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A Modern History Of Johannesburg, Explained In 11 Songs


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Toma Bing



Welcome to the vibrant and bustling city of Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa. This cosmopolitan metropolis is steeped in a rich history that reflects the country’s journey towards democracy and equality. From its humble beginnings as a mining town to its status as the economic powerhouse of Africa, Johannesburg has been a witness to an extraordinary transformation.


In this article, we will take you on a musical journey through the modern history of Johannesburg. These 11 songs serve as a soundtrack to the city, capturing its essence, struggles, and triumphs. Each song paints a vivid picture of different chapters in Johannesburg’s history, offering a glimpse into the soul of this dynamic city.


Join us as we explore the melodies and lyrics that bring to life the resilience, diversity, and spirit of Johannesburg. From the townships of Soweto to the vibrant city lights, these songs provide a glimpse into the stories and experiences that have shaped Johannesburg into what it is today.


So sit back, turn up the volume, and let the music guide you through the winding streets and vibrant neighborhoods of Johannesburg. Get ready to immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of culture, history, and emotion as we embark on this musical journey through the city that never sleeps.


“Meadowlands” by Sophie Mgcina and Percy Mtwa

As we delve into Johannesburg’s musical history, our first stop takes us to the infamous township of Soweto. “Meadowlands” is a song that epitomizes the struggles and resilience of the black South African communities during the apartheid era.


Released in 1955, “Meadowlands” quickly became an anthem for the oppressed residents of Soweto. The song, performed by Sophie Mgcina and Percy Mtwa, captured the spirit of defiance and resistance against the brutal policies of racial segregation.


The lyrics of “Meadowlands” depict the harsh realities of life in the township. It speaks of the overcrowded living conditions, poverty, and the daily hardships faced by its residents. The song conveys a sense of solidarity and determination, urging the people of Soweto to rise above their circumstances and fight for a better future.


Despite being banned by the authorities, “Meadowlands” became a symbol of hope and unity for the township dwellers. It became a powerful tool for mobilizing the community and spreading the message of resistance against apartheid.


Even today, “Meadowlands” continues to resonate with the people of Johannesburg. It serves as a reminder of the city’s tumultuous past and the strength of its inhabitants. The song stands as a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the unwavering will to overcome adversity.


Listening to “Meadowlands” transports you to a time of struggle and defiance in Johannesburg’s history. It encapsulates the resilience and determination that have shaped the city into what it is today – a beacon of hope and progress.


So let the haunting melody and powerful lyrics of “Meadowlands” take you on a journey through the turbulent past of Johannesburg, reminding us of the indomitable spirit of its people.


“Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” by Hugh Masekela

In our exploration of the musical history of Johannesburg, it is impossible to overlook the impact of the legendary musician Hugh Masekela and his iconic song, “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)”.


Released in 1987 during the height of the anti-apartheid movement, “Bring Him Back Home” became an anthem of hope and solidarity for those fighting for the release of Nelson Mandela, the iconic leader of the African National Congress (ANC) who was imprisoned by the apartheid regime for 27 years.


With its infectious and uplifting melodies, the song captured the spirit and determination of the South African people’s struggle for freedom and equality. Masekela’s smooth vocals and masterful trumpet playing added a layer of emotion, resonating deeply with listeners both at home and abroad.


“Bring Him Back Home” became a rallying cry for Mandela’s release and a symbol of resistance against apartheid. The song reached international audiences, shining a spotlight on the injustices of the regime and the resilience of the South African people. It served as a unifying force, bridging divides and bringing people from all walks of life together for a common cause.


When Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990 and went on to become South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, “Bring Him Back Home” took on a new meaning. It became an anthem of celebration, a testament to the power of music as a catalyst for social change.


To this day, “Bring Him Back Home” remains a cherished symbol of Johannesburg’s journey towards democracy and equality. It serves as a reminder of the power of music to inspire, unite, and bring about transformative social change.


