Forbes spoke with Phiona Okumu, Spotify’s Head of Music for Sub-Saharan Africa, about her Spotify campaign: Music That Moves – a new content series telling stories about locally grown music crossing borders and shaping culture around the world.
You can watch the full Amapiano Spotify: Music That Moves campaign video, featuring artists such as DBN Gogo and Kamo Mphela, here.
A carpool driver in South Africa said: “It’s hard to drive. We are not well paid. And we can’t organize ourselves. You can organize a thousand people in a WhatsApp group to go on strike. And maybe you can get three or four of these WhatsApp groups together.
“Prices are going to skyrocket for a week,” he said. “Customers get a little notification on their phone. Then I go to check two weeks later, and everything still works like nothing happened. And I have to pay my bills.
There’s something similar in music in that we want to live in a world filled with music, so we have to want creative people to be able to live comfortably from their work. Second, the market does not attribute value to the positive externalities of music insofar as these externalities provide value if we add up all the smiles in the cafés where the live bands play. And that leaves a large class of amateur or struggling musicians.
Amapiano, South Africa’s signature dance music style, was born in and against this struggle. Forbes and Okumu spoke about these and other fights ahead, Beyoncé, and the transition of a generation of musicians from WhatsApp groups to streaming.
Forbes: What is your job exactly ?
Phiona Okumu: I work for Spotify. I manage the team that executes the strategy on how Spotify goes to market, how we – in particular – present ourselves to creators and how we bring them to their fans. The playlist is a big part.
Forbes: How did you land what many would consider a dream job?
Okumu: I started out as a music journalist and worked like that for a very long time, freelancing. I wrote for everyone, Rolling Stone, The Fader, everyone. And then I switched to blogging when blogging was a thing. I started an Afro-pop magazine, which was a global site for African culture. Based on that, I landed a job at Apple Music, before eventually ending up at Spotify.
Forbes: I saw that Spotify was working with Kendrick Lamar in Ghana. You made a documentary together. How did that happen ?
Okumu: It was purely Kendrick. Kendrick wanted to be somewhere else when his album came out. And that turned out to be Accra, which is a market we’ve been in recently. I guess you could say the stars have aligned. It was a great opportunity for us to collaborate with pgLang and Kendrick on something so special.
Forbes: To what extent are you trying to emulate the success or path of Afrobeats for Amapiano?
Okumu: Amapiano is a cherished genre for many, myself included. Spotify helped make it visible outside of South Africa. It’s interesting that you mentioned Afrobeats in comparison, and here’s what I observed on how the two developed.
Amapiano is a very distinct South African music, a particular style of dance music, and the relationship with Afrobeats has many aspects. One of them is symbiotic in the sense that Afrobeats has an international head start and an international cultural capital, right? We’re very used to seeing a WizKid or a Burna Boy selling stadiums in America, Asia, and Europe, charting and winning Grammys, and all those commercial recognition markers.
It’s banal – almost – for Afrobeats.
And I would say the reason is because Afrobeats has had a trajectory in the public eye for quite a while. It’s not overnight. Already 15 or 20 years ago, the story of the modern explosion of Pop Africa began.
House and Dance is what we do as pop music. It’s just a question of whether it’s in tune with the times or not. We had times when it was time for South African dance music, but it’s been pretty insular.
The Internet may have been important in Europe in 2008, but not in Africa. It certainly wasn’t where it is today. This is what I think contributes to the development of these subcultures or that makes a leap forward. They are fueled by the information age.
There are a lot of cultural exchanges between Afrobeats and Amapiano. You can hear it in the current wave of Aftobeats which borrows Amapiano’s signature log drum patterns.
Forbes: What does everyday life look like to make creations visible?
Okumu: I have to share with you, we ran a campaign on April 27e, South African Freedom Day, the day South Africa became a democracy, when we South Africans were able to vote for the first time. 94 was the pivotal year when it all became a thing. In 94, the music that prevailed, the music of young people, was Kwaito.
Kwaito is generally believed to be the music from which Amapiano originated. For me, it was like – when we were doing this documentary for the campaign last April – a full-loop moment for youth dance music in South Africa, in a way.
Kwaito gave the same optimism, this feeling that we are now in a new dispensation. Here in 2022, it’s a different kind of release we’re looking at for creatives. The music is so freely discoverable. This makes the opportunity for the creator in South Africa and Africa much wider.
Forbes: It’s like breathing. There is an inhale, an exhale and a pattern between them.
Okumu: Exactly. And then someone like Drake comes along, with his latest album, and puts out an all-Black Coffee-produced album – which is an Afro-tech album. Sounds and styles are quite related. So for me it feeds into the idea of the influence that South African dance music has on international pop.
When Beyoncé’s song “Break My Soul” was released, there was a lot of talk about it. It wasn’t a South African song at all, but I feel like South Africans of a certain generation probably understand his song and that direction more than anyone else because we were inspired by a certain style of dance music in the 90s. Producers like Steve “Silk” Hurley and 12-inch mixes were on the radio as pop music.
When we had Kabza De Small on the billboard in New York, we also had him on the cover of Mint. Mint is the biggest dance playlist in the world. It’s the biggest dance playlist on Spotify. And for us, the statement was that Amapiano can fight for any mainstream opportunity in dance music.
We are able to open the conversation about what dance music really means, where it comes from and who is involved in this space.
Dance music must be a representative place for creators around the world. South Africa is a renowned contributor to dance music. We absolutely should be playing in the mainstream of dance music.
Forbes: I bet it’s hard to get the music where Amapiano breathes – the clubs – on Spotify.
Okumu: What would usually happen with Amapiano artists is that they would do a song on a Monday, test it. And then hopefully by Friday it will have made enough noise in the WhatsApps that they can get reservations for concerts on Saturday and Sunday etc. ignoring all the streaming stuff and distribution, etc. Covid has proven this to be unsustainable. So everything changes.
Forbes: How is Amapiano in numbers on Spotify?
Okumu: There is a rather growing audience in Japan for example, of all places. Amapiano hit one billion streams in July. It is now at over 1.4 billion all-time global streams on the platform – which is crazy for a genre that was hardly on the platform three years ago.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.