2021 wasn’t much of an improvement from 2020, but be that as it may, one ray of sunshine is that it will go down as the year that South African artists really started to gain proper traction across the continent through the rise of ‘Amapiano’.
Last year we saw a hint of what was to come. This year, however, we’ve had the genre’s promise come to fruition, blossoming to legitimately rival Afrobeats as the most popular sound in Africa.
Mavericks, such as DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, Focalistic and Major League DJz, are now continental superstars, their music blaring loudly and proudly in far flung places like Nairobi and Lagos.
‘Amapiano to the world’, the catchphrase that leading artists have long used to symbolise their desire to take the genre global, is bearing fruit as the music also catches fire in Europe and beyond.
It’s no surprise then that a huge chunk of this year’s top songs in South Africa reflects this growth.
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1. Izolo – DJ Maphorisa & Tyler ICU ft Visca, Madumane, Mpura and Daliwonga
There’s nowhere better to start than with DJ Maphorisa and Tyler ICU’s inescapable ‘Izolo’. ‘Izolo’, which forms part of the two artists’ joint EP Banyana, finds them both at the top of their game on this raging, high octane production that sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a Need for Speed video game.
Sure, each of the featured artists delivers excellent verses, but it’s DJ Maphorisa, who also appears as a featured vocalist here using his alias Madumane, that steals the show with arguably what is the verse of the year.
2. Adiwele – Young Stunna ft. Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa
Thanks in no small part to a short clip of DJ sensation Uncle Waffles vibing to ‘Adiwele’ in front of a delirious crowd going viral in mid-October, Young Stunna has emerged as South Africa’s latest Amapiano star. At the time, ‘Adiwele’ wasn’t officially out and all that fans and DJs could latch onto was a few leaks on YouTube, but Young Stunna shrewdly released it as part of his debut project Notumato just a few days after it went viral. It hasn’t lost steam since.
3. Abalele – Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa ft. Ami Faku
Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa are undoubtedly the biggest Amapiano artists right now. They’ve maintained this status since Amapiano emerged as the country’s foremost genre in 2019, and this year they’ve simply tightened their grip on the throne.
Collectively known as the Scorpion Kings, the duo have sprinkled their stardust on several hits this year alone. However, none have been bigger than ‘Abalele’ which, despite only having been released in September, is among the most streamed songs of the year in South Africa.
4. 66 – Felo Le Tee and Myztro
Dance challenges have been aplenty this year as South Africans embrace the outdoors after hefty lockdown restrictions were lifted. One of the most popular dances has come from Felo Le Tee and Myztro’s infectious Amapiano hit, ’66’.
There are many videos online of partygoers dancing in unison to its rhythmic log drum tempo. The dance has even made it to Europe’s party scene where partygoers have been spotted gyrating (as the dance requires) their hips sideways, then back and forth to the rhythm of the beat.
5. Siyathandana – Cassper Nyovest ft. Boohle and Abidoza
Cassper Nyovest’s ‘Siyathandana’ was an essential for any party held in South Africa over the past year. The rapper has had several hits throughout his successful career, but none have dominated local radio charts like the Amapiano-influenced ‘Siyathandana’. Cassper came through with an impressive verse, but it’s talented vocalist Boohle who well and truly stole the show here.
Today, the video is sitting on a whopping 11 million views on YouTube, making it one of the most viewed South Africa music videos of the year.
6. Hold – Blxckie
Blxckie has undoubtedly been South Africa’s brightest hip hop artist this year. In recognition of his stunning year, he was duly crowned the country’s Hottest MC by MTV Base in December, and there is no arguing that title. ‘Hold’ is impressive not only because it’s a brilliantly constructed song, but also because it showcases a vocal range that not many of us knew he had. The typically hard-hitting rapper took a break from the raps and unleashed a RnB ballad, which sees him pleading with his lover to hold him tightly because he’s ‘going through something’. He’d later show that this was far from a fluke with the release of ‘Joy’, which we’ll talk about later in this list.
7. Asibe Happy – Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa ft. Ami Faku
The trio’s second entry on this list, ‘Asibe Happy’, is a feel-good song, which sees talented vocalist Ami Faku deliver her typically angelic, airy vocals on one of the Scorpion Kings’ most musical productions yet. Asibe Happy means ‘let’s be happy’ in isiZulu, and that’s exactly how it’s been making music lovers across the country, and indeed the continent, feel over the past few months. The trio might as well drop an album together at this point.
