Last month, Samthing Soweto quietly struck a blow for local music in an increasingly globalized world. “Akulaleki,” with generous, cascading vocal lines skipping next to hiccups of percussion, was the top song on Apple Music’s South African singles chart. At the same time, Isphithiphithi, an album full of similarly beguiling tracks, was the top full-length on the streaming service in South Africa solely due to pre-adds; it hadn’t even come out yet.
“[A South African artist winning both charts, which have existed since 2015] has never happened in this country before, and that’s crazy,” Soweto says. “I’m 31. For me to come at my age, late-ish, to pull something like that off…” He trails off, still surprised by his own commercial vitality.
Impressively, the singer sprang on to the charts without the help of a major label. Soweto says major label contracts “don’t reflect the way the things happen on the ground” in South Africa. So instead of working with a major, he connected with the A&R and creative services company Platoon, which is known for identifying and supporting rising stars, including Mr. Eazi and Rex Orange County, early in their careers.
Platoon helped connect Soweto to high-powered producers like DJ Maphorisa. “They help me have proper conversations where I can pay for certain things,” Soweto says. “As part of my promo run, they’re putting up a whole mural of my face on a popular street in Johannesburg. Lord knows I wouldn’t be able to do that on my own.”
Long before his face was appearing in murals, Soweto got his start singing in an a capella group named The Soil. “They were really big in the country for a long time,” he says. But Soweto split with the group after their 2011 debut in the hopes of expanding his musical footprint. The group shot to fame without him, while Soweto did not experience the same rise on his own. “For a long time after I left, I didn’t feel like I was going to have my own shot,” he says.
Despite this, Isphithiphithi betrays zero anxiety. The album verges on beatific, with songs that are soft and bright and agile. The strongest tracks come in an unhurried flurry at the end of the album: “Lotto,” “AmaDM,” and “Akulaleki,” all made with DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small, are diaphanous dance cuts set a few beats shy of a house music tempo.
While some artists have adjusted to streaming’s worldwide infrastructure by aiming to please clubbers across continents, Soweto consciously took the opposite approach. “There is somewhat of a global African sound, and that is more like afrobeats,” he explains. “I was trying to localize. I was really interested in making a South African-sounding album.” He cites the Soul Brothers, a South African group that enjoyed success during the late 1970s, along with the South African singer Brenda Fassie, as keystones.
Soweto also nods a more modern genre that has been surging on his country’s dancefloors: amapiano. “Amapiano is purely South African,” the singer explains, “a mixture of house and kwaito” — which was itself a local response to house music that rose to popularity in the Nineties. Amapiano is full of criss-crossing currents, keyboards and percussion and ricocheting bass, stretched out over lengthy tracks. Spotify, which launched in South Africa last year, acknowledged the rising popularity of the style by introduced an amapiano playlist in July.
Isphithiphithi came out the third week of September; now Soweto is planning a series of performances around South Africa. And while his focus remains local, he’s not averse to finding a broader audience as well. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the country hears the music,” he says. “Then the continent. Then the world.”