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Black Coffee Subconsiously album cover.

The 20 Best South African Songs of 2021

Amapiano continued its domination through 2021, topping local playlists and finding fans beyond the country’s borders too.

Despite the heartache and pain the coronavirus pandemic continued to bring the world in 2021, South African musicians did their best to keep spirits up. The sheer number of amapiano hits this year provided could instantly fill any top 20 list. After all, Kabza De Small was the most Shazamed artist of the year in South Africa and, according to Apple Music, amapiano creators claimed the first five spots on the list of most streamed local artists in the country.

And while artists like Drake and Justin Bieber were the most popular overall on the Apple Music charts, 44% of the Top 100 songs of the year and 26% of the Top 100 albums of the year were filled by South Africans — thanks, largely, to amapiano.

But OkayAfrica also wants to salute the musicians outside this genre who released new albums this year and pushed boundaries, especially during a very trying time. So here is our list of Best South Africans songs for 2021, in no particular order:

Kwiish SA 'LiYoshona' ft. Njelic, Malumnator & De Mthuda

Early this year, gold-selling artist DJ and producer Kwiish SA gave us "LiYoshona," the latest power-house of a track taken from his most recent album, Umshiso, with amapiano all-stars De Mthuda and Njelic. After creating one of the biggest house tracks of 2018 with "Iskathi (Gong Gong)," Kwiish soared even higher with this track, which ended up becoming the #1 most Shazamed song of the year in South Africa.

Mr JazziQ, Kabza De Small & Lady Du 'Woza' ft. Boohle

It’s been a great year for Tumelo Manyoni aka Mr JazziQ, who earlier in 2021, Spotify SA named the most streamed South African artist by Gen Z audiences. With Kabza De Small, Lady Du and Boohle by his side, the former JazziDisciple created a massive lead single off his album, Party with the English. Who can forget the video of three guys dancing to the track outside the White House in Washington DC? Nothing like a good dance challenge!

BLK JKS 'Harare'

Back in 2009, Blk Jks hit the indie rock world in a big way. Their debut album, After Robots, was acclaimed by everyone from Dave Grohl to Diplo. This year, they finally returned with their sophomore album, more than a decade later, Abantu/Before Humans — a meditation on this life we’re all living. Displaying more of their prog-rock tendencies, "Harare
" is a track about human nature and our need for movement. The song and the album earned the band a spot on Spin Magazine’s 50 Best Rock Bands Right Now list, for “seamlessly teaming local flavor and universal yearnings.”

DBN Gogo x Blaqnick x Masterblaq ft. Mpura, M.J & Ama Avenger 'Khuza Gogo'

Before Mongezi Stuurman tragically passed away in August this year, he gifted the world with tracks under his moniker Mpura. This track was one of the many he added his touch to. Mpura handled vocals, along with Ama Avenger and MJ, while DBN Gogo, Blaqnick and MasterBlaq took care of the beats. From debuting in March, the YouTube video for the track has racked up almost 4 million views, while Spotify SA announced it was the most streamed South African track by Gen Z.

Msaki 'Born in a Taxi'

Just before Msaki released her glorious double-album, Platinumb Heart, she put out her version of Blk Sonshine’s beloved hit, “Born in a Taxi,” sharing her own thoughtful take on the unique love song. As she told OkayAfrica, Msaki wasn’t planning on writing love songs, she was making a protest album, but when she heard “Born in a Taxi” playing on a taxi radio, she also heard something she didn’t know she needed to hear: an invitation to stay open. When she played the song herself, “my voice cracked in a key too high as I sang, 'Don’t leave me blind,' and there began the love songs part of the album,” she says.

Black Coffee 'Ready For You' ft. Celeste

The DJ who put South African house on the global map hadn’t released an album in five years until February of this year, when he put out Subconsciously . Featuring a host of guest artists, from Cassie to Usher and Pharrell, as well as top South Africans, the album earned Black Coffee a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album. This velvety track saw him collaborate with BBC Sounds-winning, Oscar-nominated Celeste.

Busta 929 & Mpura 'Umsebenzi Wethu' ft. Mr JazziQ, Zuma, Lady Du & Reece Madlisa

Busta 929 and Mpura’s ubiquitous amapiano hit "Umsebenzi Wethu," which came in at number two globally on Deezer's year-end charts, topped Apple Music's 2021 most-streamed song chart in SA. After Mpura was tragically killed in a car accident in August, the song remains part of his legacy, a testament to his ability to collaborate with the best of them. As for Busta 929, who also had a bumper year, questions still remain around his involvement with underage girls he claims were recording music in a two-day session without parental consent at his studio.

Sho Madjozi 'Shahumba' ft. Thomas Chauke

Drawing on the legacy of Thomas Chauke, Sho Madjozi brought on the iconic Xitsonga guitarist for this song that chronicles the dream of a young girl to become a notable musician.

