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Master KG: "Jerusalema" and beyond

The young South African DJ, producer, and creator of 2020’s biggest hit "Jerusalema," Master KG, talks about his newfound success, humble beginnings, and the road ahead which includes an upcoming album and collaborations with international hitmakers like Akon and David Guetta.

At this point, everyone knows “Jerusalema” even if they don’t know they know it. The track has become a global phenomenon, touching all aspects of the music world from viral TikTok dance videos to record breaking global Shazam charts. Receiving the remix treatment from African Giant, Burna Boy, getting shoutouts from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, accumulating over a billion streams, and winning the African Entertainment Awards Song of the Year, are among a few of the song’s many accolades. Less is known, however, about the man behind the sound. At just 25 years old Kgaogelo Moagi, aka Master KG, became the figure behind music’s most contagious and, for many, most unexpected hit of 2020. 

As Master KG came through Paris to continue his string of international collaborations, coming off of a massive single ’Shine Your Light’  with David Guetta and Akon, we took the opportunity to sit down with the DJ and producer to find out more about what came before “Jerusalema,” and what we can expect in its aftermath. Master KG is as bright and composed as his music. He sat with a big smile, a cheerful disposition, and an eagerness to talk about his life in music. The more we spoke, the clearer it became that Master KG and the phenomenon surrounding him is more than just a series of falling dominos. In fact, it is a mixture of destiny and determination. Master KG walks us through his humble beginnings, musical inspirations, his first stab at a hit via “Skeleton Bones,” and his new status as a world ambassador for South African music. 

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came into music?

I was born in a village called Kelis. It’s in South Africa born in a province called Limpopo outside a town called Tzaneen. Growing up in the villages it was very hard. Things were not really good. My mother was the only person working and she had me, my brother, a little sister, my grandmother and my grandmother’s two daughters. My mother was the one making sure that everybody eats at the end of the day. So you could imagine. She was working at a hotel and they were not giving them enough money but then she actually could afford for everyone to sleep with something inside. That’s one of those things that pushed me to actually work harder on the music. It started in 2009. That’s when I thought that I love music so much and that I would love to get into it. But then, in 2012, that’s when I started trying to produce, trying to see how these projects work or trying to see the application that they use. I had friends in the village. Around by that time, if you had a PC, a computer, you were able to just make songs because like we’re using FL Studio, just install plug and play. You go, just like that. But that was very very hard. It took me many years. When I felt like things were making sense was in 2015. That’s also when people were starting to say, ‘You’re coming right.’ 

Was music present in the house growing up?

It’s so weird because I’m the only one who’s actually interested in music. Everybody from my family was in anything music related or had anything to do with music. 

You mention elsewhere you’re inspired by a local genre from your village called Kelowin House.

Yeah. It’s a genre that is inspired by our culture. The elements that we use in the music are from those legends who came before us. There’s certain elements that they’ve left behind, so we know this is the sound of Balobedu [a South African ethnic group within the Sotho-Tswana people]. It’s actually made in Balobedian, it’s truly Balobedu. So I take those elements and I’m mixing them with modern house, modern dance, modern scenes and creating something special. So the sound is very baked in our province in Limpopo and there’s many many artists that are doing it and some who are doing pure Balobedu House music. They don’t really mix with the modern house. It’s really really loud and I appreciated where I’m coming from. It’s the sound of the town. We grew up making music. It was not about TV, not about radio, we were just making music. We didn’t have to put the music on the streaming sites or anything like that. We’re just making something and now that it’s done it gets shared by bluetooth to the next and from there it goes to the next person and all that.

Can you name some of the legends you refer to?

There’s people like Penny Penny, Peter Teanet, Ken D, Zama Ndebele, those people who actually held the culture throughout the years before we actually came into existence. What they left behind is something that we’re pushing forward to the world. Also, my music is more inspired by the late Bojo Mujo. He was a DJ producer and a singer. He was also from Limpopo, the same province where I come from. 

Bojo Mujo – Thando Iwam

Tell us about your first breakout hit.

It started in 2018 when I had my first song called “Skeleton Move”. I was signed with a label called Open Mic. The song started off slow. Coming from the villages now trying to enter that market it was time for me to actually make my music everywhere, in South Africa as a whole. So that was too big. You can have a song that can be listened to on the other side (of the country) and not even know about it. But that was me making my music to be heard everywhere in South Africa. So you can understand that a lot of people, some of them never actually even knew the sound or understood the music. When it started, it started slow. Then with the grace of God, “Skeleton Move” picked up four months after release, and then it became bigger. When I say bigger I mean it went crazy. Everybody was like, “What’s going on here?” It’s a song with a video and nobody was just looking from afar. Then a couple of months later it started getting rotation from radios, starting trending, people are dancing, it’s topping the charts… Yeah man, I won a couple of awards from that song. After that the song went as far as crossing borders going to the neighbouring countries in Africa and some parts of Europe. It was actually a success. 

How does dance work into your music?

It goes like a brother and a sister for me. My music and the dance is like a brother and a sister. Every time when I drop a song it’s always been people creating dance routines and all that. Also people just dancing to different kinds of things on the song that was like catching people’s attention. So, I would say it’s like a brother and sister. Even if I make a song that’s aimed to inspire people, that’s meant to teach people about something, I know for sure that people are gonna go crazy and create a dance move from that. If it’s more inspirational, or it’s about something, there’s always that thing that I think my music has to make everyone wanna get down, have fun, and dance.

Master KG – Skeleton Move

There’s also this constant thread of positivity in your sound.

Yes, big time! Especially myself growing up in the villages, I just wanna spread that positivity that everything is possible, you can shine. Doesn’t really matter where you come from, doesn’t really matter your background or like what kind of music you do, you’re always spreading love and spreading unity and spreading hope. It’s something that I’m all about. I think also myself, without those elements that I just mentioned from the start of my career, I don’t think I would be around today. Maybe I would have given up a long time ago. But because of the love that I had, the hope that I had, and how united I was with my family and everyone surrounding me, it took me far to where I am today.

Did you always expect such success?

No, not at all. I don’t want to lie to you. I never had any expectations, or I never saw any vision of “Jerusalema” becoming what it is today. For me, it was just making music like I always do. One thing is for sure, I always saw in my music that there’s something about it. Because all of those songs that are released throughout the years it’s been a build up. Every song, it had a pace where it went through and opened certain doors. Another one came, it went through and it opened a certain door. And then when “Jerusalema” came it went even more crazy, it did things that never happened before. In my mind it was one of those things that I never thought of but just saw it coming even though it got bigger than I ever thought. It’s something that’s just a build up. For example, “Skeleton Move”, it made people go crazy. I remember that time we were just independent, me and the team Open Mic, but the music was just travelling places where we don’t even have the voice or connection to get people to play our music. So, I could tell that there’s something happening. Totally, if I work harder something bigger can happen. And then “Jerusalema” came and it went even farther. But none of those things that “Jerusalema” has done, I never thought of them like, “Yeah this song is gonna be number one.”

What’s the story behind the creation of “Jerusalema”? 

When I made “Jerusalema” it was a year after Skeleton Bones was released and it had done all those crazy things, winning awards left and right and center and breaking some records… I remember by that time I was in that state where everybody was on my neck busy saying, “Man how are you gonna make a song like that? That’s the biggest song of your career.” Can you imagine? Because also, where I come from in South Africa, such bigger things not a lot of people can believe in. So when something like Skeleton Bones happens, that’s the peak you understand? Everybody felt like that’s the peak. You cannot top that. So I was in that space where there was a lot of negativity going around. People were just saying things and messing with my mind. Then I went to the studio with a positive mind and said let me make something spiritual and something touchy. Something with some positivity. Then I started making the instrumental for “Jerusalema” in July 2019. I worked on it and after it was done I listened to it many many times and I could hear that the song was so touching. Then, I was like, let me find someone who has those vocals that have that soul and that spirituality to match the beat. 

I didn’t think of anyone else than Nomcebo Zikode. She wasn’t really a big artist or even a major artist in South Africa. She was just someone who sings well. I remember at that time she never even had a single of her own. So she was just someone who has a beautiful soul and was featured on other people’s projects. And then I called her, she was so happy to work with me like, “I love Skeleton Move so much, yeah let’s do this my brother!” She came to my studio, we sat down, and I told her I want this song to be so spiritual. You listen to the beat already, it’s going there, let’s push it to that level. So we sat down, played the beat countless times, and something just came, we started vibing with the melody and from there that was it, we killed it. The song was never written. For me I would say it was never written. It was kind of a freestyle, something that just came to our mind and we just kept putting and recording each and every part of it. And that was it.

Now you’re a quasi ambassador for South Africa and African music. How do you think about your role representing where you come from?

