Spotify Is Pushing Dance Music To Reflect South Africa

Forbes spoke to Phiona Okumu, Spotify’s Head of Music for Sub-Saharan Africa, about her Spotify: Music That Moves campaign – a new content series telling stories about locally grown music crossing borders and shaping culture around the world.

You can watch the full Amapiano Spotify: Music That Moves campaign video, featuring artists including DBN Gogo and Kamo Mphela, here.

A rideshare driver in South Africa said, “it’s hard driving. We don’t get paid well. And we can’t organize. You can organize a thousand people in a WhatsApp group to go on strike. And maybe you can get three or four of those WhatsApp groups together.”

“Prices will surge for a week,” he said. “Customers get a little notification on their phone. Then I go to check two weeks later, and the whole thing’s still running as if nothing’s happened. And I need to pay my bills.”

There’s something similar in music in that we want to live in a world filled with music, so we must want creatives to be able to live comfortably off their work. Then the market doesn’t apportion value for music’s positive externalities to nearly the extent those externalities provide value if you add up all the smiles in the cafés where the live bands play. And that leaves a large class of musicians hobbyists or struggling.

Amapiano, South Africa’s signature style of dance music, was born within and against that struggle. Forbes and Okumu spoke about these and other fights forward, Beyoncé, and transitioning a generation of musicians from WhatsApp groups to streaming.

Forbes: What does your job entail?

Phiona Okumu: I work for Spotify. I manage the team that executes the strategy for how Spotify goes to market, how we – especially – show up for creators, and how we bring them to their fans. Playlisting is a big part.

Forbes: How’d you get what many would consider a dream job?

Okumu: I started out as a music journalist and worked that way for a very long time, freelance. I wrote for everyone, Rolling Stone, The Fader, everybody. And then I transitioned into blogging when blogging was a thing. I started an Afro-pop magazine, which was a global African culture site. Based on that, I landed a job at Apple Music, before eventually ending up at Spotify.

Forbes: I saw Spotify was working with Kendrick Lamar in Ghana. You made a documentary together. How did that go down?

Okumu: That was purely Kendrick. Kendrick wanted to be somewhere else when his album was out. And that happened to be Accra, which is a market we’re newly live in. I guess you could say the stars aligned. It was a great opportunity for us to collaborate with pgLang and Kendrick on something so special.

Forbes: How much are you trying to emulate the success or the path of Afrobeats for Amapiano?

Okumu: Amapiano is a darling genre for many, including me. Spotify has been instrumental in helping make it visible outside of South Africa. It’s interesting that you made the mention of Afrobeats in comparison, and here’s what I’ve observed about how the two have developed.

Amapiano is very distinctly South African music, a particular dance style of music, and the relationship with Afrobeats has many folds. One of them is symbiotic in the sense that Afrobeats has an international head start and international cultural capital, right? We are very used to seeing a WizKid or a Burna Boy selling out stadiums in America, Asia, and Europe, charting and winning Grammys, and all those markers of commercial acclaim.

It’s commonplace – almost – for Afrobeats.

And I would say the reason for that is Afrobeats has had trajectory in the public eye for quite a while. It’s not overnight. As far back as 15, 20 years ago is when the story of the modern-day Pop Africa explosion started.

House and Dance is what we do as our pop music. It’s just about whether it is zeitgeisty or not. We’ve had moments where it’s been the moment for South African dance music, but it’s been quite insular.

The internet may have been big in Europe in 2008 but not in Africa. It certainly wasn’t where it is today. That’s what I think is contributing to these subcultures either developing or leap frogging forward. They’re powered by the information era.

There’s a lot of cultural exchange that happens between Afrobeats and Amapiano. You can hear it in the current wave of Aftobeats which borrows the signature Amapiano log drum patterns.

Forbes: What’s the day-to-day of making creatives visible look like?

Okumu: I must share with you, we ran a campaign on April 27th, South African Freedom Day, the day that marks when South Africa became a democracy, when we South Africans were able to vote for the first time. ‘94 was the pivotal year when all of that became a thing. In ’94, the music that was prevalent, the music of the young people was Kwaito.

Kwaito is widely believed to be the music from which Amapiano descended. For me, it felt like – when we were doing this documentary for the campaign in this past April – a full circle moment for dance music for young people in South Africa, in a sense.

Kwaito gave that same optimism, that feeling of we are in a new dispensation now. Here in 2022, it’s a different type of liberation that we are looking at for creatives. Music is so freely discoverable. It makes the opportunity for the creator in South Africa and in Africa that much wider.

Forbes: It’s like breathing. There’s an inhale, an exhale, and a pattern between them.

Okumu: Exactly. And then somebody like Drake comes along, with his latest album, and releases a Black Coffee executive produced album entirely – which is an Afro-tech album. The sounds and the styles are quite related. So, for me it puts fuel to the idea of the influence South African dance music is having on international pop.

When Beyoncé’s song “Break My Soul” came out there was a lot of conversation around it. It wasn’t a South African song by any stretch, but I feel like South Africans of a certain generation probably understand her song and this direction more than anyone because we took our cues from a certain style of dance music in the nineties. Producers like Steve “Silk” Hurley and 12-inch mixes were on the radio as pop music.

When we had Kabza De Small on the billboard in New York, we also had him on the cover of Mint. Mint is the biggest dance playlist in the world. It is the biggest dance playlist at Spotify. And for us, the statement was Amapiano can contend for any mainstream opportunity in dance music.

We are able to open up the conversation of what dance music really means, where it comes from, and who is a stakeholder in that space.

Dance music ought to be a representative place for creators from all around the world. South Africa is a renowned contributor to dance music. We should absolutely be playing in the mainstream of dance music.

Forbes: I bet it’s hard to get the music from where Amapiano breathes – the clubs – onto Spotify.

Okumu: What typically would happen with Amapiano artists is they would make a song on a Monday, test it out. And then hopefully, by Friday, it’s made enough buzz in the WhatsApps so that they can get bookings for gigs on Saturday and Sunday and so on, ignoring everything to do with streaming and distribution and all of that. Covid proved that wasn’t sustainable. So everything is changing.

Forbes: How’s Amapiano doing by the numbers on Spotify?

Okumu: There’s a rather growing listenership in Japan for example, of all places. Amapiano hit one billion streams in July. It is now at over 1.4 billion global all-time streams on the platform – which is crazy for a genre that was virtually not on the platform three years ago.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.