When you are looking for the best of something, you generally know where you need to go to find it. If you want the best wine you go to Bordeaux, if you want the best sushi you go to Tokyo and if you want the best cigars you go to Havana. But if you want the best South African music, you need to go to DJ Okapi.
It is hard to think of any other DJ who is so synonymous with their country’s musical scene than DJ Okapi. It is not often where the responsibility to promote a country’s entire musical output falls onto one person’s shoulders, but this is the task that Okapi has taken on, and he is doing brilliantly at it.
He is both the figurehead and biggest cheerleader for South Africa’s unique and dynamic music. If you listen to any of his sets you will be mesmerised by the some of the best music you’ve never heard of, and almost all of it will be exclusively South African. Similarly, instead of stroking his chin and laughing at all the peasants who will never be able to afford or attain his record bag of rarities, he runs the record shop and label Afrosynth which stocks and reissues forgotten gems and holy grails to keep these records in supply (and to prevent the Discogs sharks from charging £500+ per record).
As DJs dig deeper and deeper to stay ahead and increasingly look beyond the shores of Europe and the Americas to find that new hit, it is inevitable that African music is going to become more and more vital in our musical culture. That can only one thing, that DJ Okapi is about to become much more vital as well…
We caught up with the South African DJ to talk about how his country’s history has influenced its music, the value of reissues and how he likes to challenge crowds when he plays.
I want to start by exploring the influence of South Africa’s volatile political history on its music scene. It is a country that has suffered from decades of abhorrent racial oppression, yet it is also a country that experienced a renewed sense of hope through the abolition of apartheid and the redemption of Nelson Mandela. How is this paradox expressed in South African music?
Music informs most aspects of South African life, including politics. During apartheid music was initially used to divide people, in the 80s it became a tool used by musicians to fight oppression. Post-apartheid, music remains central, although not politicised to the same extent. Life in SA is a constant paradox, music can provide an escape or some sense of direction or identity.
Do you believe that music in itself is a political act?
Yes, at least in a South African context. Every aspect of life here is politicised – not to the same extent as during the 1980s, but it’s still there.
Do you think that creativity has been stifled and opportunities crushed because of South Africa’s past and has that changed in the 27 years since the end of apartheid?
Many opportunities were certainly crushed but I don’t think creativity was stifled – it flourished. SA artists had more international success during the 80s than they have ever had in the democratic era since then. Musicians were united against a common enemy and played a vital role as political educators at a time when most anti-apartheid politicians were jailed or exiled. Since 1994 that situation has obviously changed. Many young South Africans are more familiar with American music than their own. Globally there is a lot less money in the industry than there used to be, so for artists in SA to make a living from music today is arguably harder than it was back then.
Do you feel you have a duty to promote these artists, especially being one of the most celebrated advocates of South African music?
Yes. I started the Afrosynth blog simply to help preserve bubblegum music in some way. I’ve met many artists from that era who are now living in poverty and obscurity, or who pass away without anyone acknowledging their contributions. Later the aim with the record store was the same – to make this music available to South Africans when the radio and media here have forgotten about it. I’ve chosen to work closely with particular artists, such as Ntombi Ndaba, to try to create international opportunities for them that they didn’t necessarily have during their heyday.
Do you think it is more important to do this domestically in South Africa, or to the wider world?
Both… The international interest in bubblegum and kwaito music is amazing but it’s never been my priority, which has been to preserve it locally. Despite the international interest, most South Africans remain indifferent to it – for young people it’s not cool; for older people it brings back a lot of painful memories. Outside SA, people are more free to judge it simply on how it sounds and makes them feel, avoiding all the political baggage attached to it.
Who else would you credit as positively promoting South African music?
Today there are a lot of DJs around the world playing SA music – not only old bubblegum but also more contemporary styles like deep house, gqom, hip-hop etc. Some of the main people representing SA in Europe are based there, like Esa Williams in London, Floyd Lavine in Berlin and Mo Laudi in Paris. Black Coffee is the most famous and successful of them all.
Also a lot of international DJs have done a lot to promote SA music – like Louie Vega, who’s been coming to SA for over 20 years, and Ralf Gum from Germany, who has been living in SA for ages. Then DJs like Young Marco, Antal, Hunee, Palms Trax and many others have helped break more obscure SA sounds, for example.
There are grumbles on the peripherals of music groups on Facebook about the perceptions of white European DJs playing rare, expensive African records. Do you have an opinion on this?
It’s very easy to knock people down for being in a position of relative privilege. True, most successful DJs today are still white/male/straight/wealthy/European. If you’re not all of the above, there are certain obstacles, but there are also opportunities. No one chooses these things. While it’s frustrating that South Africans don’t have a keen interest in old SA records, or can no longer afford them, one also has to see the other side of it and be grateful that European DJs are able to take this music to a global audience. And in general European audiences are far more open and enthusiastic about this music, because it’s so new to them.
Often the people who complain the loudest are also European themselves, including diggers angry at rising prices compared to 10-20 years ago. Any DJ can be accused of cultural appropriation, but where is that argument going to get us? It’s important to debate these things but at the end of the day, talk is cheap and one’s opinions mean very little, especially on social media. Experiencing music in a shared space can break down those barriers of privilege and prejudice.
How does your label Afrosynth work in this dynamic? Especially as you work closely with Rush Hour in Amsterdam.
