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Gqom: The Sound of South Africa’s Disenfranchised Youth

| Filed From: Cape Town, South Africa

Whether we’re combating socio-economic injustice, or celebrating the country’s first-ever democratic election, South Africans always do it while singing and dancing.

What is gqom?

Hailing from the poverty-stricken areas in and around KwaZulu-Natal—Umlazi, KwaMashu, and Chesterville—gqom is best described as the sound of South Africa’s disenfranchised youth. Contrary to what was promised to them over two decades ago, the majority of the country’s young people today find themselves unemployed and disillusioned.

Taking house music as its base, gqom is the result of young people’s anger and frustration and restlessness. As a testament to their resourcefulness, some of the biggest hits to date have been created by producers using only Fruity Loops on 64-bit computers.

Pronounced like you would a really deep baseline if uttered, gqom can be recognized by its hard claps and breakbeats that get mixed with lower elements such as strings or vocal loops. Loud shouting effects and/or vocal snarling can even be included for added effect.

The result is “a raw dance music blueprint with a polyrhythmic bustle—part broken beat, part chrome-plated synth menace; skeletal, robotic, unsettling and irresistible,” per FACT Magazine’s Ben Murphy. When performed live in a club, DJs will also often deliberately leave out patches of the (already sparse) lyrics, in order for the crowd to make up their own and sing it out loud on the spot.

Music and politics

Of course, intertwining music and politics is not new. During apartheid, it was the improvised jazz scores, protest songs and musicals such as Sarafina! that made up the soundtrack to our struggle for liberation.

Post-1994, music not only helped build cultural bridges—think of crossover hits like Mandoza’s “Nkalakatha” or JR’s “Show Dem”—but has continued to be utilized as a weapon against issues such as corruption, poverty, and inequality.

However, as gqom so clearly demonstrates, Mzansi’s beatmakers aim to not simply copy international genres, but rather to reimagine them within a local context. Some of our successful past exports include Kwaito, Cape jazz, and Shangaan electro.

Going global

When the likes of Swizz Beatz and Diplo—along with pretty much every other major club DJ in the U.S. and Europe—start to incorporate your genre into their sets, you’ve obviously done something right.

And the genre seems ready to be the catalyst for social change that Southern Africa so desperately needs.

For a great introduction to the genre by some of its pioneers, check out the Apple Music documentary, Blaqboy Music Presents: Gqom Wave by DJ Maphorisa (The Documentary).

Five gqom hits guaranteed to make you fall instantly in love

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steyn du Toit

Steyn du Toit is a journalist and digital copywriter from Cape Town, whose work has appeared in the Sunday Independent, Business Day, and Financial Mail. As an independent arts writer, he is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), as well as Southern African Freelancers' Association (SAFREA).