Nkosinathi Maphumulo—who goes by Black Coffee when he’s DJing or producing—is a legend in his home of South Africa, where house music dominates the culture from the street to the club to the radio. It’s been claimed that there are more house music fans per capita in Johannesburg than anywhere else in the world, and Black Coffee is the unassuming king of the scene there. South Africa’s musical history is a unique one, still tightly bound to Apartheid and post-Apartheid cultural shifts; Black Coffee’s music tells the story of a country that doesn’t get a lot of play in Western circles.
His soft-spoken demeanor is the antithesis of the controversy-baiting, fame-craving personalities that bully their ways into the limelight. But Black Coffee has a unique sound and story, and having just signed with the dance music giant Ultra Music—an announcment that included the release of new single “Come With Me"—it’s looking likely that he’ll soon find a footing with American audiences. We caught up with the man after a sweltering Coachella debut.
This is your first time at Coachella as a performer or as a fan, right?
Yeah, this my first Coachella ever. I met some young kids who traveled all the way from South Africa to see my set, so that was very inspiring.
How do you feel that house in now big in America?
I think it’s cool, man. I think every country has their own sense of house. House has been really strong in South Africa the last 15 years, so it’s interesting that it’s coming back in America.
What are you up to outside of touring?
I’m working on an LP now. I’m releasing a single next week with a video we shot in New York. Ultra Records is putting it out. We’re going to put out three singles, then the album. It’s supposed to come out this year. We made this 12-minute rotoscope animation that I think people will enjoy.
How would you describe your sound to people who are unfamiliar with it?
I bring something quite different—it’s an acquired taste. It’s not for everyone.
That’s interesting because I feel like my perception of Ultra is that it skews really young and really bangin’.
This is something we had to sit down and really work out. You have to understand we didn’t want to change anything we wanted to do. But it wasn’t a really long conversation. They said we can do whatever we want.
How does it feel to come to America, where you aren’t as well known and the market is much, much bigger?
In the last year I won an award in Ibiza, a newcomer’s award. I had been working for 10 years. I had my face on billboards. And in Ibiza, I’m a newcomer?
I have this word that I’m preaching, and I’m trying to get followers. Back home, when I started, I was on a different tip. I struggled for a while to get people to understand. I’m from Durban. I couldn’t play in Durban: I was too mellow. It took time to get people to know that he’s like that, understand him as he is. I’m trying to come to America and say, “This is who I am.”
So who are you?
For me, it’s just music, you know? That’s the subject matter that lasts longer than all the subgenres and all the terms. I believe I bring depth and the feeling.
What’s your formal musical background?
I studied jazz. Whether it’s my song or not, that’s what I look for. Whether a vocal or instrumental, there has to be some substance.
Is there someone you really identify with as a jazz artist?
Charlie Parker. Gregory Porter, who in the world of jazz is very unforgiven. It’s a critic’s world. Jazz people are very intense. Gregory Porter was then on a record with Disclosure. Jazz people are so upset, but that’s how it is. This is who I am, and this is the route I’m taking. And you listen to his jazz records, and they’re hardcore. He’s at the top of his game, but he’s very open minded.
What American artists are on the top of your list of dream collaborators?
I’d like to do something with John Legend or Pharrell. There’s a song I’m working on that I’d like Rihanna to sing on. I’m not against the mainstream. Music is music. I’m considering moving to America for a few years to see what happens. I may move to LA for a few months this year to finish my album.
You were in a car accident as a child that gives you little to no use of your left arm. How has that affected what you do or what people perceive you can or can’t do?
I’ve never made it a part of my journey. I don’t want to be known for that. I didn’t have my first CD cover with a sling, you know?