How Black Coffee Rose from South Africa's Townships to Become the King of Afro-House
With a North American tour and parties in Ibiza under his belt, Black Coffee is fighting for South African artists to be recognized beyond the reductive "world music" label.
Every kid battling boredom in a rural no man's land dreams of a grand escape. But when you're living in the dusty, impoverished townships of South Africa, Ibiza's debaucherous beach parties seem like some distant alien planet. Yet, South African DJ Nathi Maphumulo—who goes by the alias Black Coffee—always knew that his future lay far beyond Umlazi, the township outside of Durban where he grew up. On a recent evening, when I sat down with him in Brooklyn ahead of a warehouse rave he was playing that night, Maphumulo looked like the perfect picture of a globe-trotting DJ: sleek leather jacket, dark green pants, black snapback emblazoned with the name of one of his favorite artists, Basquiat.
"From an early age, I just thought, I didn't belong here, my family doesn't belong here," he says, leaning back in a swiveling desk chair. He decided early on to transcend his origins by doing what he does best: playing house music swelling with soulfulness to packed rooms of dancing people. Today, Maphumulo is more than a house music DJ. He's a national icon—an example that his countrymen look up to as an example of what black South Africans can achieve in a country still dealing with many post-apartheid inequalities. Perhaps most impresively, Maphumulo has become South Africa's most famous DJ despite only having use of one hand.
The accident happened on February 11, 1990, the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The entire country was filled with jubilant celebrations, and 14-year-old Maphumulo was out on the streets with his family and friends. Out of nowhere, a taxi plowed straight into the crowd, hitting Maphumulo and permanently damaging his left hand. Many thought his dreams of becoming a DJ were over, but Maphumulo persevered, teaching himself how to spin records despite his disability. In a testament to the sheer determination that has brought him this far, exactly 20 years later, Maphumulo made headlines across the world when he played for 60 hours straight in an attempt to break the Guinness world record.
Even though Maphumulo is one of South Africa's biggest celebreties, it wasn't until recently that he started to make his mark on the international market. Last year, thanks to a recommendation from Seth Troxler, he accomplished that familiar rite of passage for DJs: playing the Circo Loco party on the world's most important party island, Ibiza.
Maphumulo remembers his fish-out-of-water experience vividly. "I was very nervous. I'd never been there before. I had a different idea of what music on the island was like—I assumed it was a very commercial scene." Before leaving for Ibiza, Maphumulo visited some friends who worked at a mainstream dance music radio station in South Africa to cop some music he thought he'd need for his set. "I had all this Calvin Harris. I thought, I'm going to kill them," he says with a chuckle. "Then I got there, and the music was very minimal. I thought, oh wow, this is home."
Maphumulo began making electronic music in 1997. One of his earliest remixes was a soulful Lenny Williams record called "Cause I Love You," which resulted in a (rejected) offer from Sony Music. He was playing at a big party back home. "There was a big DJ there who was not happy I was playing after him. He was like, 'Who are you? What are you going to play?'" remembers Maphumulo. "I held up three CDs of my songs. He was not impressed. Everyone else had record bags."
But when Maphumulo dropped that Lenny Williams remix at the end of his set, it blew the place up. A record company executive from Sony approached him later, offering him a deal on the spot. Maphumulo declined. "By then, I had my own plan. [These big label guys], especially in my country, just want you to sign a contract. I explained to him that I had my own record company, and if I did a deal with him, it had to be a licensing deal. That bothered him," Maphumulo recalls. "I knew what I wanted and it freaked a lot of people out. They were like, 'He knows too much, this one.'"
Maphumulo credits this fierce sense of independence to an early experience with his former band, the Afro-pop trio SHANA (which awesomely stands for Simply Hot and Naturally African). The group was signed to Melt 2000, and Maphumulo says the London-based label inadvertently led to them being lumped under the dreaded label of "world music." "As kids, we wanted to be famous!" he exclaims. "We didn't want to be shelved in a small corner."
Unfortunately, pigeonholing is a problem that applies to many South African artists attempting to break into the global market. Maphumulo says he hopes to one day see South African musicians recognized in their own right, instead of being reduced to mere "African artists." "If not, we'll always be categorized for a 'special award.' I've been nominated for one of those from MTV, and I don't even put it in my biography because it doesn't mean anything. I'd like to be where everyone else is."
A similar problem lies back home, too, with the question of how much South African artists are represented in the media and on the radio. "The music played on South African radio is 20% local artists, and 80% international. "That's the next fight," he says. "That's what I want to work on now, even if it goes as far as getting a million signatures on a petition."
With his North American tour forging full steam ahead and shows in Ibiza scheduled for the summer, Maphumulo says he's ready to take Black Coffee to the next level. "I've been known in the soulful house scene for a long time. Now I'm playing in big rooms. I still bring what I do, but I want to be a slightly different Black Coffee." He pauses and leans forward in his chair. "A grown-up Black Coffee."
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq