Sho Madjozi’s Mixed Up, Pan-African Rap

Sho Madjozi’s Mixed Up, Pan-African Rap thumbnail

The South African performer pays homage to her heritage, updating it for the moment.

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CreditCreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times

BARCELONA, Spain — On a recent afternoon on a hotel rooftop, the rapper Sho Madjozi was twirling one of her candy-pink plaits and talking through her signature style. These bright extensions were inspired by the decorative “Fulani” cornrows she had seen girls wearing in Senegal, she said. Her take on them has since become so popular, she added, that in South Africa, where she’s from, they’re called Madjozi braids.

“You can ask for them in a hair salon,” Madjozi said, with casual self-assurance. “They’ll know what you’re talking about.”

Madjozi, 27, whose real name is Maya Wegerif, is one of South Africa’s biggest breakthrough stars. She was in Barcelona in July to perform at Sónar, one of several dance music-focused European festivals she played in the past 12 months, along with CTM in Berlin and Unsound in Krakow, Poland.

She performed at the Global Citizen Festival last year, sharing a bill with Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran, and won Best New International Act at the BET Awards in New York last month. On Aug. 17, she is to perform in Warm Up, the respected concert series at MoMA PS1 in Queens that spotlights rising international artists.

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Madjozi is a new kind of global pop star, much like the Spanish flamenco-pop innovator Rosalía: She pays homage to her heritage while updating it for the moment, cutting across continents and genres.

Born in a village in Limpopo Province, north of Johannesburg, Madjozi’s formative years were mostly spent outside South Africa: Her Swedish father worked for an international development nonprofit, and his work took the family to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. After high school, Madjozi attended college in Massachusetts.

This globe-trotting youth exposed her to cultural influences from around Africa and the world. Yet it’s the Tsonga heritage of her birthplace that she is best known for celebrating.

The Tsonga are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, and many Tsonga people in South Africa arrived as refugees from Mozambique in the 19th century, Madjozi said. They faced discrimination and xenophobia that still persists, she said.

Being Tsonga “wasn’t cool,” Madjozi said, and she wanted to change that. One of her signature looks involves a “xibelani” skirt, which is worn by Tsonga women for dancing. (Madjozi pairs hers with Nike Air Max sneakers.)

Her lyrics mix it up, too. She mostly raps in a combination of Xitsonga, the language of the Tsonga people, and English. Her bubblegum-bright party track “Huku” is in Swahili, a language Madjozi learned to speak fluently in Tanzania.

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CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times

These multilingual flows unfold over a style of music known as gqom, a shadowy strain of house that began bubbling out of townships in Durban, South Africa, in the early 2010s.

To untutored ears, gqom can sound gritty, with its apocalyptic sirens and ribcage-rattling bass. In Europe and the United States, Madjozi said, the style is often “perceived as being alternative or experimental.” But in South Africa, she added, “Gqom is the biggest sound. Gqom is the pop of South Africa.”

Recently, American hip-hop heavyweights seem to have recognized gqom’s combination of rough-hewed authenticity and commercial potential. Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack for the superhero movie “Black Panther” features gqom beats, and Beyoncé’s new “Lion King” album brings in South African gqom musicians on the track “My Power.”

Madjozi hasn’t had her Hollywood moment yet, but her songs are among gqom’s most accessible examples. On her debut album “Limpopo Champions League,” released in December 2018, she put the genre’s beats into a typical “verse, chorus, verse,” pop song structure, she said.

It may sound obvious at first, but Helen Herimbi, a music journalist based in Johannesburg, said that this approach was radical because “gqom typically features vocalists who use minimal lyrics or chants.” Madjozi, she added, “ushered in an evolution of the sound, by including entire rap verses.”

Madjozi was a poet before she was a rapper: You can see one of her spoken-word pieces, “Why You Talk So White?,” on YouTube. Recorded at a poetry slam while she was studying creative writing and African studies at Mount Holyoke College, “Why You Talk So White?” was an early indication of Madjozi’s smart, incisive takes on the nuances of race.

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CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times

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CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times

Madjozi said that being poet helped her “understand rhythm” and made her “very technical” about her lyrical flow. “You can like my flows without understanding what I’m saying,” she added.

Alex Okosi, the director of the TV channel that hosts the BET Awards, said that “language is becoming less and less relevant” in pop music.

“Fans are choosing to enjoy the artistry, sound and creativity of music regardless of its origin,” Mr. Okosi said. “Sho’s ability to weave African storytelling into her music delivers songs that resonate.”

Madjozi said her early songs and poems were “about asserting my independence as a young black woman in South Africa, and being rebellious.”

“It was big for a woman to be talking about boys, about alcohol, about partying,” she said, “because Tsonga culture tends to be a little bit conservative.”

Her focus has turned to pointing out South Africa’s “glaring problems,” she said, adding: “The inequality within that place is unignorable.”

Again, her image is an important part of that narrative. She said she wanted to appear fun, positive and empowering, presenting an image of what a young African woman might be like if she “didn’t come from a place that had been subjected to colonialism and apartheid.”

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CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times

Part of doing that is regularly wearing the traditional Tsonga garb, onstage and off, Madjozi said.

“You’ll wear your traditional attire at weddings,” she explained. “There’s even a day called ‘heritage day’ where people will wear their traditional attire to work. I just said, ‘I want to wear it every day.’

“My question was always: ‘Who are we then the rest of the time if we’re only ourselves on specific occasions?’”

Most black South Africans, Madjozi said, “learn to put away your Africanness.” Those who move to the city from a rural area often feel like they have “to take off” their ethnic identity, she said.

“The lucky thing,” she added, was that “I learned to never take it off.”

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