Spiritual storytelling: Charisse C’s fluid amapiano sets are building a bridge between continents
Adele Walton speaks to the Zimbabwean-born DJ Charisse C about viral moments, instinct and reconnecting with her roots
“Things are happening on the pulse in South Africa,” Charisse C tells me on Zoom, following a solid selection of shows across the southernmost tip of the African continent. “In the hood, in the townships, which is where this music originates from, where you're going to hear a whole hour of stuff that you've never heard before, your mind will be blown.”
Charisse is currently in Johannesburg, where alongside playing parties there and Cape Town, she’s been taking the time to rest and rejuvenate for the year ahead. And no wonder, 2022 saw this Zimbabwean-born DJ become one of the most sought after bookings in the European amapiano circuit - from supporting Scorpion Kings at Printworks, Major League DJz at The Warehouse Project, performing at Benji B’s Deviation party at KOKO and a second Boiler Room set. Having recently confirmed her Afro Nation debut this Summer and a continued run of incredible mixes on her monthly NTS show, the year head looks set to be a busy one for Charisse C.
Whilst she’s earned renown in amapiano, Charisse’s sets are brimming with musical influences from across the subcontinent and the diaspora - with nods to qqom, SA house, UK bass and gospel house. This cross-genre fusion, lifted from her own musical heritage, has helped her connect with audiences in London and in Africa and given her a unique perspective on the sounds of both regions. Though, she admits, taking the time to reconnect physically with her roots in South Africa has been "essential" in order to maintain and grow her relationship with the music she plays.
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“It’s really important to me to respect and pay homage to the place that the music is from,” she says, nearing the end of her stint in SA. “ I think that applies with any kind of culture or genre that one will be playing, if it’s rooted in a people in a way of life, and a culture there should always be respectful for what that culture is.”
Having grown up in London, Charisse studied music journalism at the University of the Arts (UAL) where she met Work It host and DJ Loren Platt — who supported her transition from writing to DJing. Taking her knack for storytelling to the decks, she joined cross-disciplinary collective KNKTU, kicking off her career in running events and her love for the medium. Storytelling is a central aspect of her song selection and curation, though her background as a music journalist has undoubtedly shaped the way she sees DJing as a mechanism for communicating wider ideas and values to a receptive audience. “I’m a storyteller first and foremost,” she tells me. “I consider DJing as a medium for the things I want to share within the world and with others.”
Taking her raconteur role even further, she began her Abantu Radio show on No Signal during lockdown in 2020 — with an aim to highlight the rich musical heritage of the African subcontinent. “Abantu means people in Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele, which are Nguni languages,” she tells me. Abantu Radio has seen in both local and international talents, with her first interview featuring Aymos, a South African amapiano artist and songwriter, and since then she's hosted a roster of talent including Niniola, Oskido and DBN Gogo. Since then she’s launched the Abantu Pod, a narrative-driven podcast exploring the stories behind the music and culture of the Bantu people, and most recently, established a party - with the inaugural Abantu having taken over East London's Werkhaus back in June.
The journey from radio show to making Abantu come to life in the flesh has been one of constant curation, thoughtfulness and archiving, using every opportunity to showcase Southern African talent and uplift artists who aren’t yet in the spotlight. As someone who went to Charisse’s first Abantu event, it’s a spiritual atmosphere that anyone in attendance will immediately feel immersed in. “I very much care about people, and everything that I do is always people first, so I wanted to create a space that reflected that people first ethos in the music and I wanted people to experience freedom in that space.” she tells me. Adaptability and sensing the crowd’s needs are two aspects that determine her sets, but despite these push and pull factors, Charisse C has an unmistakably strong style that listeners become entranced in.
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Being Black British has positioned her at a unique intersection, and her South African and Zimbabwean heritage translates into her music. The sudden growth of amapiano across the globe has meant new opportunities to perform as an artist are cropping up all the time, with Charisse C flying to Ibiza for her second Boiler Room set, to Amsterdam on her birthday weekend, to South Africa, the home of the genre. She recognises the stratospheric rise of the genre within the UK, from Major League DJz to selling out Brixton, Scorpion Kings bringing the genre to Printworks last year, or DBN Gogo performing at Notting Hill Carnival. But for Charisse C, it’s important to remember where amapiano comes from: “Because the music is from here, there's only so much you can get from the UK because everything we're experiencing has been exported out from here,” she says. “Every time I come back to the UK, I come back rejuvenated, and reinspired and with more to give.”
Whilst a lover of all things bass, Charisse views amapiano as a spectrum that enables her to transcend boundaries as an artist. From its more soulful deep house style, to dark techno, to more vocal and commercial amapiano, leaning into its different branches depending on the mood of the room comes as a second nature. “I usually set an intention, or know what the first song is that I'm going to play and then I go with the feeling of the room. I can gauge by that whether this is a crowd that only really wants to hear what they know, or whether it’s an audience that’s wanting to go on a sonic journey.”
Being a DJ in the digital age means being constantly surrounded by content, from viral moments like Uncle Waffles Adiwele at her set in Soweto to Skin on Skin’s iconic 'Burn Dem Bridges' drop at AVA. “There’s a lot of chasing a viral moment and digital validation, which means that you’re hearing a different version of the same set.” she tells me. “I think that’s the debate that people have between content creation and artistry, and it's something that I've grappled with myself. I DJ from a place of storytelling and artistry, but at the same time, I need to be able to navigate social media and the internet and strike a balance between the two.”
Remaining grounded isn’t something Charisse takes lightly. From the accolades she’s racked up over the past year, like performing at fabric’s birthday alongside DJ EZ to dropping her first single 'Wrecking Bassline' last year, you might assume her journey’s been a steady climb, when in reality, resilience and perseverance have been central to her success. “When I look back at where I've kind of come from and where I'm at now, there's no way that we can stop now,” she says. “On one hand, I've always had really huge dreams and been very clear about all the possibilities and how things would pan out, and on the other hand, things pan out even greater than I imagined, or sometimes not quite the way I imagined them but exactly the way that they should have.”
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An archivist, an artist and a storyteller, Charisse C views music as the medium, and collective purpose and freedom as the goal. amapiano is taking over, but Charisse is keen to continue to show the vastness of music from within South Africa, and across the diaspora.Adele Walton is a freelance writer and political book columnist for Dazed, follow her on Twitter