Before there was Black Coffee, before Culoe de Song, there was Solomon Linda.
Born more than a decade before Nelson Mandela, Solomon Linda was the most famous South African artist in the world of his day. He wrote a song called “Mbube”; it became the first African record to sell more than 100,000 copies. In time “Mbube” it would be covered by an array of American music legends – when you listen to the spirited voices in “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in Disney’s The Lion King, you are hearing the genius of Solomon Linda reaching across the decades.
Through all of the covers and adaptations and remakes, Solomon Linda was rarely credited. Even people who claimed to look out for African artists took part, through negligence or thuggery, in profiting off the work of a Zulu musician who died in brutal poverty.
We’d like to think things have changed. Evidence suggests they have not. In a more modern context familiar to readers, DJs are often accused of “hoarding” African musical rarities, reissuing them under their own name and in a sense claiming them as their own with the alibi that the control authority was “unreachable.”
Fewer things have changed than we’d like to believe since the day of Solomon Linda, with a sidetrack through the days of British and American rock bands covering blues songs from well-known recordings and then waiting (perhaps even daring) black artists to sue them for it. The broader issue here is that the music made by Africans is often taken out of their hands. And that’s often by design.
This month, Okayafrica.com published an astonishingly unreported story. Written by Sabelo Mkhabela, the site details an interview between TV and radio presenter Sizwe Dhlomo and Black Coffee dealing with just these issues of exploitation and how the latter wants to deal with it.
“I’ve always felt like our future is not certain, because it was in other people’s hands.”
Black Coffee is probably the most influential African artist in the music industry today, at least in terms of his influence on the rest of the world (which is all I can really speak of). Aside from ushering in a seismic shift in dance music that came with the South African explosion, Black Coffee has worked with Pharrell and Alicia Keys and became I believe the first African artist with an Ibiza residency, playing Saturday nights at Hi Ibiza for the second summer in a row.
The interview is not a victory lap, however. The main topic of discussion is what’s wrong with the new music industry’s streaming paradigm when it comes to Africa and African artists and how he intends to fix it.
“GongBox” is the name of the music platform being developed by Black Coffee’s Soulistic Music. In development for nearly five years (the first public announcements date back to September 2014), GongBox is “tailored for an African market” from the ground up. For fans, this means more consideration for things that the major streaming platforms leave out but are sensitive issues for Africans, such as the price of data transfer, the size of the app (which has to fit and work on a variety of phones, not just the latest) and fees.
“We understand that most [users in Africa] don’t wanna subscribe, they don’t want to be committed to pay, even if it’s R9 a month,” Black Coffee told Dhlomo. “They’d rather pay R15[,] pay-as-you-go. So the plan is to have different types of payment systems, for instance mobile money. We are currently talking to networks to see if we can have our own currency, like Gong Box money. We want to have vouchers that you can find in spaza shops [a type of store in South Africa, sometimes located inside a home’s living room]. We want to bridge the gap that the big companies aren’t.”
As part of the GongBox launch, Black Coffee announced that his label Soulistic Music will “cease being a record label” in order to spearhead a new paradigm of African artists who own their own back catalog and masters.
“I’ve always felt like our future is not certain, because it was in other people’s hands,” he says. “And I feel like that’s how we’ve been as a continent. We’ve always been ready to give our future away to the next bidder… So my worry has always been, ‘When do we start creating our own things?'”
There was no indication of when GongBox will launch, but one gets the impression of a sprawling ambition and even greater technical challenges are still being resolved.
Though their approach may be novel, Solistic isn’t the only company jumping into the streaming market in Africa. In August, Tidal announced a new partnership directly with a telecom company, entering its second country on the continent by offering trial subscriptions. Tidal doesn’t present the same revolutionary vision as GongBox but does promote their brand as providing more for what they call “artist-owners” on their platform.