So, let the iconic sounds of Hugh Masekela’s “Bring Him Back Home” transport you back to a time of struggle and resilience in Johannesburg’s history, reminding us of the indelible mark left by Nelson Mandela and the fight for freedom.


“Asimbonanga” by Johnny Clegg and Savuka

Continuing our exploration of Johannesburg’s musical history, we encounter the powerful and poignant song, “Asimbonanga” by Johnny Clegg and Savuka. Released in 1987, the song became an anthem of resistance during the final years of apartheid.


“Asimbonanga,” meaning “We have not seen him” in Zulu, was a tribute to Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists who were still imprisoned at the time. The lyrics contain a powerful message of longing for Mandela’s release and a call for unity in the face of injustice.


As Johannesburg’s social and political landscape underwent significant changes, “Asimbonanga” emerged as a rallying cry for the end of apartheid. The song resonated deeply with people from all walks of life, transcending racial and cultural boundaries. Its powerful lyrics and infectious rhythm captured the spirit of hope and resilience that defined the struggle against apartheid.


Johnny Clegg, known as the “White Zulu,” was a white artist who defied racial barriers and used his music as a platform for social change. His collaboration with Savuka, a multiracial band, symbolized the unity and inclusivity he advocated for in South Africa.


“Asimbonanga” not only became a symbol of the fight against apartheid but also celebrated the diverse culture and heritage of Johannesburg. Through its combination of African rhythms, Western rock influences, and multilingual lyrics, the song embodied the vibrant and multicultural spirit of the city.


Following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the subsequent dismantling of apartheid, “Asimbonanga” took on a new meaning. It became an anthem of joy, celebrating Mandela’s freedom and the triumph of the anti-apartheid movement.


Even today, “Asimbonanga” serves as a reminder of the struggles and triumphs of Johannesburg’s history. It stands as a testament to the power of music to unite people and ignite social change. The song continues to be a source of inspiration for generations, encouraging them to embrace diversity, fight against injustice, and strive for a better future.


So, let the powerful melodies and heartfelt lyrics of “Asimbonanga” transport you to the turbulent times of Johannesburg’s history, reminding us of the resilience and determination that shaped the city and the nation.


“Soweto Blues” by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela

Our exploration of Johannesburg’s musical history brings us to the powerful and haunting song, “Soweto Blues,” performed by the iconic Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Released in 1977, amidst the height of apartheid, this song serves as a poignant reflection of the pain and struggles faced by the residents of Soweto.


“Soweto Blues” captures the raw emotions and realities of life in the township, specifically focusing on the tragic events of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The song mourns the loss of innocent lives and condemns the brutalities of the apartheid regime.


Makeba’s soulful vocals, accompanied by Masekela’s evocative trumpet, create a somber atmosphere that reflects the sorrow and resilience of the people of Soweto. The lyrics depict the anguish, fear, and anger experienced by the community, as they grapple with oppression and fight for their freedom.


Through “Soweto Blues,” Makeba and Masekela shine a spotlight on the struggles faced by the youth of Soweto, who courageously took to the streets to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. The song became an anthem of resistance, a cry for justice and equality.


While “Soweto Blues” highlights the pain and injustice suffered by the people of Soweto, it also represents their strength, resilience, and unwavering spirit. The song played a significant role in mobilizing and empowering the community, reinforcing their determination to overcome adversity.


Decades later, “Soweto Blues” continues to resonate with audiences all over the world. It serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed during apartheid and the importance of never forgetting the struggles and sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom.


By paying homage to the resilience of the people of Soweto, “Soweto Blues” stands as a testament not only to the history of Johannesburg but to the indomitable human spirit that continues to drive change and progress.


So, let the haunting melodies and poignant lyrics of “Soweto Blues” transport you to a time of struggle and resilience, reminding us of the power of music to tell stories, inspire change, and unite communities.


