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Steingo, Gavin. 2016. Kwaito’s Promise: Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Clark, Emily Hansell

Gavin Steingo’s Kwaito’s Promise is an ethnographic monograph that “thinks with” kwaito, a black urban South African electronic popular music with roots in a short-lived period of euphoria surrounding the end of apartheid in the mid-1990s. As the hopefulness of that historical moment was quickly dispelled by the realities of a post-apartheid existence, kwaito persisted as feel-good dance music with lyrics that evoke context-free fun, such as “Let’s celebrate/It’s time to celebrate!” from the Trompies’ “Celebrate” (4). Critics of the genre have pointed to a dissonance between the aesthetic and lyrical tone of the music and the circumstances of its listeners’ and performers’ precarious lives in segregated and impoverished South African townships to characterize kwaito as “immature, apolitical, disconnected from social issues, and lacking any meaning or purpose” (vii). Steingo deconstructs these descriptors, unpacking longstanding assumptions about what it means for music to be political, to interact with social conditions, and to “have” meaning. Ultimately, he argues that kwaito’s musicians and audiences may well choose to ignore their social conditions through their engagements with the genre, but in doing so they “deliberately . . . invent another way of perceiving the world,” making kwaito “less a form of escapism than an aesthetic practice of multiplying sensory reality and thus generating new possibilities in the midst of neoliberalism’s foreclosure of the future” (vii–viii).

In this review, I forego the standard format of chapter summaries and instead aim to situate Kwaito’s Promise more broadly in an intellectual lineage and a present scholarly moment that together point to possible, and, I argue, necessary directions for ethnomusicology’s own disciplinary future. In a sense, Kwaito’s Promise is a typical work of ethnomusicology, drawing from fieldwork in Soweto (a township of Steingo’s native city, Johannesburg) to attend ethnographically to a musical object, namely the practices and products that comprise the genre of kwaito, a genre historically tied to a specific population in a specific place. But Steingo does not merely describe and analyze kwaito as a musical genre or a product of social relations and history. Rather, he frames an encounter between a particular musical object and a particular body of theory (namely the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière) that produces reflections on both music and methodology and, ultimately, becomes a reflexive critique of knowledge production in the discipline with implications for humanistic scholarship more broadly. In doing so, Steingo joins a number of other ethnomusicologists since the 1980s who, rather than merely borrowing theory from other disciplines to apply to musical objects, bring humanistic theory and musical ethnography together in ways that contribute uniquely sonic perspectives to interdisciplinary conversations. Such scholarship does not just produce knowledge about music, but, moreover, results in scrutiny of the production of knowledge itself and the effects of scholarship in shaping and reinforcing already-held views of music, the social, and the human. In this review, I argue that such reflexively critical scholarship in ethnomusicology is not one current trend equal among many, but rather reflects a necessary sea change in humanistic scholarship. Kwaito’s Promise exemplifies the ways in which ethnomusicology cannot just follow the tides, but rather must actively contribute meaningful and unique perspectives to critical conversations across disciplines.

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November 13, 2019