Everywhere I go I always put out the culture. I think even if I don’t put it out, my presence, being there, it’s gonna make people around me in that particular place want to know where I come from. If someone doesn’t know the place they will come and say, “You know I saw this guy who did “Jerusalema,” he says he’s from South Africa”. Then somebody is going to go down and search what South Africa is all about. At the same time I’m just spreading the culture. Our sound. There’s a lot of people that I’m currently working with, some bigger stars and all that, and I’m coming up with that South African flavour to it. To just show them that yo, this is the sound, this is where I come from. It was made there, it started there and they like it. One thing is for sure, everywhere you go as long as you are from South Africa I feel like you are carrying the whole culture of South Africa in you. For example, I always put on made in South Africa brands that I have right now, this jacket, it was made in South Africa. I always make sure that everywhere I go I spread everything that has to do with my country.  I feel like there’s a lot that we have in South Africa that the world doesn’t know about. That the world needs to know about. We’re gonna make sure they fly down to go and get it. Or even use it! I believe in the sound, the more I’m working on it, it will become the sound that everyone will jump on and they’re gonna love it.

How about your recent international collaborations with the likes of Akon and David Guetta?

It feels great. It’s one of those things that I never saw coming. I grew up listening to David and Akon. Those are people that I just saw from far… watching them on the TV. This is crazy. Seeing them do crazy numbers like, “How do they do it?” I was like yo, I don’t think it’s even possible to see this person. You just see this person as like, I don’t man. It’s like God. Something that’s just been praised and you don’t feel like you will ever come close to that thing because it’s like far far away from you. Looking today, here we are, working together, making magic together. It’s amazing man. 

And one thing I like is that the guys are dedicated to the work. As much as they’re superstars they’ve been here before me, they’ve done more than I’ve done. But every time we get down into working they always make sure that they put work first. Everything is done on time. They don’t delay. Same as Burna Boy, he worked on the “Jerusalema” remix and he didn’t take time. I think in two days the song was done and he sent it back to me. I liked it, I remember I liked it so much. We never even took one break to correct it or anything like that. It does tell you they’re so dedicated to the work. They’re so passionate about it. You don’t even need to wait or feel like these guys don’t respect me or don’t see me or anything like that.

You’ve also had a recent shoutout by Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 list.

It’s amazing. One thing for sure is that they’re all watching the moves that I’m making the impact that I’m putting out there. You know, it’s amazing they recognise the work that I’m doing out there. There’s people out there who actually see the worth and see the impact that you’re making and they actually appreciate it and actually value it. I’m too grateful for that.

It seems like this impact has also been enabled by access to music technology, TikTok, Shazam, YouTube, etc.

Shout out to the internet. The internet is life. The internet has changed my life in so many ways. I feel like today there’s many many artists out there who don’t have labels backing them and just with the internet they are able to survive. They’re able to put their music out there and it’s streamed and watched by millions of people. That’s power right there. Same thing as me man. You know, like TikTok, it took my song from one level to another. Which is so amazing. Same happens to Shazam. Same happens to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. All these platforms. All of these for me take a big role in making the song what it is today because the videos were just flying around every platform. When you open and there’s a video that is out there and it’s shared it’s tweeted it’s done all different kinds of things. 

I remember the first time when I posted the dance. I was in Paris by the way, it was last year. There was a video from a group in Angola that I saw and liked. Then I took it and I posted it on my Facebook. You won’t believe the shares that I got from that video. Some of the shares were not even normal to me. I remember the post when I checked a couple months later the shares were around 200 thousand. That’s crazy. On Facebook alone. And the views were going up to like 15 million. Then I looked back a couple of months later when it was happening on TikTok and I was like, this is the same thing I posted a couple of months back, what’s going on right now? What happened? What changed? 

I just believe in the power of social media. All through those months it has been shared and it’s been spreading around the world. 

So what’s next for Master KG?

I’m currently working on my album. It will be the first time ever that Master KG is releasing an album that is worked in advance. You know, I’ve dropped two albums in my name but even when I look back today none of those albums were something that I put in the work for months and months. The first album Skeleton Moves, how did it come about? It was a song that went crazy and then me and the team took songs that leaked already. We just took everything and put it together and released an album. Same for “Jerusalema.” It went crazy I remember because there were certain awards ceremonies that we wanted to qualify for, so we just had to package an album with some songs that we’re not really leaked, some were leaked some were not and put it out. It’s not that body of work that’s actually focused on putting out an album. So I believe in this album, the third one. Even though for me it’s the first one, because it’s the first time I’ve dropped an album I’ve worked so hard on and planned everything so well  in advance for and all that. So yeah man, looking forward to it.

Listen to Master KG’s “Shine Your Light” with Akon and David Guetta below.

Master KG & David Guetta – Shine Your Light [Feat Akon]