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South African Protest Songs Find Different Themes

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - South African music, long associated with the anti-apartheid struggle, is changing tempo to target social issues like crime and the impact of AIDS in the fledgling democracy.

With about 10 percent of the country's population infected with HIV, a 30 percent unemployment level and one of the highest murder rates in the world, young South African songwriters are finding plenty of compelling material.

Where songs like "Watch out Verwoerd," a warning to the architect of segregation, once filled township streets, today's songs carry lyrics like "Ubani Okumule Inzinja na?" (Who let the criminals out to abuse us?).

Singers like Mapaputsi and Zola put across their biting social commentary using a music style called "kwaito" -- township slang for "fierce language" -- hugely popular among the young people who make up around a third of the population.

"Kwaito wants to turn the gun into a microphone," Zola says.

Kwaito performers chant lyrics over backing tracks in a style similar to U.S. hip hop music, but with distinctly South African themes.

"I would totally disagree with anyone who says Kwaito emulates American music," says Rudeboy Paul Mnisi, who has cut his own CD mixing a tough new beat with old classics by South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.


Hugh Masekela, whose trumpet sounds became synonymous with calls for an end to white domination, has recently teamed up with kwaito singers to offer a jazz version of their songs.

"If you are concerned about what's going on around you, you will talk about it in whatever format," Masekela told Reuters.

The government has ruled that radio stations must play a minimum of 40 percent local content, up from 20 percent previously, aiming to limit the dominance of American imports as indigenous artists struggle to match their marketing might.

"The local industry is growing at a rate of 6 to 10 percent every year...there is no growth in local genres like pop rock that imitate international artists," an official from Sony Corporation's South Africa subsidiary said.

"People want something that has an Africanism about it like Afrikaans music or kwaito or African jazz."

Zola's records have achieved platinum sales of more than 80,000 in South Africa and he says music is not about race anymore, but about a youth which needs to define itself in different ways.

"Kids no longer just listen to one radio station, they listen to music, they go to the same clubs," said Zola, who took his name from the deprived part of Soweto where he grew up.

"Today, love is the struggle -- with that comes sex, comes AIDS, comes abuse. So ours is a journey of self-identification that is nothing like what the older generation experienced."

His song "Tshi-tshilam," for example, is a message to girls not to be seduced into having sex just for the sake of having a relationship.

In 2002, some 50,000 cases of rape were reported in South Africa, one of the highest figures in the world and an acute problem when combined with the AIDS crisis and a traditionally male-dominated society.

Zola hosts his own television show which tackles issues like the clash between tradition and modernity, education and relationships. A recent program followed a woman taking a virginity test.


Even South Africa's version of the hit television series "Pop Stars" is moving toward a more locally based theme.

"In the past the criticism that (Pop Stars) is heavily American influenced could be relevant, but I think our new format has helped to change that," Nkhensani Manganyi, one of the judges on the program, said.

Manganyi runs her own fashion label, Stoned Cherrie, whose trademark style is to put images of apartheid-era heroes and heroines onto contemporary T-shirts and cutaway tops.

"We want the youth to know who the icons were, what they were talking about and how they fit into our present situation," Manganyi said. "We are a new nation negotiating our identity and that is incredibly exciting."

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