DJ Tira is running late. The early afternoon chill in Midtown Manhattan didn’t stop him from lingering outside for a few extra minutes. He opted for the train instead of a cab. There was no traffic; he just opted for an impromptu iPhone photo shoot in Times Square.
He stops to take a few more photos. This time, inside the building, with the view of the city behind him. He strikes a serious pose before his suave stance disrupted by a smile and a laugh. His eyes are wide and his smile is wider; there’s an excitement on his countenance that feels permanent.
It’s the end of 2019 and he’s a world away from South Africa, his home country, but New York is warming up to him; he performed in Brooklyn at his sold-out show, and stopped by Beats 1 Radio with Ebro Darden to play a mix showcasing some of South Africa’s finest talent. He captioned a clip, “Time is Now South Africa! Asibangene!” which, in his native language, Zulu, means “let’s go in.”
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The veteran DJ, record producer, and label owner is enjoying a 20-year anniversary in the music business, but feels he still has a long way to go. Despite his pioneer status, he finds himself at the threshold of a début, coming off the heels of his latest album release, Ikhenani. This is his first studio album in which he produced every track. After a long tenure in the industry, a collection of compilation projects, collaborative songs, features, and mixes, he finds himself in need of a reintroduction.
Born Mthokosizi Khathi in KwaHlabisa, KwaZulu-Natal, he moved to Durban in 1995 to study Human Resources. Instead, the move gave birth to another career entirely– music. Tira’s future was clear when he started djing at friends’ parties and campus events. He quickly became known on the local circuit, but his popularity was cemented in 1999 when he won the Smirnoff Club DJ competition. He’d win again the following year, and a prize trip to Ibiza secured his opportunity to go global early.
Together with DJ Sox he formed Durban’s Finest, the duo that would go on to change the face of Durban nightlife. Their performance formula was different; instead of simply playing at events, they would host them as well. Partygoers would fly in from Jo’burg, Cape Town and other cities and the duo’s high-end lifestyle would take off among young professionals in Durban and across South Africa.
Tira has found ways to maintain relevance through consistency and expansion. He forayed a DJ career into a full-scope entertainment career. He founded independent record label Afrotainment, where he’d introduce artists such as Big Nuz, DJ C’ndo, DJ Fisherman and Dladla Mshunqisi. He became a brand ambassador, aligning with brands like Distell, Rocka Headphones and Axe. He became a businessman, going on to own the Urban Zulu Cigar Lounge on the coveted Florida Road strip in Durban which he ended up selling to refocus on what got him going in the beginning: events. He became invested in promoting Durban as something of an entertainment hub for South Africa, and as a result, he has been a KwaZulu-Natal tourism ambassador, a symbol for his hometown.
He’s been a part of a slew of songs that mark the soundtrack of South African popular music’s booming success, like the 2018 “That’s For Me” with Vanessa Mdee featuring Distruction Boyz, “Pakisha” with Distruction Boyz and Dladla Mshunqisi, and the 2017 crossover tune “Midnight Starring” by DJ Maphorisa, featuring DJ Tira, Busiswa & Moonchild Sanelly.
His album’s single “Thank You Mr DJ” is doing well in South Africa, but now he’s vying for an American remix or feature. “I’m gonna try all genres, all styles,” he says.
“People do know me, but you just have to find that one special song that’s gonna open all the doors,” he says. “I’m making my presence felt.”
The artist is already planning his next album, 21 Years of DJ Tira, in celebration of his storied career in the entertainment industry. But for him, tenure doesn’t translate to comfort; Tira is more interested in a challenge.
#21YearsOfDjTira Loading….. album and concerts
— Thank You Mr DJ (@DJTira) January 15, 2020
It took Tira two years to craft Ikhenani. At 43, Tira is less concerned with being left behind, and more invested in joining the wave as music across the country, and the world, evolves.
On Ikhenani, he bundles a bevy of genres that you would never expect to find in an album by one artist— there’s afrohouse, amapiano, hip-hop, maskandi, gospel, and gqom. Though Tira has been at the forefront of South Africa’s house scene for some time. The album sounds predominantly gqom, but moreso, Tira’s interpretation of gqom— he expands it, adding more jazzed up vocals and subtle experimentation. “I try to move with the times, be aware of what’s happening in my community,” he told Apple Music in an album liner interview.
Gqom has already gone global, but DJ Tira was one of its prominent supporters of the sound from the townships of Durban, South Africa that swept the world.
Distruction Boyz are credited with helping push gqom to popularity. Tira even makes a cameo in the music video for their hit “Omunye,” showing his role in advocating for the collision and collaboration of the older generation with the new.
As an elder statesman in South Africa’s music scene, he’s already gained legendary status back home. Now, he’s aiming to become a member of the collective of artists bringing gqom and South African dance music into more American listeners.
Gqom itself means “bang” or “drum” – pronounced with a Zulu tongue click at the beginning and a hushed “om” end. The gqom sound is undeniable and inescapable. Its stripped-down rhythms fuse the traditional with the modern; Zulu chants atop high-octane, looming, broken beats and sinister synths. It’s repetitive and hallowed, not empty but full of the unknown in an entrancing way.
