Key of Life
Jerusalema: How Master KG’s global anthem launched 100-million clicks and feet onto dance floors
Master KG's surprise 2020 global anthem became the equivalent of an airborne musical virus bringing people together for a socially distancing dance and celebration.
End of the world as we knew it. The world is a mass graveyard filled with the souls of the dead and the living dead. Human cadavers.
At night the hounds howl at the moon. First it was North Italy, then New York City; both were almost wiped out in the first few months of the year.
In the southern tip of the once Conradian “darkest” continent, the mysterious virus almost wiped out every living soul. Human cadavers everywhere, hospitals are buckling under strain. Stadiums and empty buildings are “repurposed” for makeshift hospitals, or so politicians declare.
The only heroes in this necrosis allegory are the frontline health workers. Not for long. They will soon be among the most infected.
Across the country, and the world, residents drum up the courage and every 19h00, stick their heads out of the windows, hang on the ledges and bang pans, pot plants, anything, everything, supposedly in celebration of all health workers and all dial-a-pizza food delivery men “from Africa” (as though we are not in Africa).
Again: not for long.
Nothing lasts forever in this age. The virus is ruthless and relentless. The songs will die. The numbers will heave up, and down, up and down, and as they do the steel pan beaters’ enthusiasm will go south.
As the numbers heave, families start burying distant relatives and the government says “you hafta social distance”. It would not be too long before death stops skulking around and knocks at each and every family door, heart quickening, as it were, temperature pulses.
It seeps, and slips, under closed doors. Rather than the Passover story, I am reminded not of the doors marked by the blood of lambs but of something more contemporary, more poetic. I’m reminded of Sixto Rodriguez’s subliminal verse:
…And the clerk there said
that they had just been invaded
So I set sail in a teardrop
and escaped beneath the doorsill
Soon, after people had exhausted their patience and hope, what with the virus ravaging the poor and the rich, those with comorbidities and the fit-as-mules, the bravest and most reckless among them are hell bent on reaching their maker via a pool of hot fumes. And dance.
Again, Rodriguez called it first those prophetic four decades ago:
’Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun in weekends of whiskey sours
’Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?
But death displays its sharpened claws and widens the distance. The world goes quieter. Amid the silence, a too-clever-by-half graffiti appears on the streets, and is quickly taken up as a social media placard:
So far 2020 is like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by an airplane.
At least, I thought: People still have the gumption to play cute within the belly of the apocalypse.
Within the death of social uproar a house music video of the song Jerusalema by Master KG, which initially dropped and caused a mini-storm in the South African music charts in the summer of 2019 and got a second wind in the winter of 2020.
The world goes crazy.
And that is why, and how, I find myself here in the quiet part of Midrand, somewhere between the working class heaven of Diepsloot on one side, and N1 highway to Pretoria, to speak to the song’s architect and producer Kgaogelo Moagi, also known as Master KG.
Later on I would ask him what accounts for such monumental popularity of his song, video, and the dance with which it is transmitted. He would tell me point blank “I really have no idea. I can only imagine this was just the right time, and the right social condition for this song. It caught people’s feelings. Otherwise how do I explain the fit?”
On first spin, the crossover monster single Jerusalema (crossing over from 2019 as an “also-ran” hit, into a miraculous 2020 anthem) does not sound shockingly inventive, at least it has beats.
In fact, it has all the signature arrangements of his 2018 runaway chart topper Skeleton Move. They stripped, a-DIY tika-tika-ching-doof-doof sparseness of Skeleton Move introduced, as are all his hits, by a lame signature lyric “wa nitwa mos”(xiTsonga for “surely you can hear this”), are all in there.
Like I said, that’s upon the first spin.
Like the greatest pop songs of all time from the South African tshaba-tshaba, kwela, mbaqanga, smanje-manje, soul and Afro-rock to New York’s Brill Building, to the British pop-rock invasion, circling back to Tin Pan Alley, the best of Master KG’s music is deceiving.
The sound itself, let alone the music, is largely arranged to roll off the tongue, appear too simple, work itself into one’s head and ultimately tug at your heartstrings. It is, in that way, not unlike ancient African river dance songs, rain songs or songs young men and women danced to in community ceremonies and rituals.
