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Black Coffee has arrived

Black Coffee poses with his Grammy for Dance/Electronic Album at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 3, 2022. Picture: Reuters/Steve Marcus

Black Coffee poses with his Grammy for Dance/Electronic Album at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 3, 2022. Picture: Reuters/Steve Marcus

Published Apr 9, 2022

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It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: having only one working arm is one heck of an impediment.

It makes daily tasks like driving more challenging, it complicates using a cellphone, and how you even get to properly enjoy a good ol' T-Bone steak?

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From a young age, Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo (now popularly known as Black Coffee) has had to figure this all out and learn how to navigate the world with just one working arm.

But, as we've come to find out, that one arm has become more like a wand, spinning the decks with a sort of mastery that few on this planet can match.

As has been widely publicised since he rose to national and international fame, Black Coffee's left hand was left paralysed when he was involved in a taxi accident at a young age.

In hindsight, this disability taught him how to make the most with the least, and his attitude has since been to keep moving and keep figuring it out, no matter the challenge.

Having also grown up and made it out of the poor township of Ngangelizwe in Mthatha, few things at this point feel insurmountable to this magician.

On Monday, Black Coffee defied the odds once more when one of his most daunting goals was achieved when he won his first Grammy for Best Dance / Electronic Album for his 2021 masterpiece, "Subconsciously".

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After years of being recognised as one of the world's best house DJs, this seems like his official minting having spent much of his near two decade long career in the industry under the radar and undervalued.

"Subconsciously" is an exemplary piece of music, superbly curated by Black Coffee and his superstar cast of producers and collaborators ranging from South African vocalists Una Rams, Msaki and Tellaman, to international trailblazers Pharrell Williams, David Guetta and Diplo.

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In certain ways, it is both the perfect blend of commercial music, while still maintaining the pure musicality and artistry that makes him so special. The production is light and controlled, the vocals are largely ethereal and purposeful, and the sound is golden.

While the whole nation seems to be buzzing and celebrating the moment, what this victory ultimately means for the local music industry is difficult to pinpoint and it may take some time to see its full impact.

I spoke briefly with Bandile Mbere, one half of amapiano duo Major League DJz, to get a sense of what he feels this win may mean for the South African dance scene.

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“It changes a lot of things for us because I just think for the past few years, before amapiano came in, South Africa’s been a country where they base a lot of stuff on artists and not DJs.

They forgot how much DJs play a role in the music industry. So for Black Coffee winning a Grammy in this day and age as a South African, helps and shows that DJs play a big role in the music industry."

You may recall Black Coffee received backlash locally about how "international" the album sounds and how his sound was moving away from its origins.

Similar criticism was directed towards Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy’s most recent album “Twice As Tall”, which many fans felt strayed from the lush and vibrant sounds of his brilliant sophomore album “African Giant”.

But the two artists' approach has proved fruitful, with both subsequently growing their presence on the global music scene and, in the process, claiming their first Grammy wins with these albums, proving the necessity to incorporate traditional commercial sounds to make their music more palatable for international audiences.

While Burna Boy won in the Best Global Music Album category in 2021, which has been criticised for being too broad a category and for how it often pits African artists against each other, Black Coffee’s victory in a category alongside international stars like Major Lazer and Sylvan Esso is symbolic in that he was pitted against other world beaters.

“We also deserve the world stage, we also want to compete with the best because that’s how we can be better,” Black Coffee said on Tuesday at a press conference in OR Tambo International Airport after he arrived back home from the Grammys.

“I was intentional about doing this album fighting for that spot. So anything negative that was coming like Black Coffee has changed, we’re not the target market, he’s making music for white people because the song with David Guetta was playing in certain radio stations, I didn’t care because I don’t make music for one person – I make music for all kinds of people.”

He went on to add that the negativity he encountered is something that happens often in SA because the majority of the country was placed in small houses with very little and once one starts to rise out from the trenches, the urge is generally to pull them back down.

He also shared some advice to the future hitmakers brewing in Mzansi to not place too much pressure on their shoulders by carrying the burden of the nation.

“They say fill your cup up first,” he said. “That's one of my major, major things… I love doing things for me, people who are close to me know this. Basically empower yourself first.

“Once you're empowered and don't need validation from friends, from your country, from anyone, and you know you can stand on your own, then you can work towards making your country proud.”

During the press conference, Black Coffee spoke on how while he was growing up he didn’t have many to share dreams with, and his resilience and drive are what carried him through.

It’s through this experience that he champions young people creating social groups with like-minded people to bounce off each others’ energy and ideas, and dream bigger.

Ultimately, if dreaming bigger is what truly comes out of his win, that'll be enough.

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