Before gqom, there was kwaito— the sound that sprung from Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. It’s a distinctive variant of house music, hip-hop, dancehall, and South African sounds. Kwaito is an Isicamtho term from SA’s Gauteng townships that originated from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which is slang for hot. The word from the language of the oppressors was reclaimed and redefined by black youth, and kwaito became instrumental in leading post-Apartheid township subculture into South Africa’s mainstream.
During apartheid, musicians faced significant censorship and blockades; black artists were denied access to stages and employment in the arts, while artists critical of apartheid were threatened and reprimanded by the government. South African artists were stunted.
There was a generation of South Africans who pulled from that place of disenfranchisement and plight pre and post-apartheid and created something new to claim. The South African teens of the early 2010’s who extracted a new artform from another period of plight to create gqom did more of the same. This is where the elder statesman forges a connection; that feeling. Genres would emerge that helped mold the musical history of South Africa post-apartheid. Kwaito was one of them. Gqom continued in that legacy.
During the genre’s rise, artists would give their latest tracks to taxi drivers as a means of promotion. It became the literal sound of the South African streets. But gqom wasn’t widely accepted at first; it was too raw.
“Originally gqom wasn’t the sound that you [could] play on radio,” Tira says. “It’s a sound that originates [from] what you would call the projects— made by the youngsters. They’ve got messed up equipment, they’re staying at the back of the bedroom at their house, but they make the sound that is so strange, that is wretched, that is hard, that is dark, but with the vocals, it comes alive.
Its origins resembled the reaction to hip-hop before it blew. City clubs didn’t welcome the poor youth-driven musical movement. Producers refused to mix and master gqom beats and radio didn’t play it out of fear that it’d burn their speakers. Though known primarily as a kwaito artist, as gqom gained popularity, Tira welcomed, embraced, and amplified it.
“We need to commercialize this,” he thought. To do so, he says, international collaboration is key.
While on the search for gqom collaborators, Pharrell was introduced to Black Coffee, the most popular South African DJ and producer. The Durban DJ with a jazz background is known for making and mixing house music and modern dance beats with more classical inflections. He took his signature “Afropolitian” style mainstream, becoming one of the world’s most recognized international DJs.
But Black Coffee doesn’t make gqom, so he turned to Tira for his Midas touch. In a video of that studio session posted to Coffee’s Instagram, Coffee mentions Tira’s involvement with the collaboration. It was DJ Tira who orchestrated the could-be-crossover hit that has yet to be released.
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Tira lifts his phone and plays the cut of an infectious unreleased song with Pharrell rapping over a gqom beat.
“When Pharell was in South Africa for Global Citizen [festival], he heard this sound. Because this sound is exclusive in South Africa. He heard this sound like, ‘Aye, what’s this sound?!’ He was speaking to Black Coffee. This is not Black Coffee’s style. So Black Coffee’s like, ‘Okay, who am I gonna call? Who that I know represents the sound?’ So he calls me.
‘Gimme a beat. I’m with Pharrell and he’s going crazy. He wants to do something.’ I send him a beat. Then, same day, jump in the studio, Pharrell lays the vocals.
“The fact that an artist like Pharrell went crazy on gqom and actually recorded on gqom, that means there’s something special about the sound. If Sho Madjozi is well-received like this, with the ‘John Cena’ song, that means there’s something there with the sound but it’s just a matter of how do we present it and how do we push it? How do we make it bigger and how do we get more of the US market coming to the shows, not just Africa?”
To Tira, connecting and growing his audience online is a pivotal step in that direction; embracing social media now more than ever. He boasts 1.4 million followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Twitter. On Instagram, his following sits at 1.5 million, just behind DJ Black Coffee who tops him on with an extra million followers.
Tira handles all of his accounts and enjoys it. He uses Twitter and Instagram often — unlike many artists that reach a certain caliber — helming his accounts without a handler, using the platforms as a means to communicate directly with his fans and to help them. He gives away something that people on the continent across generations and genres and townships need.
“You know what I do on Twitter?” he laughs, his wide eyes fixated on his phone screen. “I buy airtime.”
In South Africa, most people don’t have phone contracts and data can be expensive.
So, Tira usually buys 2000 rands worth of airtime, divides it up, and redistributes it to people in need. “I say, ‘at three o’ clock, I’m handing out airtime for free.’ I post the airtime sticker with the numbers. Whoever punches the numbers quickly on the phone to enter the airtime gets the airtime. I call it umalume airtime,” he laughs. Umalume is Zulu for ‘uncle’ and umalume airtime has become the hashtag of his makeshift contest, and the hashtag ends up trending almost every time. Brands would see this as an effective social media marketing campaign that organically grows a following while keeping them engaged. Fans may see it as philanthropy. Tira himself just sees it as one of the pleasant parts of social media: connecting.
