After apartheid: Kwaito music and the aesthetics of freedom

Gavin Steingo, University of Pennsylvania


Kwaito, a genre of electronic music that emerged alongside the democratization of South Africa in the early 1990s, is commonly understood as the voice of the black youth in the post-apartheid period. Kwaito is an expression of celebration and freedom in a democratic South Africa, but its practitioners also challenge the very meaning of freedom in the twenty-first century. If music during apartheid was the struggle for freedom, then kwaito is the struggle of freedom. How does one struggle, not for freedom, but with freedom and in freedom? How is this type of freedom expressed through music? ^ Based on fieldwork in the greater Johannesburg area, this dissertation approaches kwaito's relationship to freedom on multiple registers. Kwaito was born in Soweto, South Africa's largest urban ghetto and the key site of the anti-apartheid struggle. Although there are no restrictions on movement alter apartheid, musical praxis in Soweto nonetheless occurs in the context of radical immobility. Due to the perniciousness of crime and a layout that was designed to make internal circulation difficult, Soweto musicians spend most of their lives at home, musicking with a finite cohort. Political freedom is thus constrained by a number of conditions that both disable and enable various aesthetic practices. ^ Although kwaito is often considered a form of black identity politics, on the national level its audience rejects the possibility of identitarian representation. As a formal democracy, the South African nation is emptied of positive contents and constitutes a "community" that is not based on racial or ethnic ties. By disavowing the ability to represent the nation, kwaito frees citizens from apartheid separatism. On the international level, kwaito musicians are continually denied the status of cosmopolitan subjects capable of contributing to global popular culture. The West perennially forces "gifts" (cultural, economic, and otherwise) upon the non-West, but refuses reciprocation. Kwaito musicians struggle against this form of global violence, demanding a reconfiguration of the threshold of the audible. Through ever widening circles of context, this dissertation examines kwaito as a set of sonic practices that transforms and challenges the very idea of what it means to be free. ^

Subject Area

Anthropology, Cultural|Music|South African Studies

Recommended Citation

Steingo, Gavin, "After apartheid: Kwaito music and the aesthetics of freedom" (2010). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3429190.