Zimbabwe: How musicians avoid censorship



How Zimbabwean musicians avoid censorship

Like mouse and cat, musicians often play with the censorship board. In Zimbabwe, musicians manage to evade censorship by creating songs with double-meaning. And sometimes they get away with it, reports Freemuse’s correspondent, Zenzele Ndebele

    This article reveals information we ought not let the censors know about. However, we believe it could inspire song writers in simular situations world-wide. And we are confident that musicians are able to continue being one step ahead of their censors.

Zimbabwean musicians’ Armageddon is censorship. In particular this is the case when it comes to public broadcasting. Those who are censored are sidelined from performing at public functions, which are usually state funded events – known as the Biras – where the ruling party celebrates the lives of its dead heroes, and also takes the platform to press forward their propaganda.
The Biras are the only official platform where artists exhibit their talents without intimidation. Thus naturally for one to be part of these music galas their music has to be “clean” and straightforward.

Since music censorship is highly selective there has only been one way that artists have used to escape the wrath of the censorship board. Well, they only succeed for a short while until their music is understood.

“As an artist in situations like the one that we are facing in Zimbabwe the best way to avoid being victimised is composing music with innuendos – that is music that you can derive two meanings from. In most cases such music survives from the censorship board because at times they have a shallow approach towards music. Then when the response from the public becomes visible – the excitement, the utopian behaviours when such songs are given airplay – it can make the controlling body revisit their decision on the song, and at times they go to the artist for a personal view on his song,” explained one recording artist who wishes to be anonymous.

Mutukudzi and the president 
There have been many such cases in the past. For instance Oliver Mutukudzi’s song ‘Bvuma Wasakara’ from 1999. Mutukudzi’s scorcher was interpreted to be directed at the only head of state Zimbabwe has ever known since 1980. At one of his shows a member of his stage team beamed a light on the portrait of Mugabe when the song in question was played amid cheers from the crowd. This set the ball rolling on the inquiry about the song which Tuku as he is called by his fans defended his song by saying that it was derived from his personal family experiences and it only talks about domestic issues – not anything political.

However, at one time the song was also being broadcast during opposition Movement for Democratic Change rallies because of the way the public interpreted the song. Up to now the song is blacklisted from radio stations because the censorship board believes through public understanding that the song is on Mugabe’s rule.

Because of his brush with the censorship board and the way he regards the government in power, Oliver Mutukudzi shunned the Biras, and his children have followed suit. Mutukudzi can afford to shun the music galas because he is an internationally acclaimed artist, among the best-selling artists in Zimbabwe, and his up-and-coming children Selmor and Sam have had their father to introduce them to the international scene – unlike the disadvantaged ordinary artist who wants to “make it” but has no predecessor.

Thus only the disadvantaged musician has to play along and monitor (or self-censor) the content in their compositions.

“I do not associate myself with the galas because they do not ‘make’ – rather they ‘break’ my music profile because they are always political. My father taught me that I should not align my music with any political sect especially in Zimbabwe,” said Sam Mutukudzi.

The Matabeleland disturbance
Albert Nyathi and Lwazi Tshabangu separately perform a song called ‘Lingababulali’ (‘You are killers’). The song originally belongs to Albert Nyathi and it is found in his album ‘Nozindaba’. The song laments about the Matabeleland disturbance referred to as Gukurahundi that happened soon after independence and was stopped in 1987 with the Unity Accord where the political party ZANU swallowed the ZAPU party. During the time of the disturbances a Korean trained 5th brigade terrorised Matabeleland and the Midlands province.

Thus, in the song Albert Nyathi accuses the ruling party of being cold-blooded murders who killed defenceless and innocent villagers. The song was an automatic red robot for state broadcast even though it can be found on a full length Albert Nyathi album. It only gets exposure at nightclubs and private functions mostly in Matabeleland where it gets applause from those who understand it. Nonetheless it has managed to at least survive as a communicator. 

Commenting on whether there is another interpretation of the song or not, Albert Nyathi said:
“The song draws inspiration from numerous Ndebele traditional war cries, and for anyone to say I was being a tribalist or political in the song would be technically wrong. As the artist I am, the final authority in as far as defining and interpreting my works rests with me. That is the only way to argue one’s way out of censorship, even though people have their own perceptions and worldviews. Thus my side of the story does not matter to who ever censors music,” said the artist who is often referred to as ‘Zimbabwe’s premier dub poet’.

Best-seller evaded censorship
As Johnny Clegg put it: “Censorship is based on fear”. That was the case with ‘Mugove’ (1994) by Leonard Zhakata which went on to be one of the best selling albums in Zimbabwean music history. No album has so far surpassed the number of copies that ‘Mugove’ clocked. In the song ‘Zhakata’ laments about the socio-economic failures of the government and their arrogance. The song was then blacklisted from airplay as well as the artist was sidelined as his career suffered almost extinction. Still it evaded censorship because it was put on mass production for all to get exposed to it. It became frustrated on state media but it was in high circulation out there and it got a lot of airplay at public gatherings such as beer halls and shabeens. Thus censorship became futile in this particular discourse.

