Just around 10 million people speak isiZulu, a language out of South Africa. So how did a song in the little-known dialect become a hit with billions of people around the world?
The song in question is “Jerusalema,” created by 24-year-old Limpopo native Master KG with the vocals of singer Nomcembo Zikode in 2019. It became an anthem of South Africa’s summer (which was the Northern hemisphere’s winter) and entered Shazam’s Global Top 200 chart in December — but it wasn’t until this year that it exploded in earnest. For the last few weeks, “Jerusalema” has been lodged in Shazam’s Number One and Number Two spots.
On Spotify, the track has 85 million streams, not counting millions more streams on its remixes. Phiona Okuma, who handles artist and label partnerships for Spotify’s Africa team, attributes the success to online dance challenges and the “feel-good nature” of the song.
“It’s one of the top saved songs in what we are curating right now,” Okuma tells Rolling Stone, adding that Spotify has seen an influx of users adding the song to personal playlists. “That’s generally how we know a song is successful. When a fan engages with a song, you’re judging things like whether they’re skipping, whether they’re just listening to the first 30 seconds or 20 seconds, or whether they’re saving. Saving means they are that committed to it — and there’s been an incredible amount of saves.”
Since the song’s release in November 2019, Spotify has seen an increase of 40,000% in streams. The “strong upward trajectory” outside of South Africa began in February and March, Okuma says. The surge came partly from a viral event in Angola, where a group of friends choreographed a dance and uploaded it to YouTube. That video now has more than 12 million views — but it also inspired a slew of other videos, including one by students and faculty at a South African school that generated three million views and another by a flash mob in Bucharest that drew two million.
When Spotify editors in various territories started noticing the song, they called Okuma’s team to ask about it. “We’d be like, ‘Yes, we know this song! We’ve been knowing this song! It’s a hit,’ and they ran with it,” she says.
The song quickly became a symbol of hope amidst all the fear brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. When nurses at South Africa’s Netcare Alberlito Hospital performed their version of the dance, one person involved said that “‘Jerusalema’ is more than just a dance. This is a celebration of survivors. It’s a victory from difficult and unknown times. This is a unity, formed like never before, for national and international people.”
On TikTok, #Jerusalema has 418 million views while #JerusalemaChallenge has nearly 200 million. According to a TikTok representative, the song has garnered more than one billion video views on the platform all together, as well as 812 million creations. As for Spotify’s charts, the track has gone Number One in Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and Romania, and Belgium, while cracking the Top 50 in “many” markets, according to a Spotify rep.
Spotify says the track has been heavily streamed in European countries in the last 28 days, receiving prime placement in playlists like France’s Hits Du Moment and Spain’s Exitos Expaña.
“Jerusalema” is a rarity in its massive popularity, Okuma says — but the demand for music from a variety of African genres has also risen in general. “African music has been on an upward trajectory for the last 10 to 15 years, with the mainstream Afrobeat explosion, championed by artists like Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy, being the biggest overall story,” she says. “What’s special about Master KG is he’s from South Africa, a renowned dance music [spot]. But in the last two to three years, dance challenges and things like that started making the trends of dance music and Afrobeat that much more accessible to the rest of the world.” She adds that positive, upbeat songs are exceptionally coveted right now.
“A lot of people in South Africa don’t even know what’s being said in the song,” says Okuma. “The vocalist is saying ‘Oh, Jerusalema [the heavenly city], you’re my home. This is not my home.’ That’s the spirit of what’s been happening during COVID and quarantine. The lyrics are literally saying, ‘Take me to a better place.’ It’s just amazing how well it translated through the actual feeling of escapism and the wanting of a better place and a better time.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the song’s lyrics are in Tshivenda, due to inaccurate information from a source. The lyrics are in isiZulu.