Afro-House producer-DJs Darque and Shimza on their livestream platform, KUNYE Live, reaching a fever peak when the artist himself performed it on KUNYE during his performance. Clips of Zakes Bantwini performing the song immediately went viral on social media; it became the number one song on the radio and there was even an Amapiano bootleg remix, all before it dropped officially. When “Osama” was finally released officially in early September, it immediately rocketed to the top of local Apple Music and iTunes charts.
South African Dance music is now firmly in the phase where artists have a better handle on leaks and can use them to their advantage. Weeks before it dropped, a promotional, in-studio video for the star-studded remix of Dlala Thukzin’s “Phuze” surfaced online, stoking anticipation for the song and inevitably making it to illegal upload pages before its proper drop. Previews and clips of Mellow & Sleazy’s “Bopha”—including one shared by DJ Maphorisa, a visualiser to his rap verse as Madumane—made the rounds on social media and were re-shared to other platforms. There are more examples of songs taking this route to hit success, and even though there’s still general derision for untimed leaks, many artists have chosen to adapt to the times.
That said, YouTube channels like The King of Amapiano and sites like Fakaza will still figure out ways to deliver unofficial leaks to an audience that’s always willing to indulge. Debating whether that’s a good or bad thing is a moot argument. Not only have leaks become prevalent in the South African Dance music scene, but their impact is also undeniable at this point.
@madzadza is a South African freelance writer. He has contributed to reputable online publications, writing extensive pieces on popular African music and emerging scenes. As someone who has a wide musical taste and a keen interest in most genres, he keeps his ear to the ground and his writing and commentary is not limited to one specific sound.