Meet Black Coffee, Africa’s First Superstar DJ
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because house music doesn’t all come from warehouses in Brooklyn.
Like a shot of espresso, when Black Coffee took the stage at the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York, he energized the crowd. From the first song, “Child,” by George FitzGerald, the vocals echoed and the underlying percussion ricocheted from one body to the next. He built the energy with sounds from his native South Africa, playing soulful dance tunes from Black Motion, his own ethereally groovy “I’ll Find You” and ending the performance with the steady tech-house banger “Y.O.U.D.” by Culoe De Song. It was a short set, a café cortito. But he hit the crowd with musical caffeine.
Black Coffee — real name: Nkosinathi Maphumulo — is Africa’s first superstar DJ. Part producer, part house music evangelist, Maphumulo, 41, escaped the doomed label of “world music” and today describes his sound as “Afropolitan”: It’s influenced by rhythms of South African villages and sophisticated urban soul. You hear touches of jazz and modern dance beats. “He’s the mack daddy of South African DJs and South African house music. He’s our DJ Khaled,” says South African singer Bandile. He’s spun at top-flight festivals Coachella and Ultra. Black Coffee’s last album, Pieces of Me, went platinum. And last year Maphumulo won a BET award, becoming the first South African artist to do so.
Born in Durban, Maphumulo grew up in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape — a township he describes as a quiet thief that stole hope and robbed people of ambition, not through oppression, but through the quiet normalization of poverty. Despite his surroundings, Maphumulo dreamed of international stardom and loved the arts. He sang in choir, studied music and, while still young, created his own playlists on cassettes.
He’s focused on taking South Africa’s music and Afropolitan sound mainstream.
But Maphumulo’s life took an unfortunate turn on February 11, 1990, the same day his country’s dreams were being realized. Then 13-year-old Maphumulo was celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela from a 27-year imprisonment when someone drove a minivan into a crowd. Maphumulo was hit, and he lost use of his left arm. He relearned how to tie his shoes and then learned how to DJ and drive a car one-handed. He poured himself into music, taking classes and singing. Soon, he enrolled in the school now known as the Durban University of Technology to study jazz.
At the university, Maphumulo had his first shot at stardom in SHANA (Simply Hot and Naturally African), an Afro-pop group he formed with fellow music students Mnqobi Mdabe and Thandukwazi “Demor” Sikhosana. The trio combined contemporary soul music with traditional African tunes over electronic grooves. South African pop queen Busi Mhlongo introduced the young men to Robert Trunz, famed Swiss producer and label owner of M.E.L.T. 2000. Trunz was impressed. “All three of them had beautiful voices,” he tells OZY. He signed them to his label in 1997. But three albums later, their career stalled. The trio was labeled a world music group — a death sentence for any musician trying to break into the mainstream. It’s fine for those who want to do a few gigs a month or hit festivals, says Maphumulo. But that wasn’t them: “We wanted the club scene.”
Trunz gave the 26-year-old an opportunity to produce a record by himself. Maphumulo was surprised. “I was that guy who didn’t even speak in the interview — I would just sit there nodding. It was a turning point that someone believed in me so much.” But Trunz was eager. “His early house productions were layered with a strong flavor of local music,” he recalls. It was a sturdy bet.
While working on his solo album, Maphumulo attended the Red Bull Music Academy in Cape Town, where he polished his production and DJ skills. In 2005, he launched his solo career with a remix of “Stimela,” a deeply political jazz and Afro-funk ballad released by Hugh Masekela in 1974, now reimagined as a modern dance hit. He released his self-titled Black Coffee debut later that year on his own label. The fresh take on dance music earned him a South African Music Award (SAMA) for best urban dance album in 2006.
Shortly after making it big in his home country, Maphumulo started curating his brand abroad. His international debut was in 2007 at Sonár, Barcelona’s premier three-day electronic music and arts festival. Three years later he headlined the Soul Summit Music Festival in Brooklyn. DJ Tabu of Soul Summit remembers a “definite buzz” about Black Coffee, noting, “The crowd was euphoric.”
He grew musically as he ascended: His earlier albums were raw, stripped-down Afro-house tunes; later albums show a lush musicality. The Africa Rising CD/DVD was recorded live with a 24-piece orchestra, and Pieces of Me showed his side as an experimental musician. Now, he’s poised to have his biggest year yet. This summer the DJ and producer landed the crown jewel in any DJ’s cap: a residency in nightlife mecca Ibiza at the most highly anticipated club in years, Hï Ibiza. He’s tapped for a couple of high-profile collaborations, including with rapper Drake. (OZY caught up with him just after Drake released “Get It Together,” a remake of Black Coffee’s hit “Superman.”)
He’s focused, he says, on taking South Africa’s music and Afropolitan sound mainstream. That’s a challenge for a house producer; the genre has remained constrained, with more artists failing to crack the top 100 than not. Maphumulo is ambitious, though, and reports that 4 million people streamed Drake on the first day — far more than could hear him in the club. For DJs who make the leap to mega-producers, such high-profile collaborations are key. If Maphumulo breaks through, he’ll join the ranks of artists like Calvin Harris — but that would be a rarity.
Back in Johannesburg, a jazzy voice and soft beats float on the wind at a rooftop party. In a backyard in Soweto, a DJ delights the crowd with heavy percussion, deep bass lines and groovy melodies. On the radio during the work commute, breezy sounds loop over tribal rhythms. Kids practice new dances to rugged bass lines and steely beats. There is no shortage of hometown sounds for Maphumulo to choose from.