15 Great Albums and EPs by South African Indie Artists That Came Out in 2020
Here are 15 notable releases by South African indie artists: Marcus Harvey, Muzi, Desire Marea, Nipho Hurd, Push Push and more.
Although it's been a challenging year for most, some artists have decided to hunker down and make the most of the tumult. Undoubtedly, releasing new work amid a pandemic is a challenging feat. To do so without the backing of a major label, or as your first release, is just plain gutsy.
Independence is tough, but it also guarantees the most creative freedom which usually leads to forward-thinking and, at times, genre-shifting music.
South Africa's indie scene is always teeming with such releases. And, in a year that was tough on artists, we highlight 15 of the best releases that fell on our radar and moved us.
From Sipho The Gift's dexterous raps on Bloom to Desire Marea's avant-garde progressive sonics on Desire, Langa Mavuso's enchanting soulful melodies on Langa and everything in between, we bring you a list of 15 notable albums and EPs by South African indie artists that were released in 2020.
Editor's note: This list is in no particular order.
Marcus Harvey “I Am Marcus Harvey”
The Alexandra township-born singer, rapper, and producer made his commercial debut with a bang with his unique take on neo-soul, rhythm & blues and hip-hop. On the record, he switches between Setswana and English to tackle issues of growing up in poverty ("Areyeng"), infatuation, love, ("Send Me To My Love", "Find Your Love" featuring Zimkitha and "So Into You"), as well as heartbreak and loss ("Alright featuring Pimp Push). All of this while fusing gritty hip-hop beats with velvet-smooth vocals. Marcus Harvey is definitely one to watch for the future.
Desire Marea “Desire”
With their influences as eclectic and varied as to include American multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis, vocalist and pianist Julius Eastman and Afro-soul chanteuse Simphiwe Dana, Desire Marea's work was always going to be unlike anything ever heard before. Desire draws inspiration from their previous work as part of the duo FAKA and yet manages to push themselves further from the gqom/dance sound they created, to a more avant-garde progressive sound. The album features a wide range of sometimes eerie choral elements, African folk details and soulful crooning, all brought together to create the soundtrack to exploring divinity, spirituality, and sensuality. "Hit the floor in your full majesty, you deserve to claim your joy in the world," Desire urges on "Tavern Kween" all while experimenting with elements of disco and jazz. Overall, the project aims to simultaneously engage all the senses while introducing the artist to themselves firstly, and the world ultimately.
Mx Blouse “Elementality”
Floating between kwaito chants and rap bars, Mx Blouse gives their takes on love, lust, infatuation, dating, heartbreak and their love for the nightlife, over EDM instrumentals. The album is a unique blend of influences, elements, and inspirations that Mx Blouse has been toying with since before they began working on the offering that was 2019's Re: Mx EP. The beats are a fusion of hip-hop, electronica, and techno, and are provided by the likes of Micr.Pluto, Bakai, Eye-on Feather, Chad Aiden Whitby and Sean Ross. Dance/electro veteran Jumping Back Slash provides the masterful mixing and mastering. These provide the backdrop for Mx Blouse to pronounce their affections and their search for connection.
Sipho the Gift “Bloom”
The beats on Sipho The Gift's EP Bloom are equal parts bright, heady, and grimy and lean heavily on the trap sound. The Bloom sees Sipho the Gift aiming to cement his place in the South African hip-hop and rap landscape. "Boy, I'm 'bout to bloom," he announces with conviction on the title track, a signal that he's worked at planting himself in the scene and is ready to blossom. The EP is short but packs a punch. In the entirety of its 11 minutes running time, the listener gets a real sense of the hunger propelling Sipho the Gift in his quest for greatness through his dexterous raps and clever beat choices and the that accompany them.
