Amidst the madness of apartheid, South Africa’s music industry in the 1980s propelled artists quickly to stardom, often at a young age. Some dwindled at the prospect of newfound fame and fortune. Others took on the responsibility and used their power to spread messages of consciousness that would be instrumental in bringing the racist regime to its knees.
By the mid-1980s, South Africa’s bubblegum era was already in full swing. One of the scene’s key acts was Harari, a band that launched the solo careers not only of founding members Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse and ‘Om’ Alec Khaoli but also ‘Funky’ Masike Mohapi, Condry Ziqubu and many others. Their 1985 album Heartbeat featured two new artists who would go on to play a major role in taking SA music into the ‘90s: Sello Twala, known as Chicco, and Danny Malewa, who would soon become better known as Kamazu.
Malewa was born in Orlando West in Soweto in 1961, an only child raised by his mother Thelma and grandfather Steven Malewa, who was forced to live under house arrest for his role in the then banned ANC, where he once rubbed shoulders with a young Nelson Mandela. This placed the Malewa house under constant scrutiny from police and local informants, who aimed to ensure that he complied with the law preventing more than two people entering the house at any given time, thereby prohibiting any form of meeting or gathering.
“Police used to come here, kick in the door looking for my grandfather, [see that] he’s here, [make him] sign, present. Then they go. Any time of the day they’d come in,” recalls Kamazu.
His grandfather’s freedom of movement was also severely restricted. "If he had to go to town, he had to go the police station in Orlando, tell them, ‘I’m going to town’, then he gets a permit, then he goes to town.”
When Steven Malewa passed away in the early ‘80s, he left his grandson ready to step out into an increasingly volatile climate, armed with a deep insight into the brutal and absurd politics of the day, as well as a growing awareness of the power of music to fight it.
This spirit of activism had already fed into his own musical tastes, drawing him particularly to the politically charged sounds of reggae and Afrobeat.
“What drew me to that music was because it was banned in SA. We were not ‘allowed’ to hear reggae, we were not ‘allowed’ to hear Fela, ‘cos it was political, it was conscious music. I used to go to these ‘serious’ shebeens as a kid - ‘cos I was a smart kid - where elderly people go and they play their records there. They’d have their DJ there. I was 19, 20 - fresh from school,” remembers Malewa.
Like many other youngsters in Soweto, American sounds were also always on his radar. “I loved the Gap Band, funk - the Commodores, I loved that sound. I did listen to some of that, but I wasn’t focused on that. I was focused on Mahlathini, Mpharanyana and reggae. I liked playing music that nobody else was playing. People would think, ‘Oh, this is nice! Where did you get this from?’”
Compiled by DJ Okapi, this new anthology on Afrosynth Records brings together six songs from Kamazu’s career, all mastered from the original tapes: two of his biggest hits, his 1986 breakthrough ‘Korobela’ and his 1991 smash ‘Indaba Kabani’, two more obscure songs from his catalogue, ‘Victim’ and ‘Why’, and two songs from his kwaito-inspired 1997 comeback album, Ghetto Style, ‘Mjukeit’ and ‘Atikatareni’. Common throughout is the artist’s commitment to addressing social issues in a positive, uplifting way.Buy it here.