An Ode to * GQOM! *
I haven’t blogged about music in quite a while, but I felt the need to “cleanse the timeline” and what better way to do that than with the music that keeps me going, GQOM! This always works because usually my particular brand of haters are deeply uninterested in learning more about how unique and diverse modern pan-African cultural dynamics are (hmmwonderwhy) which I find most fascinating to dissect through music.
Though my most read posts are, unfortunately, the posts-that-must-not-be-named, what’s comforting when I look at my Medium stats for all-time views and reads, is that the next five or so posts are about African music. My literary analysis of “Balaya” by A-Star is in the top spot, and two on “Jealous” by FireboyDML and “Wakanda Forever” by Sho Madjozi follow shortly afterward. Next are a few of my hardware and social justice related blog posts, then, with not too many views but a surprising number of people who responded “I noticed the same thing!” (aka ‘engagement’) is a post about “Tequila” by EARTHGANG, a U.S./Atlanta based rap duo, and how that song immediately reminded me of Ethiopian music, and in particular, composer Mulatu Astatke. People who responded eventually helped me figure out that it was because the sample was from The Budos Band, a group which draws inspiration from Ethiopian music (so I was right!)
I know that this probably has something to do with accidental SEO optimization, particularly when I use the titles of songs in the post, but it still warms my heart anyway okay, and you can’t take that away from me ❤
I wrote about Gqom already in “Why You Should Listen to African Music” (also a highly-viewed story) so here’s a quick re-cap:
Can you say “Gqom”? No. You can’t. It has a click in it. It’s a Zulu word that imitates the sound of hitting a drum. And this is my favorite thing because it’s cultural-appropriation-proof — you won’t be able to call yourself a Gqom artist if you can’t say Gqom, and it’s still a stretch if you can’t speak Zulu, and learning Zulu would require so much investment on behalf of a non-African that by that time you’ll have actually had to learn the culture.
This hopefully means we won’t ever have problems like Post Malone.
Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is where Gqom was born. Both Gqom and South African house music are vague successors of Kwaito, electronic music from the ’90s that was popular in this region. It influences not just South Africa, but leaks into Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Zambia too, which is why I see it as a trait of the southern region of Africa rather than only South Africa in particular. And this makes sense, since many languages in South Africa are also spoken in surrounding countries, particularly Zimbabwe.
Gqom is a genre that made me think a lot about language. With a minimalist, bass-heavy back-beat, the lyrics in Gqom take on a sort of chanting cadence, emphasizing each sound, even if you don’t know the meaning.
Most recently on my tumblr blog, I posted the music video for “Huku” by Sho Madjozi that’s actually in Swahili. I explained how in Kiswahili, “Huku niambia kwamba we unanipenda” translates to “You did not tell me that you love me” in English, and how this relates to the theme of the music video, where some guy is too chicken to tell Sho that he likes her. And interestingly, “Huku” also means chicken in several other languages, like Shona, so it could also be interpreted as calling the guy a “chicken”. This is what I find so cool about lots of African music; the diversity of each country or region, along with global influences like English peppered in, add to the nuances and slang words and metaphors.
Great, so now that you know what Gqom is, it’s important to understand that the basic Gqom type beat is similar to EDM, which is because of the Dutch influence on South Africa. Except, in my opinion, kids from Durban took that European deep house sound, turned the bass wayyy up and made it wayyy better!
The consistent beat, the chant-like lyrics, the deep bass — gqom is perfect for exercising, writing essays, coding, cranking out work if you’re the type of person that gets distracted by song lyrics, and cleaning your house. Any time you roll your eyes and admit you have to just get through something, gqom makes for a rhythmic wallpaper, pushing you forward with every downbeat, and I have been riding this beat the entire pandemic, a time-period that has been the definition of “just have to get to tomorrow”.
Technically speaking Gqom is only the most hardcore, least mainstream music, like “Shut Up and Groove” by Distruction Boyz or “No Rush” by DJ Tira. But Gqom has softer siblings, like South African house music and Amapiano. In fact, another one of my favorite artists from the South is Sun-El Musician, who makes this gentle house music, frequently with soulful feminine vocals that make me think he must be a kind person IRL (also he still responds directly to so many of his fans online that I feel like he has to be one of the most down-to-earth folks in the industry).
Some songs straddle the dividing line between genre, maintaining the heavy, harsh beat, but contributing these choir-like vocals, like another recent favorite, “Le Number” by BrandySA.
Without a doubt it has penetrated larger African pop music themes. Nigerian pop artist Mr Eazi has a Distruction Boyz Gqom remix of “Open & Close” (re-titled “Shaha Kushasha”). It goes all the way back to Patoranking’s hit “Available”, when South African dance was having a moment and Sherrie Silver put the Gwara Gwara in Childish Gambino’s “This is America” music video.
In one of my current favorites for 2021, “Require” by DJ Tunez ft. Olamide, you can hear the clear gqom influence on Nigerian DJ Tunez. The harsher bass sounds, mellowed out by Nigerians’ love of sweet, melodic vocals, treble percussion like shakers, and wind instruments. I listen to this and I hear a living portrait of Afro-pop, and the new ways in which African people are interacting, listening, dancing, and sharing online with streaming platforms and social media.
The last time I had an influx of internet trolls I turned to Rico Nasty, Beyonce, Megan Thee Stallion, and Cardi B. I still listen to them of course, and they remind me of my inherent power, of everything I’ve faced already to get here. After listening to my playlist entitled “boss-ass ladies”, I feel that mean rando internet comments are nothing more than annoying mosquito noises, mosquitos which disintigrate when too close to my flame — in this way, female rappers reaffirm my confidence.
But something unique about gqom and a lot of other modern African music is the way it fills me with optimism. Most gqom videos feature a lot of footage of people partying — but not necessarily models or camera-ready types. Sometimes it’s just crowds of regular people, girls in baggy sports jerseys and sweatpants, and then a cut to a lil kid busting a move. Kids in their basement in Durban and hosting outdoor parties in Joburg townships have as much, if not more, influence on a global music industry as huge music labels in the East, West and South of the continent. Viral dance videos feature excited children in urban streets and rural fields alike, filmed on now universally-accessible cell phone cameras. In this strange era of NFTs and manufactured concepts of ownership on art, no one owns gqom.
Gqom is for the people.