Samthing Soweto. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

The 20 Best South African Songs of 2019

Featuring DJ Zinhle, Tellaman, Sun-El Musician, Flame, Kabza De Small, The Big Hash, MFR Souls, Spaza, and many more

This year saw the rise of the new house music subgenre amapiano in South Africa. Artists like Kabza De Small, MFR Souls and others became household names after years of serving a niche fanbase.

While Amapiano is everywhere, it doesn't mean other genres aren't prospering in the country. From the conventional house of DJ Zinhle, the sung raps of Flame and The Big Hash, and the improvisational jazz of Spaza, among other exciting acts, South African artists ensured 2019 was yet another memorable year.

OkayAfrica contributors Mayuyuka Kaunda and Sabelo Mkhabela pick 20 songs they feel were the best this year.

Read our selections below. This list is in no particular order.

Follow our BEST SONGS OF 2019 playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

​DJ Zinhle "Umlilo" feat. Mvzzle Rethabile

Ably assisted by Mvzzle and Rethabile, DJ Zinhle claims the unofficial "best December house song" throne. For many people's ears, the new year will be ushered in by "Umlilo," another house track with a heavy vocal orientation. In a country spoilt for choice, with great house musicians and new dance crazes seemingly popping up every week, cutting through the noise is a commendable feat. Accordingly,"Umlilo" deserves it's recognition as the nation's go-to party song this summer.

​Tellaman feat. Nasty C & Shekhinah "Whipped"

This '80s pop-inspired jam is just beautifully made, it's the kind of song that clings to your eardrum in the least intrusive way. Featuring perfect vocal performances from both Shekhinah and Tellaman, "Whipped" is a radio bop that no one can deny. With every bop in need of a surefire verse, fellow Durbanite Nasty C comes in for a complementary feature. "Whipped" is guaranteed to have you humming for hours.

​MFR Souls feat. DJ Maphorisa, Sha Sha, Kabza De Small "Love You Tonight"

With the ever-so-talented Sha Sha as the featured vocalist, it's amazing how it's DJ Maphorisa's opening verse seems to make this MFR Souls song. "Love You Tonight" is a great track that lives somewhere between the neighbourhood of soulful house and amapiano. With it's polished songwriting and perfect instrumental arrangement, the song is reflective of what separates this year's litany of amapiano-inspired releases into good and great.

​Flame "Late Nights" feat. Ka$h

"Late Nights" features great performances from both Flame and his guest Ka$h. The track captures the mood of self-medication through the emotion on both artists' voices. It's fun to get fucked up and faded on late nights when you are going through some shit with the homies, but the regret always lingers in your head

​Sun-El Musician and Ami Faku "Into Ingawe"

Ami Faku captures the moment one's dreams come true on "Into Ingawe," a song that is both celebratory and a tearjerker. The chemistry between Ami Faku and Sun-El Musicians's production makes for a perfect track, and one that's danceable, too, which is very important in a country like South Africa. "Into Ingawe" is everything one wants in a good song.

​Samthing Soweto feat. Mlindo The Vocalist and Kabza De Small "Lotto"

Samthing Soweto's referential writing style is one of his hidden tools. Just like in many of his other songs, "Lotto" sees him interpolate a South African classic: "Loot" by Mafikizolo. Samthing Soweto's vocals sound at home over lush amapiano production by Kabza De Small and will send you straight to the dance floor.

​Semi Tee feat. Miano and Kammu Dee "Labantwana Ama Uber"

Every emergent musical movement has a quintessential song to represent it. This is usually a song that not only receives the glory, but the judgement and controversy, too. In many parts "Labantwana amaUber" is considered the poster child for the now ubiquitous sound of amapiano. It has all the ingredients of a viral hit with its simple refrains, obligatory dance routine and accompanying provocation of social commentary. Beyond all of that, it's a very catchy song that captures the essence of South African nightlife with an enviable carefree aura.

​Seba Kaapstad "Breathe"

Consisting of a South African, Swati and German artists, Seba Kaapstad is a bridge-building alternative outfit to behold. The band's music is emblematic of their openness towards cross pollination, both in a musical and intercultural sense. It comes through in their sound, which fuses elements of hip-hop, soul and jazz and distills them into cool framework. With its loose composition and vocally-layered playfulness, "Breathe" functions in much the same way the band's sophomore album Thina does, freely adding rhythmic touches and electronic sounds to jazz-inspired neo soul.

​Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa feat. Sandy MRD and Vigro Deep "Dubai"

"Dubai" combines the knocking amapiano production of Kabza and Maphorisa with Sandy MRD's vocals, which are teeming with personality as she unapologetically declares wanting moneyed men who will take her and her girls on vacations to Dubai. "Dubai" may not be the biggest hit by Kabza and Maphorisa, but it sure makes a compelling argument for being one of their best songs to date.

