What happens when a South African hit takes over the world and becomes a source of joy during a pandemic? This is the story of how Master KG's Jerusalema made the world dance.
On 16 August 2020, South African finance minister Tito Mboweni became the latest person to try his hand at the global phenomenon. He joined the #JerusalemaChallenge, and shared his video dancing in his home. By the time Minister Mboweni joined the #JerusalemaChallenge the song had garnered 89 million views on Youtube, less than a year after its release.
Limpopo-born hitmaker Master KG, real name Kgoagelo Moagi, says when he started making music he just wanted to make people dance. He never imagined that he would be making the whole world dance. "I was happy to hear my music played at taverns or on radio ... and I never imagined I would make money from it or be on TV."
Jerusalema is not Master KG's first big hit; he is a regular on South African charts. In 2018, he enjoyed huge success with his hit Skeleton Move, which was voted the 2018 SABC Summer Song of the Year (meaning it received the most public votes across the participating SABC stations). Skeleton Move also bagged him an Afrimma 2018 award for Best Electro and Dance and an Afrimma 2019 award for Best Male Southern Africa.
Despite being used to commercial success, even he admits that Jersusalema has seen a greater hit than anything he's done before. In comparison, Skeleton Move has 24 million views on Youtube and around 900 000 combined Shazam streams for both the single and the album while Jersusalema had more than 114 million YouTube views and 4 million Shazams, at the time of publication.
It's hard to imagine or measure the size of a global viral hit, but social media video platform TikTok gives some insight with the #Jerusalema hashtag having a whopping 238.7 million views, and counting.
The song is so popular that even YouTube videos about Jerusalema dance challenges are doing impressive numbers. One example is Franky Roy, whose YouTube account features him dancing to popular songs and has 6 600 subscribers. Roy's video with the biggest number of views was 709 views, that is until 31 July 2020. When he posted a #JerusalemaDanceChallenge video, it earned over 2 million views in three weeks.
The timeline of a global hit
Part of what makes the story of Jerusalema so interesting is how quickly it became a hit, long before the song was released. This is a timeline of its success.
It all begins in mid 2019. Master KG recalls, "I made the beat around July last year, after it kept playing in my head, and finally finished it around the end of August. I also kept thinking about Nomcebo's vocals so I called her and told her that 'I have this beautiful beat and I think you would be the perfect person on it' and she was happy to work with me."
Master KG says Nomcebo came over to record her lyrics the day after they spoke. Before she began, he explained to her, "I would like the song to be as spiritual as it can be, and while I played the beat she started singing the first verse which we just loved."
The song was unfinished. While they loved the first verse, there were no new ideas yet, so Master KG and Nomcebo decided to continue working on it another time. However, Master KG was so excited about the song that he put together a video snippet to share on his social media pages.
"I edited a 20-second video, and on 29 September I shared it on social media with the caption 'new music coming soon' and people loved it. People were asking for the full song." Within a matter of days, the short clip had thousands of views with over 11 000 views on Instagram and 200 000 on Facebook.
The song was finally completed in early October 2019. Master KG says he called Nomcebo again and told her that they needed to finish the song since people were demanding it. On 11 October 2019, the official audio was released for free on YouTube.
"In the week the song was released, the song did 1 million views on YouTube. We weren't even pushing or promoting the song because that's how I released my music; I would put it out for free while we wait to get it on the big streaming platforms," he says.
On 12 October 2019, Master KG played the song for the first time at a performance in Pretoria.
Suddenly, the song went global. As the month drew to a close, on 25 October, Master KG shared a video from Atlanta, Georgia showing people doing the "bus stop" or "electric slide" to Jerusalema. It was one of the first versions of the Jerusalema challenge, even though it wasn't called that yet. He captioned the post: "JERUSALEM is Becoming something else!!!!"
While the song was doing well on YouTube, the public wanted the song on streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Deezer and Spotify. "Whenever I logged onto streaming platforms I would see my name and Jerusalema trending, which meant that people were searching for the song even though it wasn't available yet. It eventually got onto streaming platforms around 29 November 2019."
By the time the song was available for sale, the YouTube video of the official audio had over 2 million views.
As the song gained popularity, South Africans did the "Jerusalema walk", another early version of the dance challenge.
By the middle of the month, on 13 December, the Jerusalema music video, shot in Centurion, was released. Within two weeks, it had 3.1 million views while the original audio video had 4 million views.
One of the gauges for a song's success in South Africa is the SABC Song of the Summer, a hotly contested competition of songs people loved most on public radio. The 2019 Song of the Summer Top 10 finalists were announced on 17 December. Although the song had only been receiving radio airplay since mid-October, Jersusalema was in the running - a testament to how much South Africans loved it.
"A lot of the time songs take time to grow, but the growth of this song was just incredible, and reached milestones that normally take months to get to. I don't even know how it did it," Master KG admits.
