Why you should care
Because he's changing the face of South African music.
After school one afternoon when he was 17, Refentse Morake was messing around with his guitar in the front yard of his parents’ home when a friendly tannie (‘auntie,’ a term of respect in Afrikaans) asked if she could take a video of him singing “De La Rey” in his now-characteristic treacly vibrato. The next afternoon the tannie returned bearing truly startling news: Refentse’s video had racked up 160,000 views in 24 hours.
“I only agreed because I thought she’d have like 20 friends,” he remembers with a laugh.
Now at almost 22, Refentse has established himself as one of the biggest music stars in South Africa. After signing with Select Musiek (a division of Sony) he won four Ghoema awards (Afrikaans Grammys) for his first album My Hart Bly in ’n Taal (My Heart Lives in a Language) which was the biggest-selling South African album of 2017, in any language. “The Afrikaans public adore him,” says author, journalist and music critic Erns Grundling. “Even if they can’t always pronounce his name.”
But getting back to that viral video. It wasn’t only remarkable because Refentse — who speaks Sesotho at home — was singing in perfect, unaccented Afrikaans, the language once associated with apartheid. No. It really made heads turn because of the song he chose to sing. Bok van Blerk’s 2006 hit “De La Rey” — a plea to a long-dead Boer War general to come back and lead his people — polarized the Afrikaans community with its nationalist undertones. Refentse’s viral rendition did a lot to “diffuse some of the tension” surrounding the song and was seen by many as “a moment of hope,” says Grundling.
While Refentse says he had “zero intention of making a viral video,” the singer did think it was “an important statement for a Black man to sing that song.” Acknowledging that some people see the song as a weapon, he wanted to make a statement that “I am neutral, and I am singing the song. So what do you make of it now?”
But where does this cultural chameleon come from?
The son of an education inspector (dad) and a mining machinery operator (mom), Refentse spent the first six years of his life in the predominantly Black township of Sebokeng. His first exposure to Afrikaans came when the family moved to Meyerton and he was offered a scholarship to the mostly White Afrikaans primary school where his grandmother worked as a cleaner.
There was just one problem: No one in the Morake family could speak Afrikaans. Kids soak up language like sponges though, and Refentse was aided by his growing Afrikaans music collection. What had started as a learning tool soon became a passion. By the time he was in high school, Refentse says he’d established a reputation as a “troubadour” who spent every break jamming in the school hall, even though this overachiever (he also played ‘A’ team rugby) had his sights set on a law degree and a career in politics.
The events of February 2015 put those plans on ice. The Sunday after “De La Rey” went viral, Refentse was on the cover of national Afrikaans weekly Beeld. A couple of months later he was playing at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn, a massive annual celebration of all things Afrikaans. There, Refentse was approached by Sony, but he told them to wait.
After he graduated high school, he picked up the phone and hammered out a deal. Before he knew it, he moved to Pretoria (the Nashville of Afrikaans music), was recording his first album and playing 280 gigs a year to enraptured audiences that were 99 percent White (the demographics have changed a bit since Refentse came onto the scene). “If you don’t like him,” says his booking agent Jana De Beer, “there’s something wrong with you.” He’s sparking an emotional catharsis among fans of all races. Said one YouTube commenter: “Beautiful. In an ocean of negativity (the press, politicians) this had me close to tears.” Refentse acknowledges “everyone has experienced racism at some point,” but the reaction has always been overwhelmingly positive.
Refentse is not your average pop star. He scoured township worship bands to hire backup musicians who had “mastered their craft but weren’t equipped to make it happen.” (He remains the only person in the group who can actually speak Afrikaans. The other five are “learning slowly,” he says.)
Within the next year, he hopes to set up a nonprofit academy to “raise an army of incredible artists” out of people who have natural talent but lack business acumen and career opportunities. He plans to start close to home by focusing on musicians and dancers in the Vereeniging area, with a vision for a nationwide academy encompassing all art forms.
And his songwriting is “far better than your average Afrikaans pop star’s,” says Grundling. His biggest hit, “Reisiger,” is a comment on the gender-based violence that plagues the country. (Many men tried to lay her down/ to subdue her/ but very few tried to pick her up.) Liefdegenerasie (Love Generation) is “an invitation to join” a new generation of South Africans who are “tired of discrimination and prejudice … people who want to move forward as one nation,” Refentse says. And songs like “Oom Faan se Plaas” and “What a Boytjie,” says Grundling, “poke fun at racial stereotypes” and show that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Now that he’s got the Afrikaans public eating out of his hands, Refentse’s biggest career goal is to become a bona fide crossover star in multiple languages, collaborating with major global names — a tall order in South Africa, where he’s still largely unknown outside of Afrikaans speakers. But Grundling says Refentse has a shot because of his “very likable” character and the fact that he speaks eight of his country’s 11 languages.
Most South African artists have to think very carefully about who they team up with and what they sing, De Beer explains. But “Refentse can collab with anyone. It will never be weird.”
After “De La Rey,” what could be?