​Prince Kaybee feat. Msaki "Fetch Your Life"

Prince Kaybee's rich production gets laced by motivational lyrics from Msaki, one of the best SA singers and songwriters out this moment. "Fetch Your Life" encourages the listener to take ownership of their lives, go out there and live to the fullest, but manages to portray that message in a way that doesn't sound corny and preachy. Only a few can do it and still deliver a song that's fit for all occasions.

​Elaine "You're the One"

Elaine's arrival changed things up for new school R&B in South Africa. Her EP Elements is a smashing success that keeps getting discovered by fans online. "You're the One," a highlight from the seven songs on the near flawless EP is the quintessential Elaine track, as it showcases her effective writing and control of her voice.

​Tshego "No Ties" feat. King Monada

On "No Ties," Tshego and King Monada meet each other halfway. The beat's suitable for both artists' singing style and doesn't compromise either's vibe. "No Ties" doubles as a pop and house song, it's a perfect example of a collaboration between two artists from different walks of life and music.

​Ayanda Jiya "The Sun"

Zeph Beats creates a bright environment with the use of a lively bass line, playful percussion and digital sounds that twinkle like birds on a sunny day. Fittingly titled "The Sun," the song sees Ayanda Jiya crooning effortlessly about patience and perseverance in what is essentially a motivational song. She also plays with the listener's emotions by interpolating a South African house classic.

​Beat Sampras "Stop & Go"

The Cape Town-based singer-producer duo Beat Sampras released their debut album Cruise this year. The project is packed with smoothies that would make the perfect soundtrack for cooling out in the summer. One such song is lead single "Stop and Go," which combines soft electronic production with equally mellow vocals. The track resembles a sea breeze, it's calm but can't be ignored.

​The Big Hash "Circles"

The Big Hash made serious strides in his career this year. Apart from the business moves, he also released a notable project, Young. When The Big Hash raps, sparks fly. The same thing happens when he sings. "Circles," a single from Young, showcases both of these traits over pulverizing bass and pounding kicks as he tells the story of a woman who disappointed him.

​Spaza "Magwinya, Mangola neWhite Liver"

This improvisational ensemble creates spiritual jazz by playing on the duality of the Spaza Shop (or bodega). Musically, the ever-evolving collective Spaza frames notions of the communal against the contestation that happens in those spaces. With the spectre of commerce firmly at the centre of their art, the band fluidly highlights a range of themes associated with these iconographic spaces. On "Magwinya," we're delivered into a transcendent nine minutes built upon each member's tool of choice. On their self-titled project, Spaza offer an engrossing listen. It's at times linear, sometimes disjointed, but always striving for a semblance of unity, much like life in and around Spazas themselves.

​Zu. "Nguwe"

Making the move from fronting the Zuko Collective to releasing a trilogy of solo projects has been a revelation of growth for Zu. With her husky voice and jazz-referencing soul music, she offers the listener a journey into feeling. On "Nguwe," her own destination is a soulmate whose serenade is worthy of their dream romance. Zu. is a time-bending artist who draws the essence of ourselves out through music.

Manu Grace "Saturday Night"

Manu Grace is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who injects reasoned sensitivity into her iteration of alternative pop. The Cape Town-based artist is always reflective, oscillating between darker themes and illuminating moments. "Saturday Night" fits into the latter box with its light, nostalgic feel and deftly folded harmonies. On her debut EP June, Manu balances her melodic expression with a lyrical elegance that's hard to ignore.

​Ntsika "Awundiva"

A member of acapella group The Soil, Ntsika's debut solo outing I Write What I Dream celebrates love and spirituality. Literally based on inspiration gleaned from his dreams, Ntsika's music feels as personal as you'll ever hear. His duet with Vusi Nova, "Awundiva," is a romantic ballad about re-declaring love for one's partner. Both artists were born for power ballads and it's quite a treat to hear their voices complement each other here. Warning: this will get you in your feels.

The Us "Magwala"

This visually striking duo The Us are the embodiment of experimentation as they put a progressive spin on the range of genres they draw from. You'll hear elements of electronic music and their unique twists on kwaito and hip-hop on their debut offering Welcome To The US. In the case of "Magwala," the duo fuses dubstep with a cacophony of tribal chants that are intertwined between seSotho lyrics. It's a rousing assembly of sounds and only the beat-breaks will give you a chance to take it all in.

Follow our BEST SONGS OF 2019 playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

From Your Site Articles
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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