The past few years have seen Pretoria wield an unprecedented amount of cultural relevance and capital across the entertainment spectrum. The city served as the backdrop of 2019’s most discussed local film, read: arguably, and 2nd highest local box office earner, Matwetwe. The film’s auteur, Kagiso Lediga, even stated that its setting in the city served as the movie’s secret sauce; tapping into the nuance of the Black Pretorian experience and language. Tshedza Pictures covered major ground on the small screen with release of the International Emmy-Nominated telenovella, The River as well as their follow-up in with the heated political drama series, The Republic; a project that has more than propelled South Africa’s rising era of ‘prestige television’. One of the city’s loudest proclamation to date came with the sweeping dominance that has been amaPiano, more affectionately known as the Yanos, and from Kwish to Kabza De Small the genre has shifted the tone of our airwaves. As the Yanos wave continues to ride its gargantuan momentum, a separate tidal has been bubbling within the Pitori streets and digital airwaves and the current lockdown conditions have provided a platform for its relevance to come to the fore. With consistent releases from its indie sector that keep scaling the charts from ThandoNje to Thato Saul, I’m talking about Pretoria’s burgeoning and eclectic hip-hop & R&B scene. Within this piece I aim to explore this sector, especially amongst its younger participants and the tight-knit community that seems to surround it.
Pretoria’s hip-hop and R&B scene has rarely held centre stage but as you look towards the culture’s latest breakout acts, you start to notice that the city’s stock is gradually rising. Whether you’re looking at acts who have had a steady rise in prominence like Una Rams, Focalistic and The Big Hash or the absolute sensational breakout success that has been Elaine, it’s clear to see Pitori’s rising momentum. The last few weeks have seen a stream of multiple drops making waves during the lockdown. From mainstays like Focalistic’s prolifically titled Quarantine Tarantino, The Big Hash’s Life + Times Part 2 and rapper-cum-songstress ThandoNje’s chart topping Frequency to rising rappers like Huey and Miles both dropping bodies of work that managed to reach Apple’s Top 20 respectively with Early Arrival and Chasing Magic. Trailblazing producers like Doou$hii and Baarasource pushed their own boundaries. Doou$hii unleashed a slate of produced projects from Thato Saul and Tyson S.T’s collaborative At Your Service and the aforementioned Early Arrival to his own debut body of work in Do U whilst Baarasouce released A Divine Order Biskop; a comprehensive music film based of their 2019’s project A Divine Order. Every week has offered up multiple works of art showcasing the eclectic and diverse talent burgeoning within the city ready to take their place and expanding the scope of its discography.
My journey into the Pretorian space begun just under two years ago when I started doing research for my SA Artists You Shouldn’t Sleep On article series, now its in sixth edition. My introduction into their independent scene came in my discovery of Francis Jay, ThandoNje and Roho, all artists with adventurous catalogues that heavily lean on the alternative R&B landscape. The seminal song that exacted this exploration was the intoxicating affair that is Roho’s NSA. Since then, I’ve written on over a dozen Pretoria-affiliated artists on this blog primarily within the hip-hop and R&B space. There isn’t necessarily a collective sound to the space but a healthy amount of their artists are influenced by the prominent sounds of the early to mid 2000’s. They are often found innovating that sound with contemporary sensibilities, be it through their song-structuring, production and/or vocal affectations. Prime examples of these can be found with songs like The Big Hash‘s Circles, Elaine’s You’re The One or Miles’ Advice, pristine contemporary productions which wouldn’t sound out of place if playlisted amongst nostalgia featuring acts like Fabulous, Slum Village, Run It era Chris Brown and Ne-yo (both as an artist and composer); bridging the music of their childhoods within today’s landscape. Acts like Tron Pyre and Francis Jay extend that landscape to more experimental spaces that feel cinematic with their concept releases whilst ThandoNje freely moves between soul and hip-hop with a blueprint descendant of Mary J Blige, localised and rooted in African textures. Amongst these genre-blending artists, are a bevy of rappers staking their claim of importance and appealing to different sensibilities. Acts like Llucky, Jay Hood and Tyson S.T provide a boisterous, brash and braggadocious energy to their music with rappers like Huey, Miles and Thato Saul servicing a more mellowed out approach whilst your Malachi‘s providing a moodier alternative. The sonic landscapes being experimented and played with are incredibly vast and exciting, with this list not being fully comprehensive: see more compelling artists like 25K and Mass The Difference, Filah Lah Lah and LEO as example.
