Black Coffee on His 'Sonar 25' Comp & Plans for Creating an Arts School In Johannesburg With Virgil Abloh

Black Coffee
Courtesy Photo

Black Coffee

The music of Africa, in all its wide-spanning and complex history, finds its roots in drums. Keeping this in mind, it’s no surprise that percussion drives Black Coffee’s sound, a distinctly metropolitan techno with heavy traditional influences dubbed by some critics as “Afropolitan house.” A curator as much as a producer, South Africa-born Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo put out his latest compilation mix for frequent collaborator Sónar to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary. Maphumulo, who recently took the stage at Sónar Festival in Barcelona, has been a household name and one of the most prominent electronic music producers in Africa for the last decade, and is now staking his claim in the States.

Alongside his music, Maphumulo is actively seeking to foster the electronic scene of the future. Currently working on opening a school for the arts in his native Johannesburg, the institution will be designed by newly-minted Louis Vuitton menswear director and frequent collaborator Virgil Abloh. Maphumulo sat down with Billboard to talk about electronic music in a globalized world, his musical goals, and why an artist needs to be surrounded by the jolt of metropolis as they find their sound.

When I think of house music and techno, I think of a music very much tailored to escapism. With the state of the world more chaotic and globalized than ever, would you say the music you produce and compilations you curate are meant for escaping?

I think music has one goal: to bring people joy and create good times and happy memories. I love telling a story with the music I present and play to people through my sets. I like to take the crowd on a journey and it’s the texture, color, soul and beauty in the music, whether that be in a new song or a classic, that I think appeals most to my audience. To me music is a unifying force, a catalyst to transcend boundaries and bring people together to create common ground.

Speaking of, can you tell me a bit about the Sónar 25 compilation you just released? How did you choose the DJs you featured? Was there a specific concept in mind?

My relationship with Sónar goes back almost 10 years from when I first played Sónar by Day in 2009. I have a special affinity for the festival because I think we share a similar passion for bringing light to new talent and promoting synergy between local and international scenes. With my Sónar 25 compilation, I tried to deliver a diverse mixtape of sounds from both established artists and emerging talent and celebrate the African influence in global electronic music of the present moment. The mix contains tracks from the likes of Oscar P, Pablo Fierro, and Argento Dust. It also features a remix from newly signed Soulistic Music artist Enoo Napa and my recent remix of Keinemusik’s song “Muyè.”

Your music has been called "Afropolitan house"; what does that mean to you, if anything?

I think what’s most distinct and what comes naturally in the rhythms, and in the music that I play and produce, is the fact that I am African and will always be of Africa. It’s something I can’t shake off and that inherently and instinctively drives and influences everything what I do. Even at times when I don't want to sound African, it still comes through in the rhythm. It’s who I am. Africa is the birthplace of rhythm and I think that rhythm is the source that, to a greater or lesser degree, moves and touches every single human on the planet.

You've been working with Virgil Abloh a long time; how have you guys grown as collaborators?

We’ve gone from randomly finding ourselves on the same line-ups at various parties to becoming friends and making a point of conspiring to pop-up playing back to back DJ sets across the globe. We played a surprise B2B set as White Coffee—Flat White and Black Coffee—alongside Pete Tong at Blue Marlin Ibiza about two weeks ago, and the response has been incredible. Our intention is to host parties all around the world and DJ together side-by-side with the shared ideal of uniting people through the power of music.

I know details about your collaboration with Abloh to craft a "new neighborhood" in Johannesburg is under mostly wraps, but I was wondering what the concept behind it is. What change do you hope making this a reality will bring?

We’ve been working on building a music, art and fashion school in a deserted part of Johannesburg as a collaboration between myself and fellow South Africans artist Nelson Makamo and clothing designer Laduma Ngxokolo with the hope of turning the neighborhood around. Once the school project is complete, with our partners we endeavor to take this even further and establish an entire neighborhood. Virgil and leading South African architecture firm SAOTA are helping us with the design of the institution. The opportunities and spaces will offer cultural experiences, boutique stores, restaurants and a learning center.

What would this city-within-a-city do to the artists it would foster? What does it mean to be an artist and an electronic producer in a metropolitan setting?

I think that a thriving creative community and strong nightlife ecosystem is the most ideal environment for any artistic personality to be a part of. What could be more supportive and encouraging than being in an environment where you are surrounded by like-minded, passionate individuals who constantly challenge and inspire you to be the best version of yourself?