“Jive Soweto” by Sipho Mabuse

Our musical journey through Johannesburg’s history continues with the infectious and energetic rhythms of “Jive Soweto” by Sipho Mabuse. Released in 1985, this iconic song captured the vibrant spirit and cultural fusion that defined life in Soweto during the apartheid era.


“Jive Soweto” is a celebration of township life, combining elements of jazz, pop, and traditional South African music to create a unique and irresistible sound. Sipho Mabuse’s powerful vocals and energetic beats encourage listeners to immerse themselves in the lively and diverse atmosphere of Johannesburg’s most famous township.


The song reflects the resilience, creativity, and joy that emerged from the face of adversity. Despite living in difficult conditions, the people of Soweto found solace and liberation through their love of music and dance. “Jive Soweto” became an anthem of unity and a symbol of inspiration for a community longing for change.


As the title suggests, “Jive Soweto” captures the vibrant energy and rhythm of the township. It became a soundtrack for community gatherings, parties, and celebrations, providing an escape from the struggles of everyday life. The song showcases how music became a source of strength, empowerment, and a means of cultural expression for the inhabitants of Soweto.


Even after the end of apartheid, “Jive Soweto” has remained a beloved song in Johannesburg. It represents a significant era in the city’s history, reminding us of the resilience and creativity that emerged from the hardships faced by the people of Soweto.


Sipho Mabuse’s “Jive Soweto” continues to resonate with audiences, serving as a joyful reminder of the power of music to transcend boundaries and bring people together. Its infectious rhythms and uplifting lyrics capture the spirit and vibrancy of Johannesburg’s unique cultural landscape.


So, let the spirited beats of “Jive Soweto” transport you to the lively streets of Soweto, where music and dance were catalysts for joy and freedom in the face of adversity. Immerse yourself in the energetic melodies and let the rhythm of the song ignite your spirit and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Johannesburg.


“Tomorrow” by Nthato Mokgata (aka Spoek Mathambo)

Continuing our musical journey through the history of Johannesburg, we encounter the futuristic and thought-provoking song, “Tomorrow” by Nthato Mokgata, known by his stage name Spoek Mathambo. Released in 2010, this track offers a unique exploration of the city’s present and future.


“Tomorrow” is a fusion of electronic beats, hip-hop, and African rhythms that captures the essence of Johannesburg as a dynamic and ever-evolving metropolis. Mokgata’s distinct style and lyrical prowess bring to life the vibrancy and complexity of the city’s multicultural fabric.


The lyrics of “Tomorrow” delve into the challenges and aspirations of the youth in Johannesburg. Mokgata reflects on issues such as urbanization, inequality, and the dreams of a better future. The song resonates with a generation that is navigating the complexities of a rapidly transforming city.


Through “Tomorrow,” Mokgata embraces a forward-thinking perspective that transcends the boundaries of traditional genres. The innovative sound and poignant lyrics encourage listeners to contemplate the possibilities and realities of Johannesburg’s tomorrow.


As the city continues to reinvent itself, “Tomorrow” serves as a reminder of the resilience and hope that define the spirit of Johannesburg. It encapsulates the energy and ambition of a new generation, pushing boundaries and creating change in their pursuit of a brighter future.


By blending elements of past and present, “Tomorrow” offers a unique perspective on the evolution of Johannesburg. It challenges us to imagine what lies ahead and inspires us to actively shape the city’s tomorrow.


Let the electrifying beats and introspective lyrics of “Tomorrow” transport you to the dynamic cityscape of Johannesburg, provoking thoughts and igniting a desire for progress and transformation. Join Mokgata as he invites us to embrace the possibilities of the future and work towards building a better tomorrow for Johannesburg and its people.


“Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan featuring Freshlyground

As we delve further into the rich musical tapestry of Johannesburg, we come across the inspirational and uplifting song, “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan featuring Freshlyground. This global hit, released in 2010, became a symbol of unity, resilience, and hope for the people of South Africa.


