In Conversation with Strictly Soul

In recent years, Strictly Soul Entertainment under the guidance of pioneer Akio Kawahito and Anita Makgetla, have transformed altogether the concept and idea of what a modern day music event and party is – they have successfully curated a in blunt terms, a vibe!

Strictly Soul have slowly become the hub for R&B lovers across the continent – not only because their shows are themed as such but because they have become the plug and go to for discovering the best and hottest young artists in the space. Their events are cool both in look and feel, and are nothing short of groundbreaking.

We caught up with Strictly Soul founder Akio to chat on the essence of the concept and brand, the audience as well as the managing of the stakeholders and overall business.

Read the conversation below…

Would you say there is a conceptual template of what Strictly Soul is and is trying to be – can it be referenced as being inspired by?

There wasn’t really a template for Strictly Soul, because there was nothing like it that existed in South Africa. When we develop new events we always look for what it is that is missing from the market as opposed to what is trending. I originally came up with the concept around 2016 but at the time we were focused more on our Hip Hop and Future Beats events. Over the next couple years I then looked at Soul events in South Africa and they were all Sunday type chill events for mature crowds. Globally I looked at R&B parties and they were slow-jam sing-a-long type events. Our objective was to create a club and dance type event that had as much energy as an Amapiano, Hip Hop or House event. When we launched we had to kind of play with the format to get it to the point we wanted.

You’ve been running the Live show segments for a while now, how do you keep that in line with the essence of Strictly Soul given that this curation is almost purely based on the artist and how they approach it?

They’re very different events in terms of vibe, but the essence is the same in our commitment to the Soul genre. When we started the brand in 2000, the objective was to be the mouthpiece of R&B in South Africa and eventually Africa. The party was the first step in establishing the brand, but we knew we could never truly be the champions of R&B without creating a platform for local acts. Once we secured some sponsors this allowed us to have the budget to properly present and produce a live show. We also work closely with most of the major record labels in SA which allows us to align our live shows with artists that are in the process of releasing a project. In terms of the musical delivery we give almost complete creative control to the artist that we select. Moving into the new season in September, we really want to add an opening unsigned act to give more opportunities to up and coming artists.

How intentional are the collaborations you’ve pursed, both with the artists and the brands?

We’ve been very particular about the brands, artists, and partnerships that we engage in. One of the keys to our success is the authenticity of our brand and its presentation. A lot of the colabs we find ourselves in have come to us, but we’ve also reached out to a lot of them as well.

Do you consider the Strictly Soul target audience a niche audience?

We don’t. When we started, people said our audience was too niche, we would never do big numbers, and that our movement wouldn’t last. As a DJ, I had been experimenting with R&B sets for years prior, so I knew the impact. We also know that there are a lot of songs that are timeless. A lot of younger people don’t know any Hip Hop songs from the 90s, but can sing along to every Aaliyah, Mary J, and Destiny’s Child track. We’ve also learned that R&B is one of the most listened to genres across streaming platforms. Additionally, since our event went more mainstream, there’s been an explosion of promoters doing similar events and every venue now has an “R&B night”.

You are curating across the continent, is there a change in approach to the curatorship and theming of shows based on the perceived feel of audience from country to country?

There may be subtle changes especially in terms of incorporating some local R&B, but for the most part no. One of the things we pride ourselves on is that, what you see on our social media in terms of the videos, photos, and vibe is EXACTLY what you get when you attend our events. A lot of our growth in foreign cities is on the strength of our social media, we get people coming to shows in Nairobi or Kigali wanting to experience what they see in Johannesburg. Also, given that the way we run our event is so different than how events in other countries are run, it helps to make our event unique and stand out. When we’ve presented our event to partners and venues in other countries, we ‘ve been told so many times that, “People here don’t do this or don’t like that”, and we ask “Have you tried before?” and the answer to that is almost always “no”. Once we launch the event they then realize that it is exactly what people want but no one has been doing it.

How hard is it to plan, coordinate and put together a Strictly Soul event – what are some of the underlying things people often don’t realize or overlook with the process?

So the challenges vary from territory to territory and event from 5 months ago to now. One of the biggest challenges has been accommodating growth. Finding venues that are big enough while still maintaining our vibe, look and feel has been extremely difficult. Everyone will say that we need to find a bigger venue without understanding that these spaces just don’t exist.

From a business point of view, a typical strictly soul show has multiple stakeholders at times even across borders – are there challenges in aligning the interests of these stakeholders while not falling short yourselves?

Absolutely. We’ve launched and activated foreign parties such as Everyday People (NYC) and DLT Brunch (London) in SA so we use our roles as a template for the expectations for Strictly Soul’s partners across borders. At the end of the day we take everyone’s opinions and recommendations into consideration, but we’re firm on our overall vision being the one that’s executed.

What is success for and to Strictly Soul as an entity and what does the immediate future look like?

For now, we want to go from being the biggest R&B Party in Africa to being the mouthpiece and tastemaker for the genre on the continent. This year we’re expecting to add a couple more countries in Southern and East Africa and also hosting our first events in West Africa. Additionally, we’d like to host another international concert in South Africa.

See latest shows schedule below…