Moonchild Sanelly “Nüdes”
Nüdes gives a nod to the amapiano sound. There's also some electronica, kwaito, and house. At the core of it all is a commitment to dance music in its various forms. A consistency throughout Sanelly's work is the insistence on playing into the provocative, promoting body positivity, embracing her sensuality and sexuality as well as refusing to tone herself down, least of all for the purposes of pleasing the male gaze. The "global superstar waiting to happen", as described by Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, is well on her way.
Mama is Muzi's audio tribute to his late mother. The renowned producer channels the pain of loss through song, and the result is something special. Muzi has a strong point of view in terms of music and production, and this comes across through the choices and references used to create his unique sound. Mixing elements of South African '80s bubblegum pop, mbaqanga, and Shangaan electro, Muzi makes music for mourning that's solemn and reflective, yet upbeat and optimistic.
Stream Mama by Muzi on Apple Music and Spotify.
Langa Mavuso “Langa”
A mesmerising journey of heartbreak told through enchanting soul melodies that swing from sweet falsettos to raspy rap-talking. The album is made up of songs about love, loss, search and surrendering. Mavuso reflects on the pain and upset caused by losing love, the tumultuous moving-on phase masked in distractions and ends with acceptance. Zoë Modiga, Manana, and Yanga Chief are among the featured artists helping Langa Mavuso tell his tales of love found, relished, and lost. The dazzling songwriting is unpretentious and not self-indulgent, making it relatable and sincere. Vocally, Mavuso is in top form, showcasing an enviable range with great power and control.
Stream Langa by Langa Mavuso on Apple Music and Spotify.
Push Push “No Gods”
Blogger-turned-stripper-turned-rapper, Push Push makes her solo debut with No Gods. With lyrics like, "If I had a dick, I'd be Adonis", and, "I saw your dad once at the club, that night I saw your trust fund empty", Push Push is as confrontational as they come. There is no shortage of profanities, and "up yours" sentiments on the project; Push Push kind of thrives on being unpredictable, raw, unusual and off-kilter. This energy, paired with some of the most experimental and futuristic electro instrumentals courtesy of her husband and long-time collaborator, Moon Bounce, results in some of the most interesting observations about relationships, dating, sexual agency and self-awareness that you'll hear this year.
Stream No Gods on Apple Music and Spotify.
Zulu Mecca “Of Angels and Ancestors”
Of Angels and Ancestors largely explores themes around spirituality (particularly African spirituality), Blackness, African consciousness and, ultimately, self-awareness. It sounds like ZuluMecca is more interested in educating than entertaining, and somehow lands square in the middle of both. Mecca exudes confidence as she expresses her thoughts, feelings, and opinions on how she views the world and life, its complexities, and how little we know about what's going on within and outside of ourselves. Her uncomplicated and revealing bars are hypnotic and laced over subdued, soulful, almost-chill-hop boom bap beats. Quoting bible scriptures, shouting out Allah, Jesus and her ancestral roots, she's moulded an offering that's a slow-burn. It allows the listener to hopefully come out of the EP with a heightened and enlightened sense of self, the world at large and the ethereal.
Stream Of Angels and Ancestors on Apple Music and Spotify.
dumama + kechou “buffering juju”
An almost-acapella cover of Miriam Makeba's "Nongqongqo" as the intro promises the listener an experiential journey ahead. Haunting vocals overline a sparse, mostly guitar-led soundscape on the 8-track project. The exceptions include South African jazz musician Siya Makuzeni's stunning trombone on "wessi walking mama". The simplicity forces the listener to both pay attention and simultaneously bask in the ambiance. The duo is made up of Gugulethu Duma (dumama), a musician and singer from the Eastern Cape, and Kerim Melik Becker (kechou), a German musician who met Duma while studying in Johannesburg. The two are not shy to reference forebears like Madala Kunene and Busi Mhlongo and yet remain firmly in the 21st century. Their millennial African folk music sound or "nomadic future folk," as they prefer to call it, is somewhat mystic and resultantly transcendental.
