Can you dance to it? The world takes on the ‘Jerusalema’ challenge.

Why We Wrote This

Bound by the pandemic this year, people from around the world now also have something more joyful in common: a hit song and a dance with deeply South African roots.

Denis Farrell/AP
People dance to "Jerusalema," the gospel-influenced house song by South African record producer Master KG and singer Nomcebo, in Johannesburg, Sept. 6, 2020. The dance challenge has inspired amateurs everywhere, and the song is being covered in both the original Zulu and other languages.

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On a continent where culture is often taken by outsiders and repackaged, the South African song “Jerusalema” has flipped the script.

After an Angolan dance troupe recorded themselves dancing to a hit South African house track by DJ Master KG and vocalist Nomcebo in February, they sparked a global phenomenon. The dance challenge has been embraced by everyone from lawyers to firemen and flash mobs. Sung in Zulu, the lyrics are gospel-esque, and among the most enthusiastic takers of the challenge have been people of the cloth.

The song owes some popularity to the strange internet alchemies of 2020 and the pandemic that forced creative at-home entertainment. “But it’s rare that a global movement like this starts here and then is imitated by the world,” says Moky Makura, an expert in perceptions of Africa. Moments like this are important, she says, not only for helping change how the world sees Africa, but also because they help shift how Africans see themselves.

Even South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called upon his country to join the challenge after weathering six months of the pandemic, remembering “those who have lost their lives, and to quietly rejoice in the remarkable and diverse heritage of our nation.”

It began in December, and at first it was isolated. You probably didn’t know about it if you didn’t live nearby, or if you didn’t know someone who did.

But by February, it had begun to jump borders – first regionally, then around the world. By summer, it had become a feature of daily life from Angola to Hungary to Canada. World leaders spoke of it on national television. Health care workers rallied around it.

“It,” of course, was the “Jerusalema” dance challenge.

When an Angolan dance troupe recorded themselves dancing to a hit South African house track by DJ Master KG and vocalist Nomcebo in February, they sparked a viral phenomenon that has since lapped the globe. Zimbabwe’s most renowned human rights lawyer recorded a version of the dance; so did a team of Romanian firefighters, and a few dozen socially distanced flash mobs around the world. 

To date, “Jerusalema” has been streamed more than 96 million times on Spotify, and is one of the top searches globally on the music identification application Shazam. It hit the top five charts in Belgium, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Switzerland and was No. 1 on Billboard’s world digital song sales chart in mid-September. 

The song owes much of its popularity to the strange internet alchemies of 2020 – when a global pandemic forced creative forms of at-home entertainment and helped internet trends hop across regions and oceans. But on a continent where culture has often been taken by outsiders to be repackaged for Western audiences (think Louis Vuitton models walking the catwalk in checked scarves and shirts “inspired” by Kenya’s Maasai), “Jerusalema” also flipped that cultural script.

“It’s common to hear that somebody has taken something that they saw on the continent and co-opted it to make it a global product,” says Moky Makura, the executive director of Africa No Filter, which researches how Africa is portrayed in regional and global media. “But it’s rare that a global movement like this starts here and then is imitated by the world.”

Nardus Engelbrecht/AP
To mark Heritage Day, South Africans in Cape Town respond on Sept. 24, 2020, to President Cyril Ramaphosa's call to take up the "Jerusalema" dance challenge in celebration, and to "reflect on the difficult journey" the country has traveled during the pandemic.

Indeed, in 2019 a study by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center showed that Americans were more than twice as likely to see a negative depiction of Africa on TV as a positive one – if they saw any portrayals of Africa at all. Viewers were seven times as likely to see references to Europe on TV as to Africa, and nearly half of references to the continent on TV referred only to a nebulous “Africa,” rather than any specific country.

“Jerusalema,” on the other hand, can be traced to very particular roots. In December, South African DJ Master KG called singer Nomcebo late at night from his Johannesburg recording studio. He’d just written a new track and wanted her to sing the vocals. She came immediately, and by the next morning, the two had a rough cut of the song.

“Jerusalema” became a hit song in South Africa that Southern Hemisphere summer. But it was only after Angolan dance studio Fenomenos do Semba recorded themselves dancing to the song as they ate lunch in February that the song began to go viral. 

Sung in Zulu, the song’s lyrics are gospel-esque. “Jerusalem is my home / Guide me / Take me with You / Do not leave me here,” sings Nomcebo in the opening lines.

It is perhaps little surprise, then, that among the most enthusiastic takers of the “Jerusalema” challenge have been people of the cloth. There have been “Jerusalema” dances from the Catholic archdiocese of Montreal and a group of novice nuns in rural South Africa, among others. In September, one Swedish Lutheran church announced that it would be closing services with a song “that says something about our longing.”

“So let us not only go, but also dance in peace,” a voice announces, as the track began to pump from the church’s speakers. 

But it is perhaps in South Africa itself, where “Jerusalema” was born, that the dance has taken its strongest hold. In mid-September, the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, addressed the country on live television, as he had more than a dozen times since the coronavirus pandemic began here in March.

As case numbers continued to decline, he explained, the country would continue to reopen, unbanning large gatherings and opening its borders. But that didn’t mean the pandemic was over. With a public holiday called Heritage Day coming up the following week, he urged his fellow South Africans to stay home with family “to reflect on the difficult journey we have all traveled.”

“And there can be no better celebration of our South African-ness,” he continued, “than joining the global phenomenon that is the ‘Jerusalema’ dance challenge.”

For Ms. Makura, the expert in global perceptions of Africa, moments like this are important, not only for helping change how the world sees Africa, but also because they slowly help shift how Africans see themselves.

“Negative stories reinforce negative narratives, and those narratives have a real impact on young people growing up on this continent. They are told by the world they are helpless, and eventually they believe they are helpless too,” she says.

“But here you see an African song that caught on globally. It wasn’t dependent on anyone else for its popularity.”

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