What gifts the best of pop, and the best of standards, say Dorothy Masuka- composed and Miriam Makeba-performed Pata-Pata, Frank Sinatra’s Ain’t cha Coming Back, better still New York, New York, or Jerry Lee Lewis’s Would You Take Another Chance On Me, their lustre is neither complexity of structure nor or lyrical dexterity, but quite simply, their…uhm, simplicity.
By the same logic then, their simplicity is their genius. It could also be their undoing. Something the young DJ and I are acutely aware of, hence his sonic curation peppers the simplicity with hauntingly solid female voices.
In Master KG’s world of song, the female voices – alternately Zanda Zakuza, Makhadzi, Nomcebo Zikode, etc — gesture both at the banality as well as the bacchanalia of life.
Also, while they are not mere visual props in themselves, and no great muse ever is, there’s something they add to the video accompaniment to his repertoire. Therefore, there’s a certain amount of gold dust-alchemy video, as a visual art form, does to enhance not really the song but to reformat our reception of the song.
Master KG’s videos – all directed by Kyle White – like the best of music videos, say Beyoncé’s last decade of visual repertoire, help us access the music’s aural gifts via the visual telekinetic mind stream: We not only hear but see, not only admire but wish to be part of the visual experience.
Which explains why it was after the official video dropped that the full flourish of the song lodged itself within the brain, before showering down upon that intangible centre of humanity we all refer to as the soul.
Shot in several locations including a mushy mash of an urban thicket in an open veld and recreational park, and spliced with hedonistic township dance scenes shot in Olievenhoutbosch, Midrand, the video sparkles with a saturation of colour.
However both the song and the video are imbued with musicality of voice and spirit, rare in the broad-based EDM (electronic dance music) fare, thanks to the featured vocalist Nomcebo Zikode.
A secular soul singer in the tradition of the gruff-voiced classical composer Sophie Mgcina, tenor and bass doyennes such as Dolly Rathebe, Thuli Dumakude and Deborah Fraser up to Brenda Mtambo, Nomcebo Zikode’s vocals in Jerusalema, chill the spine and curl the hair on the back of your neck.
It is largely due to her vocals that the song, and Master KG’s empathy and genius, shimmer up in a slow tempo before doubling up into a fiery dance anthem.
In the song, the suppressed owl’s hoot merges with a computerised brass section. Slowly, like granny’s well-measured dumpling dough, it matures tightly: The song bridges from a dirge into an up-tempo affair. Already in the second verse, the whole thing smoulders with both menace and appeasement to the gods, perhaps the gods of dance.
Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, when electronic music giants such as Goldie, Roni Size, and later Moloko and Carl Cox roamed the earth and conducted midnight quasi-religious dance séances out of rave culture, someone had the quick mind and brio to proclaim “God is a DJ”.
The culture has undergone seismic, if often embarrassing changes. Dance culture, and dance subterranean seeking an alternative, subversive individual ID, within an already midnight-only counterculture, has been sold to the highest bidders: Ibiza yesteryear, Coachella today. It’s insane.
And yet, Zikode’s voice — and the verse, which she scribbled in my notebook…
Jerusalem, Ikhaya lami
Ngilondoloze! Uhambe Nami!
Ndawo yami/Mbuso wami
Ndilondoloze, uhambe name
Zungangi shiyi lana!
…just about summons the gods themselves.
In her voice, we are summoned into an alchemic crucible from which communal compositions – and what we should perhaps refer to as The Working Man and Woman’s Book of Hymnody – are planted, cultivated and tended to with both veneration and protection, by mostly African choirs, burial society elders and close harmony groups, before finally seeping through into national consciousness.
The marriage of gospel and house music here not only triggers emotions, sending bazillion feet into global dance-a-thons; it is also emblematic of what is meant when it is said, at its most basic, pop music heals.
Jerusalema, then, serves as a soothing balm, in the age of dystopia.
“I could not have planned for this moment, for this song to have the effect and impact it continues having” Master KG would say in an interview we had at his house in Midrand.
“None of it”, he says. “It feels like people needed something to ease them off the pain and confusion of our times.”
By the time I met Master KG and his muse and partner in the art of ethereal music making, Zikode, the video of the single had chalked up more than 77-million viewers on YouTube, and was still climbing.