“Wavin’ Flag” was originally written and performed by Somali-Canadian artist K’naan, but for the South African version, he collaborated with the South African band Freshlyground. The song gained international recognition as the official anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa, marking a historic moment for the nation and showcasing Johannesburg as a global sporting and cultural destination.


The lyrics of “Wavin’ Flag” embody a universal message of strength and perseverance. The song tells a story of overcoming adversity, rising above challenges, and embracing a collective spirit of unity. With its infectious chorus and uplifting melody, “Wavin’ Flag” became an anthem that resonated with audiences worldwide.


The collaboration between K’naan and Freshlyground signifies the power of music to bridge cultural divides and celebrate diversity. The fusion of K’naan’s rap-infused style with Freshlyground’s Afro-fusion sound created a harmonious blend of genres that represented the multicultural fabric of Johannesburg.


With its spirited beats and infectious energy, “Wavin’ Flag” encapsulated the spirit of celebration and optimism that permeated the city during the World Cup. The song became an anthem of solidarity, promoting a sense of pride not only amongst South Africans but also among people from all corners of the globe.


Listening to “Wavin’ Flag” transports you to the vibrant streets of Johannesburg, where the air is filled with a sense of unity and excitement. The song reminds us of the immense power of music to unite people, ignite passions, and bring about positive change.


Even beyond the World Cup, “Wavin’ Flag” continues to hold a special place in the hearts of Johannesburg residents. It serves as a reminder of the city’s ability to come together, celebrate diversity, and overcome challenges.


So, raise your flags and let the uplifting melodies of “Wavin’ Flag” inspire you to find strength in unity, celebrate diversity, and embrace the power of music as a catalyst for positive change, not just in Johannesburg but around the world.


“Koze Kuse” by DJ Merlon featuring Mondli Ngcobo

Our journey through Johannesburg’s musical history takes a turn towards the infectious rhythms of house music with the song “Koze Kuse” by DJ Merlon featuring Mondli Ngcobo. Released in 2014, this upbeat and lively track became a sensation in the South African music scene and beyond.


“Koze Kuse” is a fusion of house beats, traditional South African sounds, and Mondli Ngcobo’s soulful vocals. The song’s title, which translates to “Where Are You Going?” in Zulu, captures the essence of the vibrant and energetic nightlife of Johannesburg.


The infectious melodies and pulsating beats of “Koze Kuse” brought people together on dancefloors across the city, creating an atmosphere of euphoria and celebration. It became a symbol of the joy and unity found in the music and nightlife culture of Johannesburg.


DJ Merlon’s masterful production, combined with Mondli Ngcobo’s captivating voice, evoked a sense of freedom and escape from the realities of everyday life. “Koze Kuse” provided a soundtrack for people to let loose, dance, and forget their worries, even if just for a little while.


While the song is undoubtedly a party anthem, its lyrics also touch upon deeper themes of love, desire, and the pursuit of happiness. It speaks to the universal human experience of seeking connection and forging meaningful relationships.


“Koze Kuse” not only represents the lively and vibrant nightlife scene of Johannesburg but also demonstrates the city’s embrace of diverse musical genres. It showcases the city’s ability to blend traditional elements with contemporary sounds, creating a unique sonic landscape that is distinctively Johannesburg.


As you listen to the irresistible beats of “Koze Kuse,” you’ll find yourself transported into the heart of Johannesburg’s bustling nightlife. It’s an invitation to dance, let go of inhibitions, and experience the infectious energy that remains an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric.


So, let the energetic rhythms and captivating lyrics of “Koze Kuse” ignite your spirit and immerse you in the vibrant nightlife of Johannesburg. Dance to the beat, feel the pulse of the city, and embrace the joy that music brings to its people.