Afrosynth is a label focussed primarily on reissuing old SA music on vinyl, particularly records that have become too rare and expensive to be enjoyed by young or amateur collectors. There are no longer any record pressing plants in Africa. In South Africa they shut down around 1995 – a long time ago. There is also not a big enough market here for vinyl to justify setting up a new pressing plant. The market is in Europe (and other parts of the world like North America and Japan) and so is the means of production. For me, without a European partner like Rush Hour, none of this would have been possible.
I do believe that the motives of Rush Hour are pure. But without naming names, do you believe that there are other labels or distributors out there that are purposefully exploiting African music, and if so, why are they doing it?
The music industry anywhere in the world has always been about exploitation – making a profit at someone else’s expense. It’s competitive – a few people win, more people lose. One can say the same of any other industry in a capitalist society. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is, so why would it be any different today?
These days there’s so little money in music that one would assume anyone reissuing African music is doing it for the love of it, not the money. But of course someone might see the potential for making money in it too, and not necessarily be so crazy about the music itself. The same was true of many of the people who originally put out the music, their motivation was financial, not cultural or political. Today if an Australian or Canadian or American label wants to reissue African music, why can’t they? As long as they have the intention of making sure that some of the money finds its way back to the artist and/or the label who first put it out.
In Africa there are no pressing plants, there’s limited interest in older music from young people, and there’s very limited disposable income for vinyl, which today is a luxury product rather than a necessity. So without the help of manufacturers, distributors and buyers in Europe, very little would ever get done. The market for African music is global. Trying to polarise the whole thing into good and evil is far too simplistic.
Do you believe that reissues are generally a force for good?
Reissues are generally a force for good in that they remove the exclusivity and pretentiousness of ‘holy grails’ and make them affordable and easily available to a far larger audience, particularly if one distributes digitally as well as physically.
When can they be a bad thing?
Reissues can be bad when music is put out as bootlegs or edits without bothering to credit the original artists, let alone pay them. They can also cause problems when more than one label wants to release it, this can lead to conflict. Artists getting their music reissued sometimes make the mistake of thinking they can expect a lot of money from record sales, which is not the case when a label reissues 500 or 1000 copies of an album. There’s also cases of contracts causing tension amongst musicians when one member of a band tries to sign on behalf of the rest of his band, or where there are ‘agents’ on the ground securing semi-legit agreements on behalf of labels who don’t want to take the time to visit Africa.
Over the years of running Afrosynth, do you have any words of advice for any people who are interested in reissuing records?
Don’t take short cuts. Don’t assume that if an African artist isn’t on Facebook or doesn’t use email then you can go ahead and release his or her music without them knowing and benefitting from it. Don’t think that if an artist has passed away then his or her family isn’t entitled to part of the benefits. Don’t assume that one band member or an engineer is the one who can agree to license a piece of music – even if they say they can. Even labels don’t always know what they own and might be willing to sign and receive money for music that’s not in their catalogues.
Looking more towards the present, what do you think is the most exciting thing in South African music in 2019?
I’m interested in preserving old SA music, not so much in new music trends. If I was genuinely excited about the current state of SA music, I wouldn’t be so preoccupied with finding, preserving and sharing SA music from the previous generation. When it comes to contemporary SA music I’m more interested in jazz than dance music. There are many amazing young jazz artists in SA but most struggle unless they can tour outside the country.
If you had to choose a song that is the best gateway to South African music, what would it be?
That’s impossible, but if you insist… I think for someone who has never heard any South African song, a good place to start would be ‘Stimela’ by the late Hugh Masekela. It sums up the historical experience of migrant labourers from throughout the region drawn to the city of gold, Johannesburg – the dislocation, the tension between rural and urban, hope and despair.
Turning back to your DJing, do you believe that your championing of South African music has led to a change in which other DJs play?
Perhaps I’ve been part of a movement that has help to open people’s minds to music other than house and techno – specifically disco. I don’t think I can take personal credit for anything that other DJs do, except when they are buying and playing Afrosynth releases. The renewed interest in SA disco can’t be separated from similar interest in music from other parts of Africa and the rest of the world, like Zouk for example, as well as from countries like Brazil, Turkey, Thailand, India, etc.
How has the wide variety of South African genres influenced your own DJing?
For me it helps to be specific, whereas when I started I was also guilty of being “into everything”. SA music is indeed so diverse that I don’t need to look outside the country for inspiration (unless I want to), so my set can range from jazz and traditional to disco and kwaito – but it’s all music that reflects where I come from. At the same time, because I stick to a particular sound, I am always introducing new (old) tracks and retiring songs I feel I’ve played enough or have been picked up by other DJs.
What is your favourite song to challenge a crowd with?
All I do is play songs to “challenge” crowds, songs they’ve never heard. So it’s impossible to pick out one in particular. Often these days I’ll drop one or two tracks that are not African at all but still fit in with the sound I’m going for, like Hall & Oates’ ‘Your Imagination’ or Michael Franks’ ‘When Sly Calls’ – just for a laugh, really. Most DJs take themselves and “their” music so seriously; for me humour and fun has always been something to aim for.
Finally, you are DJing at a festival. It’s dusk. There’s a captivated crowd, an amazing sound system and a perfect view of the landscape. What record do you reach for to soundtrack the sunset?
As I said this changes every month but at the moment it might be something by Dorcas Maloi like ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’, downtempo, bass-heavy and full of cool synths – not sure if you’ll find that on YouTube (yet)!
DJ Okapi will play SuncéBeat Festival from the 24th to 31st July – buy tickets here.