Moonchild Sanelly achieves international stardom with Phases

When Universal Music Group launched new label Def Jam Africa in 2020 – set up to provide an international platform for African hip-hop – it started with a roster of South African and Nigerian artists. Both countries are musical powerhouses on the continent. Yet, while the Nigerian music scene has made a name for itself abroad thanks to stars such as Wizkid and Burna Boy, its South African equivalent has so far had more difficulty penetrating European and American markets. The nation of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba lacks similar contemporary figureheads.

Can Moonchild Sanelly change that? The Port Elizabeth-born rapper, real name Sanelisiwe Twisha, has made inroads overseas through collaborations including appearances on Beyoncé The Lion King soundtrack in 2019 and the visual album of the American star black is king the next year. Also in 2020, she participated in the deluxe version of the album Gorillaz Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez.

His solo album Steps was released by a British label, and its guests include British rappers Ghetts and Trillary Banks. But its 19 tracks weren’t created with an amorphous global audience in mind. The music is energetic and straightforward, not polite or cautious. Moonchild raps and sings primarily in English, but often uses his other language, Xhosa, as well. A recurring message of autonomy is expressed with verve and humor rather than solemnity. It is reinforced by its refusal to adapt to the imaginary demands of a cross audience.

She is not a newcomer. After starting her career as a performance poet in Durban, she moved to Johannesburg in 2011 to focus on fashion and music. His first album Rabulapha! was released in 2015, unveiling a sound she calls “future ghetto funk”. It draws inspiration from South Africa’s thriving dance music scene, which is making waves beyond the country’s shores, even as South African artists struggle to follow suit. (While Nigerian success is based on the singer-focused Afrobeats format, South Africa’s biggest international star is dance music DJ, Black Coffee.)

Steps opens with a dancehall number, “Undumpable,” in which Moonchild refuses to let a floundering relationship fall apart. “I’m not going anywhere,” she sings in the style of a playground taunt. The different musical styles covered over the course of the album exemplify her grip. ‘Soyenza’, featuring South African singer Sir Trill, is a flexible exercise in amapiano, the genre derived from deep house that is currently the country’s premier musical export. “Jiva Juluka” is a tightly wound example of gqom, a techno-inspired genre. The jazz she grew up listening to through her jazz-singing mother is featured on the sidelines of the ballad “Favorite Regret.”

“Cute” is an irresistible two-player game starring Trillary Banks from Leicester. The two rappers have nicely contrasting styles, with Banks’ smooth flow complementing Moonchild’s taste for catchphrases and choppy verbal back and forth. “I win, that’s the result,” she sings in “Over You,” a stubborn punk breakup song. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the world pays attention to it, his album has the same result.

★★★★☆

Steps‘ is released by Transgressive Records

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