How South Africa’s “Jerusalema” became a pan-African hit, then a global dance favorite

Nomcebo and Master KG in the official music video for global hit, Jerusalema
Nomcebo and Master KG in the official music video for global hit, Jerusalema
Image: YouTube
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So many people have been curious about the South African song, “Jerusalema,” that this month it became the most Shazamed song in the world. Recorded by producer Master KG and featuring vocals by Nomcebo, this latest achievement is a continuation of the acclaim that the track has garnered since it was released in December 2019.

Over the festive season it played on South African radio stations and quickly took off as a local hit. But then in February, Fenomenos do Semba, an Angolan dance studio, posted a video of members line dancing to the track while carrying their plates of food and eating. The video gave the song a whole new lease of life as a pan-African African pop anthem.

The Angolan clip kicked off the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge across the continent and soon beyond from nuns and monks in France, to a bridal party in Zimbabwe, and a flash mob in Germany, spurring countless tutorials on YouTube and TikTok.

With its haunting chorus line referencing the holy city, the song does have religious lyrics in Zulu, but its upbeat tempo means its greatest reach has been outside the walls of any church or synagogue.

While there have been many variations of the song, such as an acoustic duet by an Italian band, an African remix collaboration with award-winning Nigerian Afrobeats star, Burna Boy in June catapulted “Jerusalema” even higher. Leveraging Burna Boy’s fast-growing international acclaim as he promoted his Twice as Tall album, the collaboration helped enter the song into global charts and reach number 1 in 10 countries.

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On Spotify, “Jerusalema” has been streamed more than 140 million times, while on YouTube it has topped 400 million views. That doesn’t include the scores of #JerusalemaDanceChallenge YouTube clips. It also reached No. 11 on iTunes worldwide charts.

The sound of diplomacy

Master KG (born Kgaogelo Moagi) has described working with Burna Boy as a dream come true. “He brings the Nigerian flavor, gimmicks, pidgin English, and a different approach to music,” the 24-year old producer told the Sowetan newspaper. “He has the Nigerian groove that we mix with South African style while we keep the originality of the song intact.”

Burna Boy is currently one of Africa’s top music stars
Burna Boy is currently one of Africa’s top music stars
Image: AP/Amy Harris/Invision

The remix by Master KG and Burna Boy has been hailed as a conciliatory move after a serious diplomatic spat in 2019, in which the Nigerian star spoke out against September’s xenophobic attacks on other Africans in South Africa, which were rumored to be targeting Nigerians. He said at the time he would not set foot in the county until the government “wakes up”. Many South Africans on social media demanded an apology for what they saw as incendiary tweets.

Even after Burna Boy accepted an invitation to perform at the Africa United Concert, widespread dissent about his inclusion led to his removal from the lineup of the Johannesburg leg of the Afropunk concert.

Following the release of the Jerusalema remix, Burna Boy shared what he hopes the song will accomplish: “My hope is that it unites us through our divisions and misunderstandings and dance together. We are not in competition, we are one Africa, we are united.”

This story has been updated to reflect the most current streaming numbers for “Jerusalema.”

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