by Shiba Melissa Mazaza
October 15, 2021
Introducing the South African women, from private school icons to new school trailblazers, shaping amapiano’s meteoric rise on the global electronic music scene. Follow the “Women of amapiano” playlist on Spotify!
With the rise of amapiano comes a renaissance for South African music, as the “voice of the people” known as kwaito finds itself evolved to create new means of expression in the global pop-culture conversation. House music has always been a male-dominated genre, and South Africa, a constant battleground for women who are changing the narratives around their contributions to the country’s progress. Since before amapiano became what it is today, icons such as Brenda Fassie, Lebo Mathosa, Thembi Seete, Miriam Makeba and many more brought their own flavours to a burgeoning scene that allowed women to be revered for their attention to detail, unshakable poise and perseverance behind the mic. Thanks to them, the following women have DJed, produced, rapped and sang their way into unabashed prominence, and now the rest of the world can finally enjoy them in both live and digital spaces.
Dubbed “Private School Amapiano” for its sophisticated attention to jazz, deep house and vibrant instrumentals, artists such as Babalwa M are responsible for continuing to keep so-called underground roots of amapiano simultaneously pristine and crispy fresh, while the new school voices upheld by the likes of Banaba Des hold the door ajar for boundary defying acts to take the stage alongside them. Well known powerhouses Sha Sha, Lady Du, DBN GOGO and Kamo Mphela have made their global debuts and shown the world exactly why the women of this country are deserving of the reputations they uphold, with the women from decades before walking so that the following vocalists could run — and today, the torch they collectively bear is one that has the globe hanging on their every word.
These women are unparalleled in their ability to craft hit after hit in amapiano’s rise to prominence.
The unanimously named “queen of private school amapiano,” Babalwa M is best known for her gleaming vocals on pioneer Kelvin Momo’s productions, such as “iMali,” on the 2020 smash EP Bayeke. Often described as “ahead of her time”, she welcomes Kelvin back on her long-awaited debut album titled Aluta Continua, to remind us why she’s more than earned her place as one of the most prized vocalists to blaze a trail for the other women on this list. First played over a year ago during Momo’s Lockdown sessions, fans across the country were happy to wait for this iconic singer-songwriter’s moment in the sun, and every note has been worth it for those who value more jazz, soul and pure piano perfection.
Get to know her on: Suka
Vosloorus-hailing Buhle Manyati, known fondly as Boohle, is responsible for writing some of the biggest songs amapiano has had on offer, from the Cassper Nyovest and Abidoza accented “Siyathandana” (which has just surpassed 6 million views on Youtube), to the Josiah De Disciple-produced “Mama”, which recently got a powerful remix by Afro-house master Da Capo. In 2017 the founder of the Tshwane Gospel Choir fell under her spell, and shortly thereafter she claimed number one spots on South Africa’s local radio stations left and right. Her latest project, the Sfikile EP, is a sparkling testament to her vocal prowess anchored by amapiano legend Gaba Cannal and the late Mpura, as well as her abilities with the pen — which came as no surprise after 2020’s earth-shaking albums in Umbuso Wabam’nyama and Izibongo, which showed us the nimble nature of her musical mind, particularly on the Afro-soulistic “Give It All”.
Basetsana Maluleka (or Bassie) is one of the most well loved singer-songwriters to enter the game in previous years. Finding her feet from Windmill Park, Boksburg, going on to conduct a local choir at 18, to co-creating smash hits with amapiano pioneers MFR Souls in “Bathandwa” along with the Boohle-featured “Sizani” produced immaculately by T-Man SA, Bassie has enjoyed many highlights on her path to greatness including a stellar appearance on the impactful Channel O Lockdown House Party in Season 1. With her debut album titled Msholokazi set for release on November 12th and featuring heavyweights Tyler ICU and Mgiftoz, Bassie is set to bring her full arsenal to the dancefloor this SA festival season, thus far unmatched in her passion, her killer sense of humor on social media and graceful stage presence.