8. Osama – Zakes Bantwini ft. Kasango
Producer, DJ and record executive Zakes Bantwini is one of the most highly regarded figures in South African music. Since exploding onto the scene a decade ago with the Black Coffee-assisted single ‘Juju’, Zakes has been a fixture in South Africa. His decision to go against the grain, even as Amapiano took over, has paid off with the massive success of his single ‘Osama’. It features a stunning vocal performance from Kasango, has stood toe to toe with the biggest Amapiano hits over the past few months, and has been the most played song on South African radio since its release a few months ago, according to Radio Monitor.
9. Nkao Tempela – C’hicco and Mellow & Sleazy
Production duo Mellow & Sleazy have had quite the year. First, they teamed up with Focalistic to produce four records (‘16 Days No Sleep’, ‘Rabaiki’, ‘Mani Yoh’ and ‘Barcardi Ke Religion’) on his most recent EP, President Ya Straata. Then they enlisted Felo Le Tee, DJ Maphorisa and Young Stunna for the anthemic ‘Bopha’. Their latest offering, ‘Nkao Tempela’, recently sparked a dance challenge of its own to rival that of ’66’ and it seems likely that this will be the dance of the summer. Newcomer C’hicco’s vocal delivery is unusual, but somehow it works perfectly here.
10. Joy – Blxckie ft. Oxlade
Despite ‘Big Time Shlappa’ and ‘Ye X4’ being Blxckie’s runaway hits this year, ‘Joy’ is arguably his most impressive offering thus far. Released shortly after his debut album B4Now came out, ‘Joy’ sees the typically hard-hitting rapper delve seamlessly into Afrobeats alongside fast-rising Nigerian star Oxlade. It’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect from Blxckie, yet he holds his own and, if we’re being honest, he surprisingly outshines Oxlade throughout. The melodies, the production, the vibe, the lyrics. It all comes together perfectly.
11. Bopha – Mellow & Sleazy, Felo Le Tee ft. DJ Maphorisa and Young Stunna
This is where Young Stunna announced his arrival. Earlier in the year, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing ‘Bopha’ blasting from someone’s car speaker or through in-store radio playlists at the mall. Way before it was released officially, a series of leaks (which has almost become a right of passage for Amapiano artists as they test out new music before putting it out) had the entire country in a chokehold. By the time it was eventually released in early September, we all knew the words. Young Stunna’s lazy flow and clever rhyme scheme is something to marvel at here.
12. Phakade Lami – Nomfundo Moh ft. Ami Faku and Sha Sha
For newcomer Nomfundo Moh to enlist two of South Africa’s premier vocalists on her single ‘Phakade Lami’ was a major statement on its own. ‘Phakade Lami’ blends RnB and Afro pop on the brilliant production that sounds like an interpolation of H.E.R’s single ‘Damages’ and Wiz Khalia’s ‘Something New’. Since its release, the song has consistently lingered in the top 20 among both Apple Music and Spotify’s most played songs list. In just two months since its release, the song is already at over 1.8 million views on YouTube, and climbing fast. Moh’s debut album, Amagama, is due in January next year, and there are few more eagerly anticipated albums.
13. Kwenzekile – Blxckie ft. Madumane and Chang Cello
Following his exploits on ‘Hold’ and ‘Joy’, two singles, which were a far cry from what we had come to expect from him, it should hardly have been surprising to see rapper Blxckie release an Amapiano single and knock it out of the park, but somehow it was. In the three odd months since its release, ‘Kwenzekile’, featuring Madumane and Chang Cello, has become Blxckie’s most popular song, raking in hundreds of thousands of streams on every major streaming platform. The single’s slow tempo is a far cry from the rapid, hard-hitting log drums that have become a hallmark of Amapiano. Somehow, however, the composition is groovy enough to get you moving, and the lyrical delivery from Blxckie and Madumane is catchy enough to have you singing along.
