In a car on his way to Maputo, despite his shaky internet connection and the noise from the engine, Aymos seems genuinely happy to talk to us. “It is such a great experience to go elsewhere, to other parts of the world,” he says, “because I get to experience nature, where our roots are from.” Born Amos Babili Shili, the singer grew up in the urban jungle of Johannesburg, precisely in the township of Thembisa, located North-East of the vibrant metropolis. Until recently, Thembisa and Johannesburg were all Aymos knew. But before becoming a professional artist, music was already broadening his perspective. “Growing in Johannesburg contributed a lot to my music, helping me tap into different genres quicker. Because everything happens here! Everyone is trying to reach out to Joburg, and this is where I was born and bred,” he tells us. In an environment known for the constant hustle and bustle, where the popular tunes are raw and electronic, he confesses he was not necessarily listening to the same music as his peers. “I grew up in a very strong Christian background. I used to go to church literally each and every day. With no choice!” he laughs. “So I listened to a lot of gospel music, Afropop and jazz. Chords! I was really obsessed with chords. From there on, I learnt how to play an instrument, and how to sing. Whenever I sang in church, people would come to me and say ‘Aymos, you are such a blessing, you sang that song and my life changed, this happened…’ Seeing this response, it made me realize that I could do this full time. That’s why I really love meaningful music and… musical music, if that makes sense,” he adds with a smile.
Knowing Aymos’ style, “musical music” actually makes total sense. South Africa is currently deep under the amapiano wave and the young singer’s contribution in this boiling electronic dance craze has been to put soul and musicality into the hits. On his biggest tracks, like “eMcimbini” and “iParty Yami”, alongside club kings DJ Maphorisa and Kabza Da Small, he sings with a gospel voice, brings guitar and flutes, rendering the songs somehow tender in their house music roughness. The history of his track “Zaka”, his first big step in the industry, reflects perfectly the two facets Aymos merges. Two versions of the song coexist. The first one, released in 2019, is a soft-hearted self-financed Afropop video with a couple of views. The description is the following: “South African petrol attendant Aymos Shili releases HIT SONG Zaka […]. The song is all about highlighting issues like poverty, unemployment and crime.” The second version, released one year later, is an amapiano hit with the likes of Mas Musiq, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza, accumulating more than five million views. “‘Zaka’ was the last song I was going to do,” the singer recalls. “After dropping the song and the video, I went on for like 3 months and there were no gigs, no coverage, no articles, literally nothing. No one was interested because of the amapiano wave. Then, Mas Musiq asked me for the vocals, and literally after 3 hours, the song was big. People were praising me, but I was like… guys, this song has been out for months! So to be honest with you, at first I didn’t even love the remix because I felt like it was too fast and too hard. But everyone else loved the song, so who am I to dislike the whole idea? So I just thought, if I can’t beat them, I might as well join them.”
South Africans were quickly blown away by this golden child, who could make them dance without any vulgar lyrics or hard street beats. His peak came with the anthem “eMcimbini”, an instant classic. But when we remind him of this period, his eyebrows frown. “After ‘Zaka’, I desperately needed a follow up. ‘eMcimbini’ was that song. It was the biggest song in the country or maybe even in the whole continent. I felt like that was the time I had been waiting for my whole life. And when it hit, quarantine came about. It was traumatising. I remember I had more than 50 gigs on my calendar, and I saw them being cancelled each and every day. I could see ‘minus 10 000’, ‘minus 17 000’… I was left with zero. I went broke… and my song was booming in the streets. It was so confusing to my family and my friends. I felt like I wanted to die. Was this meant for Aymos or was this a pandemic affecting really everyone? At that time, I was also expecting a sign so you can just imagine.”
Throughout our interview, this will be the only moment Aymos stops smiling. The dark days actually seem to be far gone, and the singer’s resiliency is easily felt as he happily speaks to us about his music. His switch to amapiano was made complexly but successfully for one simple reason: Aymos is different from the current scene. His sweet voice, peaceful lyrics, and angelic appearance are in stark contrast to the artists of his level, who often live by the party and name drop expensive brands in their choruses. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just blend in? “I was always taught that if I want to stand out as an artist, I need to be unique. Also, writing meaningful messages opens doors: tomorrow I can perform at church! I was always scared of what the pastor of my congregation would say if I suddenly decided to sing ‘shake your booty’. I always wanted to keep my music clean so I don’t have to explain myself whenever I meet people from church or from family. But I also want to not lose the young people, and have that street language.” This willingness to stand out goes beyond music. When we ask him, a singer with hundreds of thousands of streams, if the “Farmer” mention of his social media bios is just a stance, he negates it firmly. “Not at all! The farming industry is a very big and exciting industry. My grandfather taught me how to plant, how to raise a lamb, a cow, a chicken, and it’s only fair for me to continue this legacy. A career in music is never guaranteed, so I need something for myself that I can fall back into. And it takes people like me to empower other young people so we can all do great things in that field.”
Cultivating his difference and his strengths is exactly what got Aymos in the position he is now. If there was one message to keep from his new album, it would be to stay true to ourselves. Titled “Yimi Lo”, meaning “this is me”, the set of 14 tracks skillfully captures Aymos’ diverse musical influences, and reveals a lot on how the young adult thinks. “I’ve always been told ‘hey Aymos, here’s a beat, can you sing like this, about that’. And on this album, I finally felt like I was in control of my music,” he tells us proudly. “Creating this album would only have made sense if I described myself. It’s not one of those albums where it’s only bangers from the first to the last song; it carries positive messages and values.” The songs are indeed meaningful, switching from upbeat amapiano “Ayabuyanga” to fully Afropop “Yimi Lo”. The melancholic “Risasekile”, for example, tells the story of a fading relationship: “What I am singing about is amending the broken heart, what happened wrong. Isn’t it possible for us to fix it? Why didn’t we communicate?” “Muhle”, on the other hand, is a shining ode to natural beauty: You don’t have to put on makeup, you don’t have to put on expensive weaves, because you are beautiful just as you are!” Upon first listen, this writer was surprised to hear Aymos sing about a certain “lifestyle” or the listing brands like Roberto Cavalli, Balencia’, or Givenchi on “AmaPaperBag”. But the singer is quick to laugh and reassure us: “I would rather buy a cow or a tractor! But that’s the pressure we get as musicians. When you get your first paycheck, the first thing we think of is buying a Gucci belt to gain confidence and fans. The song is literally saying, ‘I’ve worked so hard these past few months, I can’t waste it on Gucci and Louis Vuitton.’ Maybe when I’ll own millions!” Aymos’ album clearly challenges mainstream amapiano. Is becoming wildly successful still a goal? “Well, I literally have no pressure now,” he answers calmly. “At first I was always scared of what was going to happen if I was no longer relevant, if someone else came in with a better song. Until I understood that if I have a gift, no one can take it away from me.”
Yimi Lo by Aymos, available now.