Get To Know Her On: Sizani
Raised between the Eastern Cape and Kempton Park, Nicole Elocin started her music career at the age of 11 in a church choir. She started pursuing her musical career by attending studio sessions with local producers Tammy T and Phlexx Roku, and by 20, Nicole had her amapiano debut on the Money Heist EP with the Tyler ICU, decimating on her rendition of the Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao” in a way that only amapinao can carry a pop culture reference. Evident that the Money Heist staple is not just hype, she brought the energy back home on the dynamic “Sofa Si Lahlane“. Making it onto Apple Music’s Top 100: South Africa playlist, for the same EP, Nicole has left her mark with DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, Mas Musiq, Shasha, Nia Pearl and Mlindo The Vocalist, and hopefully many more artists who can match her unfaltering attitude in the years to come.
Get to know her on: Hold On (feat. Theology HD, Muziqalstesh and Josiah De Disciple)
MaWhoo, born Thandeka Ngema, has been pursuing a career in music since she brought her first track to a radio station in Eshowe Kwazulu Natal, at 11 years old. Turned away because she was too young, she decided to model until she could find a way toward a breakthrough. Reaching out to the iconic, yet controversial South African label Mabala Noise in 2018, she was put in touch with super-producer Heavy K and went on to record “Umshado” with him, and two songs alongside Scorpion Kings on their groundbreaking Once Upon a Time in Lockdown, each step of the way championing the belief that women should be able to express themselves however they chose — and be appreciated for it.
Get To Know Her On: Ngipholise (feat. DJ Obza)
Since Tembisa-born Bontle Smith joined a vocal group called “Current of Blackness” in varsity, she hasn’t looked back. Meeting with DJ Giggs Superstar from the legendary house label Soul Candi led to a feature on Deep House Chronicles 4 igniting a love for house music which would eventually bring her toward amapiano. After meeting with DJ Maphorisa, he agreed to sign her to his independent label New Money Gang, leading to features on Scorpion Kings’ “Lerato,” “Alalahi” on PianoHub and “Sandton” off The Return of the Scorpion Kings, the pandemic has no effect on her upward trajectory in 2020 when she established herself on MFR Soul’s “Amanikiniki” which reached 11 million views on Youtube in just five months. Standing strong alongside Soulful G and TDK Macassette on the powerful “iFilimu,” her latest solo single “Level Up” featuring DJ Hectic and Siya is aptly named, as she heads toward her own success as a solo vocalist in her own right.
Get To Know Her On: Level Up (feat. DJ Hectic & Siya)
South African National School of Arts alumnus Gugu Bikani, also known as Soulful G, shook South Africa with her immaculately layered vocal delivery on “uThando ” alongside skilled super producers Shaun 101 and Soa Mattrix. At just 21 years old, the song was an instant staple, describing the transcendent love only the ancestors could conjure, evident in the responses she received every time she took to the stage. Returning to trusted territory with Soa Mattrix, she followed the single up with “Buyisa,” evenly matched with Sir Trill, in her delivery of gut-wrenching vocals to rival any powerhouse on the amapiano scene.
Get To Know Her On: Ungowam (feat. Pleasure Adams)
“Queen of Gems” Nia Pearl grew up in Umtata in the Eastern Cape, singing in her school choir. After high school, Nia went on to study contemporary music at university, going on to record with Mobi Dixon, then toward amapiano with Kabza De Small, Tyler ICU, Major League and Mas Musiq. Equally skilled as a stylist, she’s established her own company called Threads By Nia, where her contemporary style can be shared with her fans. Her standout performance on “iPiano eSoweto” with the legendary DJ Stokie and vocalist Dalwionga echoes the impact kwaito has on her life. She chooses her producers well, working with amapiano stalwarts LuuDaDeejay, Howard and Soa Mattrix, as well as her latest offering alongside Mas Musiq with a goose-pimple inducing vocal on “I’m Real,” standing as an irresistible sing-along on the Auti Sharp album.
Get To Know Her On: I’m Real (feat. Soa Mattrix, Mas Musiq)
The New School
As amapiano continues to evolve thanks to the tireless efforts of the women above, ever newer iterations of the genre and the people who create it are pushing the movement forward.
Representing as one of the only openly LGBTQ amapiano acts, Banaba’Des’ name was inspired by Destiny’s Child (Banaba = children; Des short for Destiny), carrying the belief that their fate lies in the music they create and the space they’ve opened up for others inspired by them. Comprised of Miss Pammie and Unkle Blue, the two are spirited, bright and unapologetic in their occupation of a space designed for men and the expectations put on straight women to pander to them. Introduced by producer Alfa Kat, they went on to join forces on “Phone Yam“, racking up millions of impressions on TikTok. With bars delivered in a combination of Setswana and SePedi called “Sepitori” spoken largely in Pretoria, the pair are just beginning to stake their claim in the new school of amapiano.
