Dance music in South Africa is uniquely homegrown. It’s born in taverns with local brews, with traditional music playing from stereos. It mutates often before eventually finding its way to DJs, clubs, radio, and eventually streaming—in the case of the runaway song “Jerusalema,” by Master KG, to the households of listeners around the world.
“Jerusalema” appeared on Spotify in November 2019. The Limpopo house track featured up-and-coming South African vocalist Nomcebo Zikode and deep, soulful lyrics about the feeling of truly belonging to a different place—a higher, holier place. Over time, the song itself rose to that higher place, increasing over 48,000% in Spotify streams between November 2019, and October 2020, thanks to listeners from all over the world.
But the song’s global success was not immediate. For some time it was a hit that belonged to South Africa, debuting just in time for the heat and joy of the southern hemisphere’s summer and Christmas holidays. Then, in late February 2020, a group of Angolan teenagers recorded themselves listening to the song and, one by one, getting into step in a traditional line dance—while holding plates of food. The video took off, and suddenly people all around southern Africa were recording their own versions of the #JerusalemaChallenge—complete with line dances and dinner plates.
At that time, the video wasn’t the only thing going viral: Plenty of countries had already started imposing lockdowns due to the pandemic. But the song continued to be right for the moment.
“’Jerusalema is not just any song,” Master KG explained to For the Record. “It’s a comforting song with a message that we can all relate to. The song came at the time where the world was facing a global pandemic, so it helped restore faith. It’s a song that people will remember for many years to come, a song that will be remembered for uniting the world.”
In June, several months into lockdown, the song and challenge were still holding strong, and Nigerian singer-songwriter Burna Boy (one of the most influential artists to come out of Africa), partnered with Master KG to create a remix. The remix signaled a fresh South African and Nigerian collaboration that, according to Burna Boy, was meant to be symbolic of unity on the continent.
When “Jerusalema (feat. Burna Boy & Nomcebo Zikode) – Remix” came out, it appeared on Spotify’s South Africa Top 50 chart on both June 19 (No. 5) and June 20 (No. 32). Though the song had never really faded away in South Africa (there were jokes that it was the “‘Baby Shark’” for adults, and the president of the country even endorsed the #JerusalemaChallenge in his Heritage Day address), it was reinvigorated with the new beat and soon crossed overseas to find a foothold in Europe, where it climbed just as high.
The song peaked at the number one spot on the Spotify charts—not only in its native South Africa, but also in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain in September 2020. Europeans and Americans alike have even posted videos of their own versions of line dances, some with food in hand, others without. Many wore masks, a clear marker of the time. In the past 28 days, the top countries streaming the original “Jerusalema” track on Spotify were the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, France, and the U.S.
In the Netherlands and Belgium in particular, “Jerusalema” slowly picked up in July and started to really shine in September and October. “The Netherlands have a tradition to be open-minded when it comes to embracing music of lots of genres and languages,” says Wilbert Mutsaers, Head of Content, Spotify Benelux. “Every year we have hit singles in Spanish, French, German, and Papiamento, besides the songs in English and obviously Dutch.” Wilbert explained that “Jerusalema” and its remixes found homes on Dutch and Belgian playlists such as La Vida Loca, Top Hits NL, and Top Hits BE.
“The reason the song became as popular as it did around the world wasn’t so much about a trending sound as it was about timing,” said Phiona Okumu, Head of Artist & Label Partnerships, Spotify Africa. “The whole world being on lockdown meant for the first time in our living memory, everyone was facing the same desire to escape at the same time. ‘Jerusalema’ tapped neatly into that collective emotion.”
But the upbeat, rhythmic sound behind “Jerusalema” is not something to overlook. It’s a prime example of Limpopo house, a genre of house music out of the Limpopo province of South Africa. A Limpopo house song is equal parts African gospel (heavily joyful and soulful with emphasis on the keyboards) and 1980s South African bubblegum pop. It became noticeable in the mainstream first in 2017 thanks to King Monada’s “Ska Bhora Moreki” and to other Limpopo natives like Sho Madjozi, who incorporates her Tsonga culture in her raps. It has brought other female artists into the spotlight too, including Makhadzi, who released a hit single, “Matorkisi,” in February, as well as Nomcebo Zikode of “Jerusalema” fame.
“My solo album is doing really well in South Africa, and my single ‘Xola Moya Wam’ has just gone platinum,” Nomcebo told For the Record. “I am very excited for the future. For now I am focusing on working harder, doing more collaborations and creating more music.”
As the date moves closer to the one-year anniversary of the song’s debut, looking back on the progress and popularity of the track provides a unique insight: As immediate as the internet is, the snowball effect of pop isn’t necessarily as instantaneous—especially for African songs.
“In Africa, we moved on to the remix of ‘Jerusalema’ and the other songs that came from these artists, and then the song started to pick up in other places,” says Phiona. “The discovery happens in waves. This is quite a positive thing because that gives the artists time for the song to grow, and gives African songs a much longer shelf life.”
Between still-increasing streams on Spotify and the countless #JerusalemaChallenge videos—from South African hospital employees on break to a UK pedestrian bridge flash mob—it’s very likely “Jerusalema” will remain a symbol of hope, unity, and togetherness for some time to come.
Stream Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode’s “Jerusalema” below.