After sunset on a Friday, Musa Keys arrives in New York to headline his first-ever show in the city. He was in Miami captivating crowds at the renowned Afronation Festival just two days prior – but in a few minutes, the Amapiano powerhouse, who has amassed a global fanbase of more than 1 million across Instagram and Twitter, will perform in Brooklyn as part of his debut three-leg tour.
At 22, he prepares for his most extensive international tour to date, one that would see him perform 12 shows in five countries during the first part of his tour – the U.S., Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the UAE. As he basks in the glory of it all, the singer-producer sits in his greenroom clad in a bright white shirt, Louis Vuitton blue jeans, and ombre-neon sneakers. Silver chains dangle slightly below his collarbone and dark Gucci shades, a pair of stud earrings, and a nose ring complete his stardom look – a tribute to his often distinctive appearance that led GQ South Africa to name him Best Dressed in 2022.
The international craze surrounding South African acts can be largely attributed to the global rise of Amapiano, an offshoot of house that features syncretism between genres like deep house and jazz, often recognizable through the telltale roll of shakers or by the sound of the log drum. While the genre first gained traction in South Africa in the early 2010’s, its piano-based tune and accompanying dance routines were globalized through platforms like TikTok in 2020 and has since gained further international acclaim through artist collaborations. Now, Amapiano is widely recognized as a critical part of Africa’s rich soundscape, and Musa Keys is one of many artists rising to global stardom alongside the genre.
“Amapiano is dance music for everyone," Musa says. “My vision is to make the sound mainstream.”
In a country where the rhythmic sounds of the piano undergird the nation’s thumping house subgenre, for Musa Makamu, the stage name, Musa Keys, seems remarkably suitable. Born in Giyani of South Africa’s Limpopo province, Musa found his musical bearings in church, particularly as a keyboard player and eventually, as a bandleader. He was 13 years old when he first picked up his namesake instrument, the piano, unaware of the stardom that awaited him, but growing up surrounded by music prepared him for what was to come.
“It's built in me to be an artist,” Musa says. “Now, I just have to represent the music the right way. It might seem like it's an underground, upcoming type of music out here but I think we're coming in hard.”
His quest to represent Amapiano has been a long one, one that precedes the genre's current global domination. Musa first created his artist identity as a trap musician, his sound infused with the heavy gospel influences of his youth; all while he pushed his brand by uploading piano covers to YouTube. He later pivoted to Amapiano and got his first hit in the form of the 2019 track, “Heat Overload,” a dance-ready tune made alongside early collaborators Caltonic SA, Cyfred, and Dtrill. His true breakout, however, came in 2020 with “Samarian Boy,” a soulful track inflected with dark piano runs and Musa’s impassioned melodies. The single allowed him to truly explore his skills behind the microphone and it was the song that sprung him to the limelight.
Already accustomed to a level of fame, Musa’s 2021 record-breaking anthem, “Vula Mlomo,” took him to new heights. Featuring famed Amapiano producer, Sir Trill, and vocalist, Nobantu Vilakazi, the song became an indisputable wonder – dazzling listeners with Musa’s transcendental production and Nobantu’s vocal scatting. Its release triggered dance challenges around the world, received a Triple Platinum certification, bagged class accolades like the South African Music Award for Record of the Year, and propelled Musa, formally, to fame. His broad appeal came from the church-derived soul that underpins his music, as well as his insistence on creating sublime, long-lasting sounds in favor of ephemeral hits. Following “Vula Mlomo,” Musa collaborated with Amapiano star DBN Gogo on her smash hit, “Possible,” and later debuted his 2021 album, TAYO, meaning, worth joy in Yoruba.
An evergreen album, TAYO is filled with cutting raps and complex runs and was launched under Musa’s own record label, Key Recordings. Across 8 tracks, even in the midst of such brevity, the album offers a rich world that delves headfirst into Musa’s emotional universe. Musa adeptly orchestrated some of Amapiano’s finest for the project: singer-songwriter Sino Msolo, multitalent Moonchild Sanelly, engineer Lebza the Villain, and the late rapper Costa Titch, among others. The song, “Abekho,” reprised the star trio that is himself, Sir Trill, and Nobantu Vilakazi, while the project’s lead single “Selema,” featuring Tanzanian vocalist, Loui, became a megahit on its own, spinning in clubs worldwide.
It was “Selema’s” vast success that led to a masterful remix with Nigerian Afrobeats artist, Victony, conveying Musa’s intention to globalize his sound. With this trajectory, it was only a matter of time before Musa was approached by yet another well-known Nigerian act – Afrobeats superstar Davido.
“Davido hit me up a long time ago to make music, but it took some time,” Musa says. The two later met in Amsterdam and Davido told Musa about his upcoming album, noting that he couldn’t drop the project without him, Musa says. “I’m like, let's do it but unfortunately Davido was on tour at the time and I was also doing my own stuff,” Musa says. “Then later his manager, Asa, sent me the song and said, we just need your vocals and I’m like, oh, damn.”
Of course, we hardly need a refresher about the aftermath – we’re currently living it. The lead single off of Davido’s highly-anticipated Timeless album, “Unavailable,” shook the scene with its TikTok-ready dance routine, Amapiano-heavy production from Nigeria’s Rage & Magicsticks, and Musa’s sleek and addictive verse.
“It took me some time to record it because I was trying to find myself in the song while not being too far away from what it was giving already,” Musa says. “But we made the song and it just became a crazy thing.”
The track has given Musa first-time entries into charts such as America’s Billboard Afrobeats Chart and Nigeria’s TurnTable Top 100. With 28 million YouTube views and over 30 million Spotify streams in just over a month, “Unavailable“ is gearing up to be one of the biggest Afrobeats songs of the year.
In New York City, Musa emerges center stage and his stance conveys complete readiness. He’s met with blinding cellphone lights, flashy photographers and videographers who follow his every move, and screaming fans who narrowly resist climbing the stage. A dancing disco ball hangs from above and paints the room red, while a large backdrop that reads, “Musa Keys,” in glaring white suddenly appears, causing the crowd’s half-tamed excitement to ascend.
He begins to play his tunes and carries the crowd along with him, mixing his sounds behind the turntable and flexing his dance steps on stage. Musa’s combined love for music and dance is displayed in full relief tonight, making it apparent why fans have lovingly deemed him Tsonga Michael Jackson. The scene itself represents the cultural music shift that Amapiano has triggered globally, and as he stands before his enraptured audience, for him, it’s a vision that has come to life.
“Maybe at first it might have seemed like it was just a flaunt or something to run away to, but God blessed me with the talent for it,” Musa says, reflecting back on his journey with Amapiano. “Just keep being hungry – invest your time and soul into your craft and the outcome is going to be great.”