Organic Mag

Playing the Language game: Looking back on Malaika’s success

Ayanda Radebe

At some point in the middle of the 2000s, an Afro-pop trio stepped onto the scene and set it alight. At the time it seemed Mafikizolo would never relinquish its grip on the number 1 spot in that Afro-pop space. They were churning out hit albums, dominating wedding “step” playlists and killing the “is’vinteji” fashion game. A number of groups had also tried their luck in this genre but none were quite able to take root in the way Malaika, whose methods for climbing to the top spot was cunningly on the money, did.

It was 2004 when Malaika’s “Destiny” was released and you have to admit, it was a genius choice for a group’s first single. From this song, it wasn’t immediately clear that they were a trio – we just enjoyed Tshidi serenading us over a groovy piano-heavy beat. It was a very well-written and well-produced sing-along pop song without the markings of your typical afro-pop bop. There were no harmonized choruses in Zulu nor did the accompanying music video look overly choreographed. Aided by the piano and the English lyrics, it felt fresh and timeless. It served to get the “Malaika” name out there before their followup singles “Mhla uphel’ amandla” and “Sebakanyana” which fit the textbook definition of Afro-pop.

Language in South African pop music is an under-explored device yet a very tricky one to navigate. There are 11 spoken languages and most of them are not mutually intelligible. If you’re making music solely in English, chances are you are capping your success to only audiences who can understand, sing along and connect to your message. If you make music in Central and Northwestern languages (Sepedi, SeTswana, Sesotho), you’re likely to only enjoy airplay in radio stations in those regions and the same applies if you make music in Northern languages (TshiVenda, XiTsonga). Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa), however, benefit from a curious hegemony and artists who sing in these languages generally to enjoy success all over the place. Think Ringo Madlingozi, Babes Wodumo and Zahara etc. These rules are not set in stone and they are definitely being challenged and by new disrupters like Sjo Madjozi and Cassper Nyovest in recent times.

We clearly saw this socio-linguistic behaviour at play in 2016 with the King Monada hit – Ska bhora moreki. Although this song was massive in most of the country, the fact that King Monada sang in Sesotho over a beat heavily influenced by shangaan music meant the country’s biggest commercial (Gagasi fm, Jacaranda fm) and public radio stations (Ukhozi fm, Umhlobo Wenene) didn’t play it with the same fervour and when it came time to vote for the crossover song, he didn’t even chart on the largest station in the country which was a shame.

Malaika were incredibly talented as a group with a knack for creating catchy grooves. However, their more subtle strategy was that they managed to cleverly engage everyone. They broke onto the scene with an English song and followed it up with an isiZulu song and their third single was Sebakanyana which was in Sesotho. Their first single from their 2nd album was 2 Bob Muntuza a partially TshiVenda love song.

It’s highly unlikely that they went into it with this plan, it was most likely a natural flow for them but like their choice in a first single, their ability to nimbly code switch worked to their benefit. It was what allowed them to push Mafikizolo to the fringes for close to 8 years. They made an inclusive product and while their star was shining, everyone felt like they were invited to the party.

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