Stream buffering juju by dumama + kechou on Apple Music and Spotify.
Following a couple of years of fans asking, "Where is the album?", Roho delivered a project that shows that they took their time making this piece of work. The no-rush element is evident in the laidback vocal delivery and the sensual, subdued beats, produced by long-time collaborator Doou$hii. Featuring tracks like "Hydr8" and "Two Fish", the water-themed Ephemeral is an outstanding alt-R&B offering, dealing with issues around intimacy, vulnerability, spirituality, and ultimately human connection.
Stream Ephemeral on Apple Music and Spotify.
Nipho Hurd “The Ghel”
Rooted in soul, R&B and hip-hop, The Ghel is Nipho Hurd's first official release following years on the Durban live music circuit. She opens the EP with the snarky tongue-in-cheek line, "This song goes out to all the ladies dating a bag of wet hair," as she ponders on the role of finances and ambition in a relationship on "Money". The EP's standout is the '90s kwaito and hip-hop-inspired "Soul Party" featuring Neo Ndawo, which embodies the fun-spirited essence of The Ghel. There's also "Very Special" which has elements of Afrobeats and the jazzy-hop "Freelance to Freedom" featuring Neo Ndawo (also the EP's producer alongside Skortch Supernova). The singer attempts to take ownership of her path and become comfortable in who she is and the space that she's created for herself. The EP closer "Black in White" reinforces this, and is a "fuck you" to Hurd's detractors and others trying to enforce preconceived notions of who they understand her to be.
Stream The Ghel by Nipho Hurd on Apple Music and Spotify.
Urban Village “Ubaba”
Ubaba is only three-tracks-long (plus a remix), however, Urban Village deciding to lay down tracks on wax is a huge gesture for the band that's no stranger to live music audiences around South Africa. The band, who once described their sound as "going back to your roots but still going forward into the future", fuses a smorgasbord of mbaqanga, maskandi blues, folk-rock, and elements of funk to create their unique sound. The defiant chants of "thina siyaphila la" ("we are alive here"), on the title track trace the sentiments of many during these strange times. "Isivunguvungu" sees the guys vulnerably yearning for a mother's presence during these times of turmoil. Finally, on "Sakhisizwe", which sounds reminiscent of veteran South African singer and songwriter Vusi "The Voice" Mahlasela, the guys delve into the idea of togetherness and nation-building. The remix of "Isivunguvungu" by Chloé, a foray into the EDM and house music space, further shows and cements the band's eclectic energy and refusal to be pigeonholed.
Stream Ubaba by Urban Village on Apple Music and Spotify.
A ballsy first offering from the Durban-born, Johannesburg-based act, Alpha is a fusion of melodic rap and R&B. On it, he reflects on love, sex, deception, heartbreak, and, above all, remaining true to self. "Who gon' go and get a whole degree on 'em?" he asks defiantly on "Where the Cash At?", a feel-good motivational anthem on stacking your paper and making sure your ducks are in a row. Another standout on the EP is "Get It Back", in which Dali switches between singing and rapping about regret, love lost and longing. Overall, the message of the EP is that of self-improvement and staying true to yourself.
Stream Alpha by Dali on Apple Music and Spotify.
Filah Lah Lah “Filahsofy EP”
Born Reabetswe Fila Ranamane, Filah Lah Lah counts Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Betty Wright and Smokey Robinson among her inspirations. The singer was Apple Music's New Artist Spotlight for October, following the release of the project. The law student-turned-musician describes her sound as intimate and sentimental alt-R&B. Filahsofy is filled with sensual, moody R&B and soulful reflections on a failed situationship and insights on a newer burgeoning love interest. Although there's a common thread throughout the EP and a tone set from the first few bars, the artist manages to sound different in each track. In it, she embraces her otherness, while producing a body of work that's equal parts ethereal and delicate.
Stream Filahsofy on Apple Music and Spotify.
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