“Down South” by Jeremy Loops

Our exploration of Johannesburg’s musical history brings us to the soulful and introspective song, “Down South” by Jeremy Loops. Released in 2014, this folk-pop track captures the essence of the city’s natural beauty and the deep connection of its inhabitants to the land.


“Down South” combines catchy melodies, Loops’ distinctive voice, and a fusion of folk, reggae, and African-inspired rhythms. The song paints a picture of the diverse landscapes found in and around Johannesburg, from the bustling city streets to the breathtaking natural wonders that surround it.


The lyrics of “Down South” celebrate the allure of the South African landscape, referencing iconic locations such as the Drakensberg Mountains and the Wild Coast. The song pays homage to the rich cultural heritage and stunning biodiversity that make Johannesburg and its surroundings a truly remarkable place.


Through Loops’ heartfelt storytelling, “Down South” invites listeners to embrace the tranquility and serenity found in nature, providing an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. The song serves as a reminder to take a moment to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us and the importance of preserving the environment.


As an avid surfer, Loops draws inspiration from the ocean and the connection between water and land. “Down South” resonates not only with Johannesburg residents but also with those across South Africa who find solace and joy in exploring the natural wonders of the country.


While “Down South” may not focus explicitly on the city itself, the song represents the deep-rooted connection that Johannesburg residents have with their natural surroundings. It highlights the balance between urban life and the call of the wild, showcasing the unique lifestyle that Johannesburg offers.


As you listen to the melodic tones of “Down South,” you’ll find yourself transported to the breathtaking landscapes that encompass Johannesburg. Let the song inspire you to seek solace in nature, to explore the beauty that lies both within and beyond the city’s limits.


So, embrace the serenity and enchantment of “Down South” and allow it to remind you of the boundless natural beauty that exists alongside the vibrancy of Johannesburg.


“City ‘n Lights” by Pascal & Pearce featuring Locnville

Our musical journey through the thriving city of Johannesburg takes us to the upbeat and energetic song, “City ‘n Lights” by Pascal & Pearce featuring Locnville. Released in 2012, this electro-pop track captures the electrifying energy and fast-paced lifestyle of the city that never sleeps.


“City ‘n Lights” combines catchy melodies, pulsating electronic beats, and the dynamic vocals of Locnville. The song encapsulates the vibrant urban landscape of Johannesburg, where the cityscape comes alive under the glow of streetlights and neon signs.


The lyrics of “City ‘n Lights” paint a picture of the restless spirit and adrenaline-fueled adventures that can be found within the city’s bustling streets. It speaks to the aspirations and dreams of those who are drawn to Johannesburg, lured by the promises of excitement and endless possibilities.


The collaboration between Pascal & Pearce and Locnville creates a synergy that perfectly represents the fusion of traditional and contemporary sounds found in Johannesburg. The electronic beats and infectious hooks celebrate the city’s dynamic music scene and the influence of global trends on its artistic landscape.


“City ‘n Lights” is an anthem for those seeking the thrill of urban exploration and the vibrant nightlife that Johannesburg offers. It captures the essence of a city that pulses with energy, embraced by a diverse community that calls it home.


Whether you’re cruising down the vibrant streets or dancing the night away, “City ‘n Lights” serves as a reminder to seize the moment, embrace the excitement, and celebrate the unique experiences that Johannesburg has to offer.


As you immerse yourself in the mesmerizing beats of “City ‘n Lights,” you’ll feel the pulsating energy of Johannesburg coursing through your veins. Let the song transport you to the heart of the city, where dreams are pursued and memories are made.


So, turn up the volume, embrace the rhythm, and let the vibrant sounds of “City ‘n Lights” guide you through the electrifying streets and captivating nightlife of Johannesburg.


“Soweto Baby” by DJ Maphorisa and DJ Buckz featuring Wizkid

Our journey through Johannesburg’s musical history comes to a close with the infectious and vibrant song, “Soweto Baby” by DJ Maphorisa and DJ Buckz featuring Wizkid. Released in 2016, this Afro-pop track pays homage to the lively and culturally diverse township of Soweto.