De Mthuda ft. Sir Trill & Da Muziqal Chef 'John Wick'

If 2019’s "Shesha Geza" was De Mthuda’s directorial debut into amapiano, then "John Wick" is just one more of his sure-fire blockbusters. Enlisting the services of Sir Trill, who De Mthuda (aka The Landlord) also collaborated with on another hit single, “Emlanjeni,” this track speaks to the confidence Keanu Reeves’ John Wick has displayed over three films.

Cassper Nyovest 'Siyathandana' ft. Abidoza, Boohle

Rapper Cassper Nyovest, too, ventured into amapiano territory, alongside Boohle and Abidoza, with "Siyathandana", off his amapiano project Sweet & Short 2.0. He performed the track, which weaves in the melody of mid-2000s’ "World Hold On" by Bob Sinclair (Axwell mix), during the Boiler Room’s Amapiano showcase in London in September. And, as he told OkayAfrica, there’s more to come!

DJ Cleo 'Gcina Impilo Yam' ft. Bucy Radebe

This instant classic from one of the country’s longtime house talents, DJ Cleo, was released in February and showed its staying power, through the almost 13 million views the music video has received. Cleo remixed gospel star Bucy Radebe's award-winning track, “Uzugcin Impilo Yami,” leading us not into temptation and delivering us from evil.

The Brother Moves On 'You Think You Know Me'

During a year in which the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for his contempt of court saw some of the darkest riots and protests, performance art ensemble The Brother Moves On released this scathing ode to corruption and state capture. Off their most recent album, Tolika Mtoliki, the track references late jazz musician, Mongezi Feza’s “You Ain't Gonna Know Me Because You Think You Know Me," updating the lyrics for today’s tumultuous times, raging against the likes of Zuma, the “fire-pool swimming, I-want-my-day-in-court-but-I’m-not-coming-to-the-Zondo-commission, after sex, niece-raping shower domkop.”

Kamo Mphela 'Nkulunkulu'

Social media cemented Kamo Mphela’s rise to the top ranks of amapiano star and the track “Nkulunkulu” further entrenched her status. The track scored a Best Music Video nod at the 2021 Msanzi Kwator and House Music Awards for the dancer, who’s lent her moves to other genres like gqom, kwaito and pantsula. The song — a prayer for wealth and happiness — and its accompanying music video served as her first official song and release under her company, Kamo Mphela Entertainment.

Oskido & Msaki 'Sizophelelaphi'

OG Oskido joined Msaki for this haunting single. Over a shimmering beat and Msaki’s ascending vocals, the track bring to mind the country’s civil unrest and current social situation asking "where will we end up?” and pleading for protection and salvation.

Focalistic & Davido 'Ke Star' Remix ft. Vigro Deep

This track became a 13-million-view mega-hit thanks to the mash-up of amapiano and afrobeat. The Pitori Maradona, Focalistic, teamed up with Davido for a remix of “Ke Star,” and its catchy "Spetlele, spetlele (Spetlele), Starta ketlele (Ketlele), Angle, Angle (Angle), Ao, tlisa re settlele (settlele) & Yho yho yho yho yho yho, Tsikitsiki yho, tsikitsiki yho, tsikitsiki yho" lyrics followed us from 2020 right into 2021.

Sibusile Xaba ft. Naftali, Fakazile Nkosi, & AshK 'Umdali'

Carrying forth maskandi and mbaqanga traditions into a new era, Sibusile Xaba makes music that deserves to be heard over and over again. The slow-burning, genre-churning “Umdali” illuminates the influences he has accumulated from studying greats like Madala Kunene and turning them into his own sonic dreamscapes.

Nasty C, Ari Lennox - Black And White

Taken from his Zulu Man With Some Power album, “Black and White” took off early this year, thanks to its placement as part of the Rhythms of Zamunda - Coming 2 America soundtrack. Nasty C collaborated with the American R&B singer for the song and the music video too, and also for their performance of the track on The Ellen Show. Later in the year, the rapper went on to help Blxckie blow up this year, with the track “Ye x 4.”

Makhadzi 'Ghanama' ft. Prince Benza

Limpopo-born Makhadzi had quite the year, becoming Apple Music’s most streamed female artist in 2021 and topping charts with her album, Kokova, becoming the most streamed album of the year too. “Ghanama” kept the good times rolling for the singer, who started out performing at taxi-ranks when she was 12-years-old.

Shekhinah 'Fixate' ft. Bey T

In May this year, Shekhinah dropped her sophomore album, Trouble in Paradise, capturing the pleasures and pitfalls of love. On the oh-so-catchy, “Fixate,” the singer plays with her pop sensibilities to detail the entanglement of a love affair that just won’t let her go.

Sun-EL Musician ft. Simmy 'Higher'

Doing the most for African electronic music, Sun-El Musician presented an 11-track album in October, which followed 2020’s soul-satisfying To the World & Beyond. To be honest, we could have selected any one of the tracks on the album, titled African Electronic Dance Music, but this offering gives us the chance to hear Simmy’s golden voice, which is a win any day.