Music falling under the umbrella term ‘Afrobeats’ is enormously popular, its cultural reach extending far beyond the countries in West Africa from which many of its biggest stars hail. This sound, championed by Burna Boy and Wizkid, is never hard to find on the airwaves or on dance floors from Lagos to London to Los Angeles. However, Afrobeats isn’t the only musical genre originating in Africa that’s having a serious international impact.
Amapiano is an electronic music genre with roots in South Africa that’s been growing exponentially since 2018. Having exploded in popularity during international lockdowns, Amapiano in 2023 is bigger than ever. One of the genre’s biggest stars, Uncle Waffles, repped Amapiano at Coachella earlier this year, and American superstar Janelle Monáe recently greenlit an Amapiano remix of her track ‘Float’.
In this blog post, we’ll explore how the sound of amapiano has evolved from its origins in South Africa to its current form as a boundary-transcending musical movement. And, with an increasing number of UK club nights giving Afrobeats and Amapiano dual billing, we will learn that while these two sounds are sonically quite distinct, they have more in common than first listen suggests.
Where Does Amapiano Come From?
Translating directly as “the pianos”, Amapiano is a subgenre of house music, but its history is linked to another important electronic music genre from South Africa: Gqom.
Gqom appeared in the early 2010s in the townships of Durban as a unique fusion of house music, Kwaito (a South African house subgenre started in the 90s), and traditional tribal rhythms. Characterised by its driving basslines, syncopated rhythms, and raw energy, gqom quickly gained popularity in South Africa and started making waves globally.
To better understand the differences in sound between the different genres we’re talking about, we looked at all tracks on SoundCloud tagged by users as #gqom, #amapiano and #afrobeats. We then analysed each set of tracks using Musiio’s tech to learn how the tagging AI perceives the differences between each genre. Because our AI has not been trained on amapiano or gqom music, we're analysing tracks using our basic genre tags.
Gqom’s influence on amapiano
Gqom first caught the attention of UK and European listeners around 2016, promoted by labels such as Gqom Oh! and Hyperdub. The genre’s rolling moodiness and dynamic percussion resonated in UK clubs. Artists such as Tribal Brothers, Scratcha DVA, KG, and more began incorporating elements of gqom into their tracks, blending it with UK funky and other genres.
The growth of amapiano
Amapiano, influenced by its predecessor Gqom, as well as the 90s sound of Kwaito, offered a different sonic experience. It introduced a more melodic and soulful element, combining deep house-inspired chords, intricate piano melodies, and catchy vocal hooks. Amapiano’s fusion of various musical styles resonated with a broader audience and allowed for greater experimentation and diversity within the genre. It quickly gained traction in local South African music scenes, becoming a staple at house parties, clubs, and social gatherings.
The genre’s fusion with UK music styles, such as the addition of deep basslines and MCs hyping up the crowd, has contributed to its growth and evolution. Compared to gqom’s modest growth, amapiano has exploded. See how both have grown over time below.
As early as 2018, artists began uploading tracks to SoundCloud with the #amapiano tag. As you can see in the chart below – which combines data compiled by music data platform Chartmetric and UK ticketing platform Shoobs – UK events and editorial playlists began popping up at the end of 2019. Mid-2021 is when amapiano enjoyed its most considerable uptick in wider interest. By that time, there were already nearly 7000 amapiano tracks on SoundCloud.
The big jump in amapiano uploads on SoundCloud in September 2022 is difficult to fully explain, but does coincide with significant events in the UK festival calendar and amapiano artists being featured on more mainstream releases such as the Wakanda Forever soundtrack.
Amapiano's sonic evolution
A decent portion of amapiano’s new reach is also tied to collaborations with international artists like WizKid and Tiwa Savage. With these collaborations and crossovers have come evolutions in the genre’s sound.
But can we measure amapiano's sonic evolution? Yes. When we analyse each year's amapiano uploads on SoundCloud, the message is clear: Amapiano is becoming more musically diverse.
What’s more, the data suggests that the average track energy of amapiano uploads is decreasing, suggesting that the genre is chilling out. Amapiano is no longer just the soundtrack to a night out, with its lower-energy variants being better suited to laid-back brunch spots than basement clubs.
Why has Amapiano struck a chord?
But why has amapiano captured broad audiences across the globe in a way that gqom hasn’t? And even though it has much higher BPMs than afrobeats, why does amapiano work so well alongside this genre in the club?
The answer could be the vibe – which we can measure with Musiio’s ‘Mood’ tags.
We can see some intriguing correlations when we compare mood breakdowns of gqom, amapiano and afrobeats tracks. For the uninitiated, the more similar colour composition in the chart below, the higher the mood compatibility.
Amapiano and afrobeats have remarkably similar moods, which means that they fit nicely side by side. Playlist curators can be confident that they won't have users reaching for the skip button if an amapiano track appears on an afrobeats playlist and vice versa.
And audiences that enjoy the way afrobeats make them feel are more likely to enjoy amapiano than gqom. Gqom's more powerful and energetic moods (as opposed to relaxed and quirky) could explain why it has remained more siloed in electronic music scenes.
Amapiano’s popularity could also be attributed to greater interest in electronic music across Europe and the US. Hip hop has been losing ground to electronic music all over the world, and amapiano has benefitted from this global trend. In 2023 to date, no hip hop track has topped the Billboard Hot 100 or Billboard 200 chart – a first in 30 years.
With amapiano stars landing main stage appearances in the US, and American artists releasing amapiano remixes, this South African genre has captured a mood. And it shows little sign of slowing down. Last year saw more tracks tagged by SoundCloud users as #amapiano than any other year. At the time of writing, 2023 looks to be an even bigger year.
Amapiano is more than just a genre; it’s a powerful narrative of cultural exchange. Its pulsating rhythms, distinct melodies, and deep basslines have cemented its place in the hearts of audiences globally. One thing is clear: Amapiano is not just here for a good time, but for a long time.
In part 2, Chartmetric explores amapiano through playlists, and in part 3, Shoobs will give a brief history of amapiano in the UK through live music. Follow our Linkedin and Twitter to stay up to date.
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