Unfortunately Leonard Zhakata declined to comment on this sighting that, “I cannot just make a comment on this issue because you might masquerade as a journalist on the phone and you will then use this information for something else. I would be in a position to talk to you face to face for me to have credibility in your claim and help you in the best way I can. One has to be careful about what they say and who they say it to because careless statements might prove costly in the long run.”

There is also the late Simon Chimbetu’s ‘Pane Asipo’ (‘Somebody Is Absent’) where he bemoans the absence of his comrades who made independence a reality being forgotten by those in power fostering neo colonialism.

Ghost names
Some artists have resorted to using ghost names and then leaking their music on to the underground market. Once a song is leaked there is no way that an artist will face criminal charges because for one he uses apseudonym and there is no tracing where his music originates. When artists do that they do not seek any financial or any gain what so ever but just to drive their message to the people who stay in a highly censored environment.

For example there is one artist who brands himself as DJ Nhlambazonke (which means ‘All Insults’) on the underground, and he uses a different name on the commercial market. His music has a stream of consciousness just like the literature of Dambudzo Marechera where the artist speaks his mind out uncensored. Through this underground venture the artist aims at bringing to the fore things that are said to be taboo to society. Most songs that have escaped uncensored are the ones that are done in the native languages for the mere fact that Bantu languages are full of metaphors, mysterious phrases and so at times it becomes difficult to translate into English.

In a nutshell artist try – and also manage – to evade censorship by creating music with innuendos and sometimes they get away with it. Lovemore Majaivana succeeded in singing protest music because most of his songs had double meaning. You had to understand the Ndebele culture and history to fully understand his music. In one of his songs Lovemore Majaivana sings: ‘Wathi uTshaka mhla efayo lelilizwe liyobuswa zinyoni.’ It translates to: ‘The day King Tshaka died, he said this country will be ruled by birds’.

The song is making reference to the corrupt leaders who are running the country. He also talks of the fact that the country (Zimbabwe) which was ruled by a king Lobengula is now ruled by someone who was not even in the line of kingdom, someone as common as a bird. By using this style Majaivana managed to tackle issues like corruption, police brutality and the Matabeleland genocide. It is clear that if the government want to censor musicians they always find a way of sending our the message.

Exiled artists
Another way of evading censorship is to migrate to other countries. There are a lot of Zimbabwean artists who have left the country and what they produce is not kind to the government. Artists such as Viomak, Thomas Mapfumo, Lucky Moyo (formerly of Black Umfolosi), and others, have been making international headlines from their exiles.

In Austria lives a lesser-known Zimbabwean musician named Ramandu. In his album ‘Kunjalo’ (‘Its like that’) he pours his heart out on the Zimbabwean situation, and the 15-track album is a no holds bared. He talks about the shortage of fuel, food, and money. He uses traditional songs in his music, and laments that when he grew up singing those songs this was still okay because you could go to the bank and change money, but nowadays you have to go to the streets. He implores the Zimbabwean government to do something about the shortages.

In a gospel track entitled ‘Kuzolunga’ (‘It will be alright’) Ramandu tells the people of Zimbabwe not to worry because things will go back to normal. He takes a direct shot at the Zimbabwean government when he says “those who responsible for human rights abuses will be prosecuted”, and that “they are doing it because they are cowards – they don’t want to be told the truth”.

This is the kind of song that will never see the light on the national radio but all the way from Austria it finds it way to the Zimbabwean markets via an underground movement. The advert of the new technology such as the internet has made the situation for the Zimbabwean music lovers better because they can download their music from the internet, or email it to individuals and in this way bypass the authorities and the national radio.

Lucky Moyo recently released an album from the UK where he encourages people to go and vote because this is the only way they can get a better future.

Another factor that has made life for the Zimbabwean artists easier is that many of the civil organisations have seen that an effective way to communicate is through music because they do not have access to the state media and they are not allowed to organise public meetings. Most of them commission artists to record songs which are then distributed in the communities. Because of a massive cash injection from the civil society, artists can afford to do without airplay and instead “leak” their music in the underground movement. It looks like that days where artists would mourn that their songs have been banned are soon going to be over.

Click to read more about music censorship in Zimbabwe

Oliver Mutukudzi

Albert Nyathi

About the author

This article is written in November 2007 by Zenzele Ndebele, 29, who is based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He has a B.A. in Media Studies and is presently pursuing a Master in Media Studies. He is part time production manager at the community radio Radio Dialogue, and he also teaches broadcasting practices at the National University of Science and Technology.

Zenzele Ndebele produced a 25-minutes video documentary, ‘Gukurahundi’, about the massacres in Matabeleland, when, in the mid-1980’s, upwards of 20,000 people of the Ndebele community are believed to have lost their lives. It was published in November 2007. Read more…

In March 2007, Zenzele Ndebele participated in a workshop organised by Freemuse which aimed at upgrading the knowledge of African journalists who already work in the field of human rights to also include music censorship issues.

Related reading on the internet

The Herald / Zimvibes.com – 17 October 2007:
‘The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings has banned urban grooves’

Video interview

Click to see interview with Chiwoniso Maraire, Chirikure Chirikure and Paul Brickhill
‘Music is an unstoppable force’

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