When you think of the face of the modern music scene in South Africa, you think of DBN Gogo or one of her contemporaries. One woman, a lover of DBN Gogo’s music, described Gogo as “a former Twitter troll in the argument for queen of Amapiano and a father in the ministry.”
Amapiano is the music of South Africa in our age. It’s a dance music that’s lived long in conversation with Chicago, New York, Paris, House, Hip-Hop, and Pop.
“DBN” is pronounced like Durban, the city DBN Gogo’s from in South Africa. Durban and Johannesburg hold the title for the capital twin cities of Amapiano. And Gogo is their prodigy.
Gogo was playing in Johannesburg, South Africa, Portugal, and Nigeria when she spoke with Forbes. DBN Gogo recently partnered with arguably the most powerful company in music, Spotify, to raise the profile of Amapiano.
Forbes: How South African is Amapiano, and how Amapiano is South Africa?
DBN Gogo: I’m excited that the country, as South Africa so far at the bottom of the continent, is getting its recognition. We have been so plagued, not even in a bad way, but I’m saying plagued as in, we are always remembered for bad stuff whether it’s our current political climate or our former political climate, which is obviously the most popular thing we are known for.
We are bringing something else, some other talkability. There’s talent. There’s a lot the South can offer besides minerals and history. It’s dope to see it working. And the thing I love about Amapiano is every single person can eat.
There’re no gatekeepers. If you have a hot song, you can blow up tomorrow. Obviously, it’s up to you if you’re going to keep the momentum going and continue to be a success. Consumers, ultimately, are the decider of if they like the song, if they like the dance, if it’s cool. It’s made a lot of popular dances and dancers. Kids can make some money. People are feeding their families.
I remember the first weekend we went into lockdown, I had employed two people, maybe two months before. And I was like, what am I going to do? I had to cut salaries, but I was like I’ll continue to pay you guys until we get back to work. I’ll figure it out.
Fast forward to today I employ – what? – five, six people now. We’re doing something with this music. It’s not something that we take for granted. It’s not something that we take lightly. We’re working with our talent and trying to change our lives.
Forbes: Amapiano and Spotify, from the outside, have a lover’s relationship.
Gogo: We broke the status quo. There was a big part of piano that labels didn’t know what to do with because we were doing the opposite of what everyone’s supposed to do. Everyone went to distro. We were doing it independent. We were dropping all the time. We made a song today. We drop it tomorrow. No one could even grasp and catch up to what was going on. With the movement of how it’s going now, people had to go back to the licensing distro and go back to big labels because now it’s like, okay guys. You saw what we can do; come to the party. We need budget. We need marketing budgets. We need budgets in studio, production budgets. Let’s put some money into this so that we can sell it, invest into it. Otherwise, it’s going to be another thing that’s taken away from us and gone.
You in New York can listen to my album, sure. But it’s not going to move like that, doesn’t matter if you tell a hundred of your friends. It’s a digital plateau. I’m not going to get onto your chart in New York just because people like the song. Someone must push it from that side. You can’t push it from here. A lot of piano artists are taking everything more seriously. It’s becoming actual business. And it is things that we have learned from our former colleagues, the hip-hop guys. We have to formalize everything. There must be contracts in place. There’s money to be made.
Forbes: How have audiences developed?
Gogo: You start to see how the inception is taking place in Europe a little bit faster than Africa. Last year, I did Kenya, Ghana. Ghana was very quick to be booking people, but their party thing is not so much like, oh, we’re dancing. They’d look at you like, okay, what’s going on? They’re very cool. They’re super, super cool. They’ve got the events, whatever, but they’re very cool.
You go to Kenya. Kenya loves house music. So, they were like, bring that. Bring it; bring it. Tanzania was one of the first places that used to book Amapiano DJ artists. I think I was one of the first people to go there, ever. But you see over the years how minds change. There’s been a push and pull.
My friend, he’s from Zambia originally. He was there this past weekend. There are fights at the club. The artists are complaining that they play more piano than they do local music. It was on my timeline earlier.
I think Ghanian people were complaining. They were saying to the clubs, you play more Naija music than you do our own.
When we have shows, they’re booking Nigerian artists that come here and sell out. It is very rare for us to headline our own shows this side. So, I understand their fight completely because if you’re not pushing local music, if it’s not coming from the source, being pushed at the source, there must be a pushback.
I think it’s a bit disingenuous for us to be fighting each other instead of working together to push African music in general. We need each other as a strong whole. We need each other. That’s why we say we must collaborate over having any sort of competition because we also need West Africa – especially – to help us to export the sound. They are in the markets already. We are trying to penetrate.
Artists pushed the way they did because they realized there’s no money in Nigeria for them all to be successful. It’s not like in America. You can be very famous in America, make a sh** load of money. No one can know you anywhere else in the world. That market is big enough for you to sustain. Here, it’s a very different story. It’s a different story. That’s why we have to push to get across the sea. So we can expand; we can grow. We can make more money.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.