Get To Know Them On: Ke Dese
Mbali Makhanya is a vocalist and songwriter (and possibly a comedian), with sights set as high as her cheekbones. She’s collaborated and performed with Musa Keys, Phil Keys and Kizz Daniels on various stages in her come-up after setting the proverbial bar high at sport-and-entertainment law school and becoming a certified attorney in 2019. Best known for her contributions to DBN Gogo’s Thokoza Café EP, she shines on vocals for “Nawe,” and wields her pen proudly on Sunde’s and Al Xapo’s “Awazi” and Stagz Jazz’s Daydream album where she hints at a promising career on “private school” productions. She is presently working on collaborative projects as well as her own debut EP in order to establish her solo career path in amapiano, RnB and hip hop, by venturing out as not just a vocalist but a certified songwriter who can, and will, stand on her own.
Get To Know Her On: Nawe (feat. Makhanj, Felo Le Tee, Dinho, DBN Gogo)
Sinethemba Mashiane is a composer, singer and songwriter born in Mpumalanga, raised on indigenous music in a small rural township called Silobela. Now based in Centurion and adopting the moniker Snenaah, she’s stepped up to meet amapiano with a host of audible life experiences. Snenaah has been sharing a slew of breathtaking acapellas and cover versions on social media, breathing new life into familiar favourites with her smoky tones and layered melodies. Traveling to Tanzania and Bulgaria before being locked down in 2020 gave her a new perspective, along with the chance to broaden her worldview in order to hone her vocal skill which she shows us on “Paradise” featuring Sinny Man’Que, and Mas Musiq’s “Gqwinya Lam” featuring Sino Msolo. Keep an eye out for her on another smooth production with Theology HD.
Get To Know Her On: Gwinya Lam (feat. Mas Musiq and Sino Msolo)
Khanyisa is a vocalist and social media star with over a million views on TikTok from Embalenhle, Mpumalanga. Entertaining is nothing new to her, as she was raised in a very musical family where performances were encouraged at every turn. Making a lasting impression in 2021 on “Bheka Mina Ngedwa” alongside the exemplary Lady Du, Marcus MC and Tsiki XII in an ingenious remake of UPZ Dkp’s house classic “Pure Surprise”, we can’t wait to see what else she has planned. If her content is anything to go by, it won’t be long before the globe gets to bask in her creative and fun presence in the amapiano scene.
Get To Know Her On: Bheka Mina Ngedwa (feat. Lady Du, Marcus MC and Tsiki XII)
Pabi Cooper entered the music industry as a dancer on Major League DJz Balcony Mixes, and shot to fame after releasing her first single “Isiphithiphithi” featuring Reece Madlisa, Busta 929 and Joocy, which garnered a million views in its first two weeks online, recently going gold. Labelled “a rose amongst thorns,” she makes light work of any performance, bringing a physicality to the stage that is thus far unmatched.
Get To Know Her On: Uyangi’Jabulisa
A smash hit across South Africa produced by another amapiano pioneer in Djy Jaivane, along with Kappie and Amu Classic comes in “Qhude,” complete with the amazing vocal range of an immensely talented vocalist known as Mashudu. She makes her presence known across their One For The World EP on tracks such as “uThando,” “Indoda Enemali” and “Mashimane” reaching for eye-watering notes that sit incredibly well on the gents’ well-sculpted grooves. Keep an eye out for the “Qhude” music video coming soon, which promises to be the gateway to her own full length debut.
Get To Know Her On: Amu Classic and Kappie’s One For The World
Nolwazi Kimberly Mzama, taking the moniker Nkosazana Daughter, is a self-taught guitarist and vocalist, who made her musical debut on “Mirror” and “Bekezela” in 2019 after gracing stages as a poet. Nkosazana brings an ethereal tone to amapiano that is steadily gaining traction, today holding her own alongside amapiano vocal heavyweights Sir Trill, Mpura and Zaba on “Izitha,” – and we can’t wait to see what else she has to offer.
Get On Know Her On: Izitha (feat. Sir Trill, Zaba, Josiah De Disciple, Mpura, TeeJay)