14. Questions – Shekhinah
Shekhinah has endured a turbulent couple of years since the runaway success of 2017’s award-winning, platinum-selling debut album Rose Gold. After undergoing several surgical procedures in 2019 to remove nodules and her tonsils, the singer took a brief hiatus from the industry to recover. She returned with a bang last year with ‘Tides’ and ‘Fixate’ ft. Bey T, two singles that firmly put her back on top of the local R&B ladder. This year, she released her sophomore album, Trouble In Paradise. The irresistible ‘Questions’, which her label Sony Music put out as the lead single, has been a fixture on radio and stands proudly in Shekhinah’s impressive cabinet of hit singles.
15. Playback – K.O
In a year dominated by Amapiano, it’s been far from smooth sailing for even the biggest hip hop artists in the country, particularly those who have stuck to their guns and haven’t incorporated elements of the genre in their music. Despite this, K.O has been one of a handful of local hip hop artists to flourish in this climate. His latest offering, ‘Playback’, sees the veteran MC flourish on a mid tempo, minimalist beat by frequent collaborator Mnqobi ‘Lunatik’ Nxumalo.
16. Hustler’s Prayer – 25k ft. A-Reece
Young rappers 25K and A-Reece are two of the most beloved rappers on this side of the continent. Despite his young age of 24, A-Reece has already been an A-list rapper for half a dozen years now since he burst into the scene as a wide-eyed teen star.
Though the past few years haven’t been his strongest, he shows glimpses of his old self on this personal, introspective single. 25K meets him bar for bar here, proving that his pen really is sharp. The Sony Music signee has enjoyed a stellar year since the release of his brilliant debut album, Pheli Makaveli. Early in December, he placed 5th on MTV Base‘s annual Hottest MCs List, which ranks the country’s best rappers.
17. Wamuhle – Slade ft. Sino Msolo, Tweezy and Yumbs
‘Wamuhle’ means ‘you are beautiful’ in isiZulu. With such a title, it’s no surprise that this slow burning Amapiano ballad has been a particularly popular fixture on women’s Instagram stories all through the summer as they post videos of themselves out and about. The single is only Slade’s second official release and it’s already put him on the map as one to look out for in 2022.
Vocalist Sino Msolo, who’s enjoying the best year of his career, delivers a vocal performance to rival that which he delivered on ‘Jola’ earlier in the year. Njelic and Boohle’s equally popular ‘Wamuhle’, which was leaked several months ago and then curiously released – officially – just a week prior to Slade’s version, has threatened to overshadow the song’s success, but it seems to be flourishing regardless.
18. Impilo Yase Sandton – Kwenyama Brothers & Mpura ft. Abidoza and Thabiso Lavish
Kwenyama Brothers & Mpura’s ‘Impilo Yase Sandton’ was one of the year’s earliest proper bangers. Released in February as part of their joint three-track Mpumalanga EP, ‘Impilo Yase Sandton’ is a heartfelt singalong that truly turned the late Mpura into a national star. In it, he masterfully tells the story of how his father left his mother with him and his three siblings when they were young. When his mom lost her job shortly afterwards, the five of them were forced to share a room with just one bed, prompting him to go out and hustle so that they could live a better life. Mpura’s recent untimely death makes this message hit home even harder.
19. Sithi Shwi – Young Stunna ft. Big Zulu, Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa
When Young Stunna’s debut project, Natumato, landed in October, all eyes were on the project’s lead single ‘Adiwele’. Not only was ‘Adiwele’ the most anticipated unreleased Amapiano song at that point, but a week prior, it had given rise to a viral moment during an Uncle Waffles set that travelled far enough to catch Drake’s attention on Instagram. Since then though, fans have also had the project’s other stand-out single ‘Sithi Shwi’ on repeat. The Scorpion Kings came through with another delicious beat here, and the brilliant Big Zulu added the cherry on top with one of his best verses all year.
20. Ngixolele – Busta 929 ft. Boohle
This year, Busta 929 picked up right where he left off in 2020. Last December, the prolific Amapiano producer released the anthemic ‘Umsebenzi Wethu’ with Mpura, which pretty much dominated the local party scene for a good six months. Then he released two EP’s – Undisputed and Undisputed Vol. 2 – within a few months of each other. He saved the best for last though when he released Umsebenzi Wethu Vol. 2 in October. The project’s standout single, ‘Ngixolele’, which features Boohle’s sweet and soulful vocals looks set to take him into the summer, once again competing toe for toe with rivals DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small.