Jerusalema did not win the SABC Song Of The Summer. Due to a dispute about who came out with the concept, the winner was only announced in March 2020 instead of it being played on 1 January. Jerusalema came second, behind Ntencane's Wawuthembeni. However, Jerusalema would be number 1 on radio from the end of November to January. Master KG says the song would retain the number 1 spot on iTunes SA until the second week of January 2020.
9 February 2020. Four months after the song was released, Jerusalema was certified platinum in South Africa while it remained in the top 50 for airplay and streaming.
Although he doesn't remember (and it would be hard to pinpoint) the exact date the song crossed over internationally, in mid-February Master KG was booked to perform in Spain and Paris. He says while he was mainly booked for Skeleton Move he decided to play Jerusalema.
"When I played it, people were vibing with the song and I noticed that a lot of the crowd was our people from different African countries like Mozambique and Cape Verde. They were singing along to the song."
On 22 February, Master KG shared the first international video he remembers being tagged in, with what would become the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge by a group from Angola. And perhaps it doesn't matter who did the first video because over the next 90 days, the challenge would spread all over the world.
Seeing the growing interest in his smash hit (at home and abroad), towards the end of May 2020 Master KG decided that he wanted to do a remix of the song. "I decided I didn't want to let the song fade away", he says. So he reached out to Nigerian superstar Burna Boy, who had an incredible 2019 - having released a successful and Grammy-nominated album, African Giant. Burna Boy remains the most streamed African artist on Spotify too.
"I had always wanted to work with Burna because I'm a big fan of his work. Luckily he knew my work and liked Skeleton Move, which had been popular in Nigeria, so when I reached out he was keen."
In early June, while the remix was being finalised, more people were catching onto the Jerusalema Challenge. Master KG remembers seeing more and more videos from different people, adding, "I remember seeing a video of a group of guys from France doing the challenge and then a few days later there was a video from Portugal in what looked like a club... " and more and more videos.
On 19 June, the Jerusalema remix was released with Burna Boy. So keen was the African Giant that Master KG says Burna Boy sent back his vocals within 24 hours of having received everything from him. Burna's first take was the perfect take and was ultimately the version that was released.
Around the release of the remix, Master KG says his music video had about 20 million views. At some point, the Jerusalema remix and the original occupied the number one and three spots on the Apple Music chart locally. Master KG admits that the remix had a role in aiding the global dominance of the song.
July was the month when the #JerusalemaChallenge seemed to be at its most popular, even forcing Master KG to become more active on Twitter, which he wasn't before. His follower count breached the 100 000 mark within a matter of weeks. He says, "I wasn't on Twitter really, I was more a Facebook and Instagram person but now I am on there everyday sharing videos."
At the time of publication, the video had 114 million views, with more than 33 million recorded in July alone. As the world danced to Master KG and the song returned to the top of the charts locally once more, July was when the nominees for the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) were announced. Jerusalema was glaringly absent from the Record of the Year list. This earned the ire of fans and other artists alike. Ahead of the ceremony in early August, BET International Award winner Black Coffee even suggested that the awards include the song.
While Master KG was gracious in congratulating the nominees, he admits that he was disappointed, saying, "With Skeleton Move I thought I would get a nod at the SAMAs because it was my first time and I had gotten the Song of the Summer that year, but I got nothing. Best Newcomer, best whatever, Best Collaboration - nothing at all and that's where it hurt me the most."
Despite disappointment in 2018/2019 he was hopeful that Jerusalema, being the world's favourite song, might be recognised by the country's most prestigious awards but once again there was disappointment. He says it was less hurtful this time. "I really didn't focus on it, I moved on and I decided that the song is for the people. The people have spoken and they love the song and appreciate it and if the awards don't see that maybe they'll see it one day but I don't take it personally."
The present and the future
By mid-August, Jerusalema was number 1 on iTunes in 10 countries including South Africa. The other nine were Belgium, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, France, Grenada, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland. The song was also in the top 10 in countries such as Germany, Uganda, Spain, Oman and the Netherlands.
The remix has been certified gold in France. The original was certified platinum in South Africa in February. Master KG doesn't know where the song's numbers sit now. He says the new certifications are pending. However, an indication of how well the song is still doing is obvious in Master KG being Spotify's third most listened to artist on the continent, behind Burna Boy and Mr Eazi, with 5 million monthly listeners.
He's encouraged by his place among the continent's biggest names, saying, "It shows that I am growing, it shows I'm gaining momentum and that I am getting to new audiences. That's huge for me." While he can't divulge details, he says the global phenomenon of Jerusalema has opened numerous doors for him and he says he's excited about the future. What he can share is that he and Nomcebo have been appointed ambassadors to the world by the department of arts and culture. "I feel that this is one of the biggest opportunities I've ever been given and the reason is the song. It's an opportunity to show what your country can do and I can't wait to go out and represent."
So what happens after taking over the world? He replies, "I don't want to pressurise myself by saying I want to break the Jerusalema records because it did crazy records, but I just want to keep making music."