His manager, Brendon Maseko from the brave, Limpopo-focused house music indie label Open Mic Records, pulled me aside and whispered: “by the time your article comes out we’ll be riding the 100-million viewership magic carpet: From Diepsloot to Detroit, and from Harari to Helsinki.”
Who could begrudge him the bluster?
The song has become not only infectious. It has morphed, via radio and TV stations, and most certainly via YouTube and other online platforms, into the equivalent of an airborne musical virus. It is the biggest, literally by footprint, and proportionally the most unreasonably popular and most listened to song in history, period.
Into that history you’ll have to factor music created and performed by pre-YouTube pantheon of African icons such as Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Franco, Manu Dibango, Le Grand Pepe Kalle, Papa Wemba, Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour, the legendary Orchestra Baobab, Thomas Mapfumo, Brenda Fassie, Diamond Fingers, Dr Nico, Staff Benda Bilili, Buika and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Still, that’s just but a tenth of the history of titanic names that bestrode in the 20th century.
Using distribution models, analytics and diagrams that previously explained music business, so as to decode what makes a piece of art or culture into a zeitgeist, it is, as of now, inexplicable how this song, with its conspicuous beginnings as the creators will explain, grew to swallow the world.
“My music really is not my music, but my village’s music. It’s theirs, really. I mean I create it but it is all influenced by sounds I grew up hearing. Y’know…atmospheric.”
The song, on the strength of which Master KG was recently signed to Warner Bros in France, and is preparing a Grammy Award submission for 2021, was also criminally snubbed by the organisers of the SAMA awards, and SABC Song of the Year Viewer Choice, as were Master KG’s hits before. I am almost certain, someone, somewhere has already cooked some kind of answer along the lines of “ooo’weee, these things all depend on viewers or listeners choice…call-ins.”
I bet they do.
How did it really come about at all?
Away from the digital imaginary, Kgaogelo “Master KG” Moagi (24) is the most unlikely pop star you will ever come across.
He is slim, almost cartoon-character wiry, and always has a baseball cap drawn lower unto his face as if to create a permanent alibi. Life in the limelight seems like a necessary inconvenience, but an inconvenience nonetheless. He also struck me as someone not in a hurry to make sweeping business or artistic gestures, move or even announcements.
He warms up to me firstly, in his mother language which he clarified is “SePedi” and not “tshiLobedu”, the language of the fabled Queen Modjadji the Rain Queen, as popularly assumed, and then he ends us the sort of digital-social media cool lexicon all millennials have adopted as their generational dialect.
I am not certain it’s shyness or rock star boredom. It feels like he’d rather be somewhere. He slips out, and wanders about in the yard. Hanging out in the sun with his childhood friends is much more exciting than an interview, I concur.
But I did not come all the way to the middle of the world to hang out with a hologram, or stonewalled with a smile.
What both know for sure is they are blessed to have that song, and the video that accompanies it, channelled via them. “It’s truly a blessing.”
I cajole, push, threaten and employ devious charm. He figures he has to oblige me. And so the beginning of his tale unfolds.
“I come from a village in Tzaneen, known as, Skororo, some call it Calais village.” He says he was not overtly religious or, as the well-worn cliché and requisite tradition goes, began his making music in the church.
“My music is full of emotion, but I’m not more religious than the next guy.” Did you play in like a boy band? “Yhu! Haai, no. I started just like many a bunch of young boys in the village: I had friends who allowed me the use of their equipment and taught me software programmes. We really learnt by ear.”
He refers to the four years in which he and his friends fiddled with knobs and soundwaves while nationally, house music burned, as “my village street university.”
“Four years. I gave it four years of my teens. Uhm, you know, just to make basic beats.”
He tells me the secret for his music’s vitality is his village. “My music really is not my music, but my village’s music. It’s theirs, really. I mean I create it but it is all influenced by sounds I grew up hearing. Y’know…atmospheric.”
Unlike, say Black Coffee or Zakes Bantwini or some of the early 2000s kwaito pioneers such as the Trompies pantsulas, Kgaogelo never attended a music conservatory, and grew up skulking around studios such as Downtown Studios, Phil Hollis studios, or Dephon Records.
Still, when he speaks about music, he is clear as ice: “My tone true gift is the ear. I play it by the ear. The ear is connected to the soul. I know exactly what I want, how I want it and where I want it in the song. I don’t play a single instrument, but I am a producer. I understand that, if you have no regard for song structure, forget it. Structure and the melody are everything to me.”
