In the South African coastal capital of Cape Town, DIY music doesn't refer to a genre or a lifestyle. "Doing it yourself" is just the way you do anything as a young artist in CPT—if you want something to exist, whether it be a safe space in the club for nonbinary and queer folks to dance or a place to listen to next-level gqom mixes, you have to build it on your own. But instead of wilting under the pressure, Cape Town's underground music community is flourishing. A new documentary, premiering today on The FADER, rides along with four Capetonian artists who represent the most forward-thinking pillars of that community. Each one is building a new movement in their city with little support, but plenty of will to manifest their vision. Inside homes, self-built studios, and basement party spaces, the documentary reveals a community that has moved beyond being just independent of a bigger system. Cape Town's young artists are building a system of their own.
The documentary is the first of four to come from True Music Africa, a joint project between Boiler Room and Ballantine's scotch whisky. Cape Town is a long way away from Scotland, but the connection becomes more clear when you consider the whisky blenders have a long-running partnership with Boiler Room, centered around giving local underground artists the kind of global audience that a Boiler Room set brings. Tom Elton, Ballantine's Head of Music, describes the ongoing collaboration as a perfect fit: "For us, it was pretty much a no-brainer from the start. Boiler Room have been right behind cool and interesting genres as well as emerging talent since their inception, and they’re all about connecting these people and their music scenes with fans around the world. That's exactly what Ballantine’s set out to do with True Music."
The Cape Town documentary isn't the first time Ballantine's have shown up in Africa. Tom explains feeling like they'd only scratched the surface at their previous shows, hence the four documentary episodes and expanded multi-nation tour. But returning to South Africa to feature Cape Town was crucial, says Tom: "Cape Town in particular, it’s that ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality these artists have that sets them apart. They might not have access to a major label, they might not have access to a recording studio they might not even have access to quality equipment, but they find a way to create and perform. These guys are some of the most inspiring artists we’ve worked with."
Each of the film's four featured artists are undoubtedly a product of their city's distinct culture and history, but their modern take on DIY self-sufficiency is just the tip of a global wave. As the traditional gatekeepers of the culture industry continue to crumble, it’s the young artists of cities like Cape Town that look more and more like the future. Watch the full documentary above.
Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music Africa will continue with live shows and documentaries from three cities across the continent: Douala, Nairobi and Johannesburg, showcasing local underground artists who live and breathe the DIY spirit.
Watch the page for upcoming dates, and scroll below to meet Cape Town’s featured artists.
“The only reason we were being slept on before is because we weren’t realizing we could just make it by ourselves.”
You have to play a lot of roles to gain any traction as a young independent DJ in 2018. K-$ makes it look pretty effortless. With an endlessly endearing online presence, plenty of gigs modeling stylish local gear brands like 2bop, and crowded rooms shouting along to his live sets, the young artist seems well-equipped to take on the challenge of making his own wave. And while K-$'s sense of style is as modern as it gets, his DJ sets are full of warm nostalgic pop and deep-cut 70s/80s grooves. It's a strikingly mature sound, so it's no surprise it draws from K-$ memories of listening to his parents house parties. "My music origins start with my family," he says. "The music they saw as timeless was passed down to me, and helped me to form an opinion of what good music is."
Beyond his family, K-$ is far from a solo player. A member of Cape Town's photography and music focused LIT collective ("I call them my uncles"), he and his crew have received some seriously good looks for their regular basement parties, which also stand out for being notably safe spaces for CPT's queer-identified community. When asked how queer and non-binary individuals are represented in Cape Town in general, K-$ responds: "We represent ourselves. Even if you are an ally, you can offer support, but no one can tell our story like we do. Queer artists like me and my queer family put great thought and effort into creating our art, and we’re still fighting against the hate, violence and bullshit we receive in response for letting our lights shine.There’s more love than hate though, and we’re just gonna leave all the haters in the dirt where they belong."
It's a mission statement as inspiring as it is uncompromising. And it matches perfectly with K-$ other mission statement, when asked what he hopes to contribute to the scene: "I hope to bring more good, unapologetic, cheeky, but wholesome energy to the game, and lots more of your moms to the dancefloor <3"
“The days of the boss, the days of the main man in charge. It’s kind of dying out.”
Born Riyadh Roberts, the 25 year-old YoungstaCPT is a fiercely conscious hip-hop artist whose blend of hyperlocal political commentary, swaggering flows, and mixed Afrikaans/English rapping make him stand out immediately as an MC. It's a sound that draws from the global legacy of conscious hip hop, but sounds like something uniquely Capetonian. It's a lyrical skill honed with considerable practice —the MC has been rapping since he was about 12, and has a whopping 22 mixtapes currently under his belt, with plenty of local fans to match.
There's definitely a giddy thrill in watching an audience of Capetonians scream joyously at every line as YoungstaCPT runs through a very localized freestyle of Mask Off, but there is a thread of serious political consciousness that runs through all his music, a trait that he says has been core to Capetonian hip-hop for quite some time now: "We adopted the artform very early and we took pages from outspoken groups like NWA & Public Enemy. The music we created reflected the same reality from a South African standpoint."
The way YoungstaCPT sees it, rapping isn't about just being an entertainer. In Cape Town, it comes with real responsibilities. "Apartheid played a big role in the music that came from the Cape, and it really did give the underprivileged community a chance to voice their opinions. I make sure to describe the harsh realities of the daily lives. Even if it doesn’t appeal to a mainstream audience, at the end of the day it’s the truth."
“If you’re just looking for a break, it’s not going to happen for you in Cape Town. Unless you make it for yourself.”
Dope Saint Jude considers Tupac and Riot Grrrl to be about equal influences in her life and art. Beyond producing some excellent music, those two things share a common bond in their fearless independence, and DSJ represents the same. After some time spent as a drag king in Cape Town, the rapper taught herself to produce her own music as a way of making sure it belonged to her and her alone. The resulting head-turning fusionist style—think staccato rapping Yeats references over joyful, Claire-de-Lune sampling trap hi-hats—shows both the success of her method and the depth of her natural talent.
Lyrically, Dope Saint Jude's proudly confrontational bars explore romantic boundaries, queer identity, and the constant need for progress in the face of looming oppression. Says DSJ: "I come from a mixed race family, and I grew up in the Cape Flats that was quite complicated because of the apartheid layout, coming from a black family, living in a colored family, going to white schools. And that has influenced my work and the way I approach everything. Because as much as I don't want to make everything about politics, I can't run away from it. I've been exposed to it my whole life."
“If you want something to be done, you’ll have to do it yourself.”
Aux Womdantso would know. The Durban-born house music mutation of gqom is the fastest growing genre in South Africa (and hugely buzzy on the internet), but until the appearance of Aux Womdantso, born Thulani Sam and originally from Mau-Mau in Nyanga East, the sound was mostly unheardof in Cape Town. The young DJ has since served as gqom's local ambassador, building a thriving local party scene from pretty much nothing and stacking up tape after tape of locally beloved mixes. After cementing his following through two local radio shows, the DJ's music now bumps from Ubers and backyards alike throughout CPT.
After his dozens of increasingly fine-tuned sets, Aux Womandantso now plans to begin producing his own tracks in collaboration with other gqom DJs. Despite his growing profile, Sam remains modest and focused. Gqom might be spreading around the world recently, but he remembers first falling in love with the sound all the way back in 2009, when proto-gqom mixes from DJ Nutty and DJ Sox used to spin on South African station Metro FM. It's an early commitment that in the long run, has paid off greatly for Aux Womdantso. "Other DJs used to criticize us for playing Gqom, saying its junk music and it wont go anywhere. But now gqom is taking over."