“Soweto Baby” blends elements of house, Afrobeat, and contemporary pop music to create a dynamic and dance-worthy tune. The collaboration between DJ Maphorisa, DJ Buckz, and Wizkid brings together a fusion of distinct styles, resulting in a captivating and energetic sound.


The lyrics of “Soweto Baby” celebrate the vibrancy, spirit, and rich cultural heritage of Soweto. The song captures the unity, pride, and sense of community that permeates the township. It serves as an anthem for the people of Soweto, embracing their unique identity and paying tribute to their resilience.


Through its infectious melodies and catchy hooks, “Soweto Baby” invites listeners to join in the celebration of the township’s rich history, diverse culture, and vibrant atmosphere. The song showcases the creativity and artistry that emerge from the streets of Soweto, highlighting its influence on the greater Johannesburg music scene.


With its energetic beats and lively rhythms, “Soweto Baby” became a hit both in South Africa and internationally. The song’s popularity further shed light on Soweto’s cultural significance and introduced its unique sounds to global audiences.


While “Soweto Baby” is a celebration of Soweto, it also represents the broader spirit of Johannesburg – a city of resilience, diversity, and boundless creativity. The song embodies the essence of Johannesburg’s music scene, where traditional sounds merge with contemporary beats to create a unique sonic tapestry.


As you immerse yourself in the infectious groove of “Soweto Baby,” you’ll feel the spirit and energy of Soweto coursing through your veins. Let the song transport you to the vibrant streets and bustling townships of Johannesburg, where the music and culture come alive.


So, gather your friends, let go of inhibitions, and dance to the electrifying rhythms of “Soweto Baby.” Celebrate the rich cultural heritage and boundless creativity of Johannesburg as you bid farewell to this musical journey through the city’s history.



Our musical journey through Johannesburg’s history has taken us on an exhilarating and diverse ride through the city’s vibrant and complex tapestry. From the defining anthems of resistance and resilience to the infectious beats that celebrate the spirit of the city, each song has contributed to the colorful mosaic that is Johannesburg’s musical landscape.


Through the powerful lyrics and melodies of “Meadowlands,” we were transported to the heart of Soweto and witnessed the strength and determination of its residents. “Bring Him Back Home” and “Asimbonanga” became anthems of hope and unity, inspiring the fight against apartheid and reminding us of the indomitable spirit of the South African people.


“Jive Soweto” and “Koze Kuse” immersed us in the vibrant nightlife of Johannesburg, while “Tomorrow” and “Down South” encouraged us to explore the connection between the city and its natural surroundings. “City ‘n Lights” and “Soweto Baby” celebrated the multitudes of Johannesburg’s cultural diversity and urban vibrancy, leaving us with the pulsating energy that defines the city.


As we conclude our journey, it is clear that the music of Johannesburg is not just about entertainment, but a vital voice expressing the history, struggles, and aspirations of the city and its people. These songs have become the soundtracks of Johannesburg’s evolution, capturing its past, present, and dreams for the future.


Whether powerful anthems of resistance, soulful tales of love and longing, or infectious beats that make us dance, Johannesburg’s music reflects the strength, determination, and resilience of its inhabitants. It showcases the unique blend of cultures, sounds, and stories that have shaped the city into the vibrant and diverse metropolis it is today.


So, as we bid farewell to this musical journey through the history of Johannesburg, let the melodies and rhythms continue to resonate in our hearts. May they remind us of the power of music to transcend boundaries, unite communities, and tell the stories of a city that is ever-evolving, yet deeply rooted in its rich heritage.


Johannesburg’s musical legacy will continue to thrive, evolving and shaping the sound of the city with each passing moment. Let us embrace the vibrancy and creativity of Johannesburg’s music scene, and may it inspire us to celebrate diversity, foster unity, and fuel our own journeys of resilience and hope.