He says not everyone can sing atop or within his beats. As he talks he sounds more like a digital-age choral conductor, or a performance arts curator than a musician. It is also possible I brought the baggage of my early 2000s music outlook with me. I allow that I might be out of the loop with the new-wave talks about “sound” more, and less about “arrangement”, or, even “art.”
Kgaogelo though, is meticulous. He has an achingly cold focus on his art, the Zen-minimalism of which manifest all the more as he tells me about his daily habits:
“I don’t drink, don’t smoke and why should I do drugs, huh: To please who?” He tells the story about people in the industry who come up and tell him he needs to change his life.
“Some of them tell me to start living like a celebrity, to behave this way; to be this, be that. Some are even telling me to move overseas in order to become recognised as a true international star. Mara, why should I?” He asks almost rhetorically: “Why can’t South Africa have its own South African-based stars?”
“I’m going nowhere.”
Master KG has an especially fond regard and deep respect for the stream of musical collaborators, and muses, he works with. And as he tells it, he works mostly around midnight.
“I started working on the beats for Jerusalema in the early evening, and called Nomcebo over at about 22h00. She drove all the way from Centurion, alone at night, just so she could lay her vocals. Who does that?” he asks, incredulous. It is less a question than unbelievable admiration for the singer-songwriter.
“By midnight she had already laid her vocals. I left the song incomplete for some time…”.
What he doesn’t know is that Nomcebo Zikode almost didn’t make it.
“You know, I was like, ah-nah, so late? I know artists are owls, but I was not feeling working at midnight during the weekend. So I asked the gents to leave the studio and locked myself in. Out of nowhere the lyrics and the voice through which they came, you know bhut’ wam’, just rose up from my belly.” Zikode gesticulates, pumps her fist, eyes roll sideways, and almost jumps on her feet as she talks. Thrice she spliced up and interrupted her answers with singing. Woosh! comes that voice. But it really doesn’t swoosh in.
It’s husky, just half an octave above Cassandra Wilson in New Moon Daughter. It’s husky, and skulks around, measures your ear and soul capacity to take it all it, and then pounces! Thrice she sang. Thrice I died!
“I went, Jerusalema…ikhaya lami…” she let it hover, and make little circular swirls, like sepia smoke in a jazz juke joint; maybe Kippies, Three Deuces, or the Five Spot. Perhaps we both she’s now Thelonious Monk’s blues muse.
She sings. My tummy tangles itself up in further knots. This is not good. I mean this is too good. “I know I have a funny voice, I mean a low register voice that somewhat resolves its own issues.” I let out a giggle.
“But sometimes this voice just bolts out into the sky. It’s not me, it’s a gift from, you know, truly I don’t know”, Zikode says. Neither does Master KG.
What both know for sure is they are blessed to have that song, and the video that accompanies it, channelled via them. “It’s truly a blessing.”
As the song and the video continues raining on each and every patch of the universe, launching dance challenges and imitation dance challenges, Master KG is mum about his next move.
Right now he is enjoying the Jerusalema remix he collaborated on, with the Nigerian neo-roots superstar – for the sort of mellowed whiskey demeanour, at least on the song, and the marabou of dance he is in the Black Atlantic, only a bygone phrase, “superstar” explains his almost supernatural prowess – Burna Boy.
I was given an exclusive viewing of the video on Master KG’s cinema-size home TV screen.
You do not have to take my word for it, but if that remix does not finally release humanity from the cruel, mystifying, grip of the virus we apparently inhale in the air, even if metaphorically, nothing ever, at least in popular music will dare to.
Because the internet moves with speed and the ferocity of a hornet swarm, there’s a chance that by the time you next play or click on Master KG’s Jerusalema video, the song will already have been stung to death.
But not before humanity across the globe, and especially South Africa itself, is yanked back from the precipice, if only symbolically, and partly by the song’s buoyant refusal to let go of hope: The only shard of life we seem to be left clutching in our hands, in this slow-motion wreckage. DM • Bongani Madondo is a former pop music critic and a rock ’n roll historian, and the of author of I’m Not Your Weekend Special: the Art, Life&Style and Politics of Brenda Fassie, and Sigh, the Beloved Country, a book on politics, rock ’n roll and Black Magic, among others.
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