The amapiano genre is synonymous with a lot of things: wacky and entertaining dance moves, TikTok virality, and a thumping log-drum. Great music videos, however, have never been a part of the genre's forte.
Yes, there have been moments when some of the genre's top artists have put out some good videos, but those have been few and far between. Recently though, there's been a trend of amapiano artists starting to consistently take their visuals seriously.
MFR Souls' 2019 hit, “Love You Tonight” featuring Sha Sha, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small, was one of the first amapiano songs to truly blow up nationally. Onkabetse Hlongwane, the young first-time director who was tasked with putting it all together, brought to the table an approach that was rare at the time.
"My approach to that music video was to really use creative direction and an abstract approach to send out a message through a lot of different stuff," he explained.
"For instance, we had MFR Souls in tuxedo's in the beginning playing a grand piano in the middle of the desert. Very iconic because that was to express that the sound they were creating was very musical, very classical. It wasn't just about it being songs from the hood and now they need to be in the hood and whatever. Because it was so musical we needed to portray them in that way. The other thing is the fact that we had contemporary dancers, which was very rare at the time we did the music video in 2019. That was right at the rise of amapiano in SA and at a time when they were now becoming fully mainstream."
Hlongwane also felt that having contemporary dancers would give viewers a different outlook towards the sound.
"You don't have to dance to amapiano in a specific way, there's so many ways you can dance to this specific music. I did that to globalise it in a way."
A year later, Hlongwane directed the amapiano duo's massive single “Amanikiniki”, which features Kamo Mphela, Bontle Smith and Major League DJz. Currently sitting on 27 million YouTube views, it is the most viewed amapiano video of all time.
Kamo Mphela's performance in the music video was so captivating that it instantly propelled her into a national star, and she hasn't looked back since. Mphela seemingly took some notes from that experience as she's since made a point of releasing stunning visuals. Just last week, she paired the release of her latest single, “Ghost” with a striking, narrative driven music video directed by Nape Phasha.
Kuda Jemba, a Ugandan-South African director who's directed and edited videos for the likes of Amanda Black, Kwesta, K.O and Azana and is the go-to guy for promotional musical content from Sony Music, shared how over the past few years he's seen technological improvements in the quality of videos. He's also noticed that amapiano concepts have gotten more creative.
"They are pushing the envelope and going beyond what you would expect from the genre," he said. "An example are the hip-hop references in some of the music videos. I’ve seen a lot of references from the hip-hop genre, so the influence is quite big. From what I’ve seen their whole visual representation from promo videos to photos and music videos are mostly top tier."
Hlongwane shared this same perspective.
"I honestly don't think that there's a difference between the aesthetics that amapiano artists go for and the aesthetics that hip hop artists go for. The same approach that amapiano artists go for is the same type of approach as we've seen from hip-hop artists. There's no difference anymore because at the end of the day it's just a matter of sound that differentiates the genres."
A case in point is the viral music video for DJ Maphorisa and Tyler ICU's infectious hit single, “Izolo” which was directed by Nigel Veggies, the cinematographer and creative director behind all the visuals from amapiano heavy hitters DJ Maphorisa, Daliwonga, Sha Sha, Kabza De Small and Felo Le Tee. "The first time I saw Izolo I was like yes this is it," said Jemba. "The director gets it, he's changing the narrative. Holistically, it was a well produced music video."
Generally, Hlongwane says he's seen a noticeable evolution over the past few years in how amapiano videos are shot. "We have different creative directors that are now trying to broaden their creative approach," he said. "When there are budgets in place you can see based on the music videos. I think it can still get better, but there's a lot of growth. Nigel Veggies is one of the people that's impacted just the way a lot of music videos are shot because he has shot for the majority of amapiano artists. He's played a big role in terms of the outlook of amapiano music videos – just how he shoots his shots, the lighting, etc. He's been literally creating new vibes for amapiano, which has grown over time. What that does is it puts pressure on you as an artist to say I need to put more money into my videos so that I can get all these accessories that Nigel is getting because you can definitely tell that there's more budget in place for something like that."
Most amapiano hits can be traced back to a viral moment on TikTok. Daliwonga's “Abo Mvelo”, one of the biggest hits of the year so far, flew the moment he shared a brilliant visualizer (also shot by Veggies) of himself performing it.
Amapiano's recent global boom has coincided with the genre's biggest acts becoming more and more deliberate about their aesthetics. They are investing in jewellery, designer brands, great social media content and showcasing their high end lifestyle. These are elements straight out of the hip hop play book, too. The bar keeps rising and rising, and the video guys are becoming kingmakers.