“Twitter’s crazy. I’m not too dramatic… I’ve got a friend called AKA,” he laughs, referring to the South African rapper who stirred controversy on Twitter last September over a debate on South African xenophobia towards Nigerians.
His thoughts on the situation: “It worked for him.”
With the advent of social media, Tira has seen the roles of DJs change dramatically for South Africa in ways that resemble how the landscape has changed in America.
“I’m from the school of vinyls,” he says. When he learned how to DJ and when he won his first competition back in 1999, he worked with vinyls. But as things changed, he began working with Serato, laptops, and other more modern forms.
“It just became too much,” he says. Now, he sticks to two USBs. He prefers a Pioneer [CDJ] 2000 CD Player or 1000, just “nothing less than 850.” The bigger the number, the better, but Tira is a bit unconventional. “I hate the 2000— the biggest one with the mixer.”
“I think the most important thing is the right equipment,” he says. But adhering to the traditional skill-set required for using vinyl, he finds unnecessary.
“In South Africa, we no longer use vinyl,” he says. In recent years, South Africa experienced a vinyl revival, but as interest grew, factors like price became a deterrent for many collectors. There’s a lack of record pressing plants in Africa.
For DJs, it’s about access. “If you’ve got vinyl, that means you’re playing old music, classics,” Tira says. “New music is digital.”
The rise of the celebrity DJ and influencer DJs has sparked criticism for usurped opportunities and displacement of DJs by craft, and a larger conversation on the disruption and oversaturation of the market. Tira sees this happening in South Africa as well.
The industry has changed drastically since Tira first entered it. “It’s more about the likes. It’s not really about the music or the craft or the technique,” he says. “It’s more about how good you look in a flyer or how good you look when you’re up here. You need to represent. You need to come through and entertain. I think you get more props and you get more respect when you really [work].”
“There’s a lot of [people] that think, ‘press a button and be a DJ,’” he says.
As far as figures who come from different backgrounds and who bank more on a following and an image to jumpstart their DJ career and less on skills and talent, Tira says he hasn’t seen many DJs of that ilk grow to take the craft seriously. Tira acknowledges and amplifies the artists putting in the work.
“There’s a female DJ that I know called DJ Zinhle, and she’s from the school of vinyl as well.”
Zinhle rose to become one of the most prominent female DJs in South Africa and went on to counter the country’s male-dominated industry by launching FUSE DJing academy, empowering women and girls to pursue the craft. Her program birthed the careers of newer female DJ’s like the popular Ms Cosmo.
But Tira notes how space in South Africa’s entertainment industry is still being given to those who don’t value DJing, and those who don’t fit the mold are gaining more access to insert themselves into it.
“What’s happening in South Africa is we’re seeing a lot of beauty queens switching up to DJs because they’ve got a really dope following— when you want numbers and you want a person who’s gonna advertise for you, I guess people gotta do what they gotta do to get paid… It’s their hustle and we shouldn’t hate on them. We should just keep on doing our thing. It’s survival of the fittest.”
With new eyes and ears on African art and music, engaging US audiences has become a goal for acts across the continent. But much of the attention is aimed at Nigerian and Ghanian artists in particular.
“I think they’ve worked hard to make their presence felt in the US. They’ve managed to find the right sound— which is afrobeats —and it’s been well-received.”
South Africa, on the other hand, has been tasked with the double-duty of standing out and fitting in.
But Tira doesn’t feel pressure; he feels a responsibility. He tries to keep his ears to the streets and clubs of South Africa while trying to break into the US. He understands how his home market and audience demands are changing and how that differs from what the US audience is catching up to. It’s become something of a crossover balancing act.
“South Africa has got a lot of potential,” he says, “but it’s been very hard to crack into the US market. There are people that are managing to find their foot here in the US— Black Coffee, Nasty Cl, and you see Sho Madjozi making her presence felt in the US,” he says on the popular gqom artist. “Funny enough, she’s coming in with a sound that is currently less appreciated at home because there’s a new genre— amapiano is actually dominating South Africa right now.”
Amapiano is a genre generated from Gauteng, South Africa around 2016. It blends elements of electronic dance music, low-tempo 90’s South African house rhythms, jazz, kwaito basslines, and signature high pitched piano melodies. “But I’m a full-time member of gqom,” Tira affirms. “I still believe that gqom has a longer lifespan.”
But in order for gqom to retain and grow its appeal, he believes South African artists must continue reinventing it. “The bigger goal is to export our music and make it accepted here, which will open the world to us,” he says. “We are on our way. It’s just a matter of time.”
While he values new, international audiences, he never wants to neglect his home base. “I want to be remembered as a DJ from South Africa who managed to open doors for more South African artists to be heard in the US,” he says. “I represent South Africa.”
He rises from his seat and stares through the floor to ceiling window at a bustling Times Square.
“Moving to the US isn’t part of the plan right now,” he says grinning and gazing up. “I don’t wanna aim too high,” sunlight beams back at him, “not that I’m scared of heights.”