What is incredibly fascinating, moreso endearing, is how supportive and connected the Pitori scene appears to be. In the week leading up to a significant release, you’d often find a sea of Twitter profile images changing to a musical project’s title art, with some accounts even altering their display names to integrate the project’s title. The first instance I properly noticed this with was with Thato Saul’s Members Only, a tape that was never released. Artists like Tron Pyre, Llucky and Doou$hi‘s display name had changed to Members Only Pyre, Members Only Lluck and other respective variations including simply Members Only from other Twitter users. These avatar tactics resurfaced again with releases like Tron Pyre’s Temporum, Huey’s Chasing Magic and Thato Saul’s For God’s Sake and as I write this, remnants of these spreads can be found for titles like Miles’ Early Arrival and Doou$hii’s Do U; for a non-Pitori reference also see Elizee‘s Blkshp as an example of this tactic spread across the OXI stable and its frequent collaborators. These communal marketing tactics seem to bear fruit as multiple, if not all, of these titles propelled enough traction to make Apple’s Genre charts, with titles like Early Arrival and Temporum rising as high as their category’s respective top 20. These tactics issue a somewhat domino effect that if you become a fan and follow one of the artists, you stand a higher chance of being continually exposed to others as you’re pulled into the orbit. The digital community has also managed to do more than push sales and streams for its members as it’s taken them to world stages. In 2017, multiple online campaigns were an integral factor in getting rising producer Zarro, to compete at the Battle of The Beatmakers competition in Toronto. With competitors from over 60 territories worldwide, Zarro had the distinction of being the competition’s first competitor from the African region. Their efforts weren’t for nought as the Pretorian was able to finish fourth on the global stage, further cementing the level of talent bursting within the city.
This sense of community however moves passed just digital and I came to find this out after attending Tron Pyre’s solo concert City of God; reviewed here. The sold-out affair had a healthy number of creatives from the likes of LEO, Francis Jay and Una Rams to producers in Zarro and Doou$hii all in attendance and support of the artist’s landmark event, revealing an interesting network of connection and friendships that run deep and sometimes from obscure spaces. The more I reached out and spoke to some of the artists and producers, the more it became clear how interconnected the eco-system that exists there is. Like most waves are, a lot of the organic growth stemmed from relationships that were built within the formative years that are high school and varsity. One of the most interesting cases I found, were that musicians like Francis Jay, Zarro, Thato Saul, Miles and Elaine were once in the same high school at the same time, with Jay’s and Miles’ collaborative nature dating back then, whilst the now defunct hip-hop collective Slumprine, also begun during this same period. A collective that promoted the likes of Tyson S.T, MyKey, Miles again, Doou$hii, Skyffa and Al $upay. Fascinatingly, Pretoria’s street hip-hop dancing scene also proved to be a catalysing force that links an eclectic group of artists that include Tron Pyre, ThandoNje, TTGO, LEO and Vosloorus’ multi-hyphenate entertainer Okay Wasabi. With all these connections, the most common thread from the testimonials about their building and/or cementing of relationships, besides online reach out, happened through networking at key creative touch-points of the culture, particularly Woke Arts, The Social Club and Homecoming Africa. A lot of stabilization has come from these platforms, allowing a space for all of these artists to connect, network and celebrate their contributions, thereby strengthening the eco-system in which these artists exist. With the conditions of our lockdown expected to impact our physical eventing space, it’s somewhat worrisome to think of what the lasting effects could be, but moreso how this building eco-system will continually adapt to the new conditions.
There’s an air of excitement permeating from the newest wave that feels like they’re chasing magic. With the growing frequency of releases, these young artists have unleashed a steady stream of quality output, almost in an effort that appears to say to consumers: we’re at your service. After a couple of false starts and inconsistent seasons it seems that there is a new horizon is on the way, with excitingly fresh elements at play. Elements that can take one from Pitori to Paris, New York or even Toronto in a post-lockdown state. Whilst the city’s proclamation may not necessarily have be an early arrival, it’s one that filled with a united sense of hunger, drive and community that if it continues, should only breed more breakthroughs. The stats are already showing it. The past few years have seen Pretoria wield an unprecedented amount of cultural relevance and capital across the entertainment spectrum and if the new wave is anything to go by, it’s cultural capital is only set to grow more.