|Tracing the Footsteps – Censorship and Music in Zimbabwe
In the aftermath of independence and the twenty-five years that have passed between 1980 and now, Zimbabwe’s music has taken on various roles in the political and social psyche of the country
By Nyasha Nyakunu – journalist and researcher, MISA-Zimbabwe
A number of academics have postulated the significance of music in Zimbabwe’s turbulent political history, with special reference to its role in the experiences of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. In the aftermath of independence and the twenty-five years that have passed between 1980 and now, Zimbabwe’s music has taken on various roles in the political and social psyche of the country. These roles have been limited by both the political culture that the ruling Zanu Pf party has sought to entrench within Zimbabwe’s liberation war experience as a living testimony to notions of identity and citizenship as well as the restrictive media laws hat have been a consistent feature off Zimbabwe’s political landscape. In the midst of the controls that the Zimbabwean government has attempted to exert, there has been thee stubborn rise of alternative music that seeks to speak to the everyday of experiences of the ordinary citizens minus the rhetoric of blind, liberation war legacy rhetoric. It is this music that this article seeks to place into perspective as well as analyze within the context of the struggle for freedom of expression in the country.
In Zimbabwe and similarly to countries that emerge from a ‘revolutionary war’, there was the euphoria of acceptance and hope, with a significant majority of citizens accepting a culture of acceptance of the cultural output of the victorious liberation war political party or movement. In the process the nitty-gritty’s of censorship and ultimate intention to construct an unimpeachable hegemony by the ruling party was lost to the citizens and so was alterative music. The artist was cocooned into singing praises of the revolution both for his/her bread and butter as well as to avoid the disastrous label of being against the ‘struggle’. A telling example of this, though not a musician was the brilliant author, Dambudzo Marechera whose novella “Black Sunlight” was shelved by the Censorship Board for reasons that are still unpalatable to write here.
Significant changes to this culture of acceptance of propaganda as art was to be effected not by the people clamoring for a change but from artists that, in an Orwellian sense began to read between the lines of the revolution. It began with a relative impolitic narrations of everyday suffering of Zimbabweans in the latter half of the 1980’s with songs being sung essentially about everyday social problems such as those of rented accommodation and with the assistance of government corruption moved on to issues concerning financial scandals within the ruling party. One of the most significant pioneers of protest music in post independent Zimbabwe became Solomon Skhuza whose song Love and Scandals talked directly to the issue of the Willowvale Motor vehicle Scandal was played on radio and television with ease, assumingly because is main theme was about betrayal in romance (the lyrics speak of a person whose girlfriend left him for someone else who owned a Toyota Cressida, which was at the heart of the scandal at that time). Whilst there is no apparent evidence as to whether the people at the censorship board could not understand the significant irony of the song, it is clear that the song was a milestone in circumventing blunt censorship.
The rapper Leonard Zhakata also evaded the censorship matter with a beautiful song titled ‘Mugove’ whose lyrics ask God to provide for the narrator as he/she is suffering from the rich whilst he/she has nothing. The song hit the roof in terms of sales and made the artist a superstar overnight and escaped censorship because it did not seem obviously political but it spoke to the everyday sufferings of the Zimbabwean people especially with the government’s policy of the economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP). Moreover, music was increasingly becoming the subtle avenue of protest against a government that was increasingly turning obviously authoritarian. Zhakata sang with the true irony of an artist who had escaped the ‘revolutionary net’ of the ruling party and its hegemonic project.
Thomas Mapfumo however was not as fortunate. Given his legendary standing with Zimbabwean music fans, Mapfumo’s’ songs were bound to strike a serious shiver down the spines of those that were in control of the government and the state television, radio and newspapers. His song Jojo was banned outright from the airwaves because it was deemed to be sympathetic to the opposition Zimbabwe Unity Movement and it spoke to an attempted assassination attempt on a ZUM prominent personality indirectly. It was a clear case if where the ruling party saw an obvious political threat to its power, it would not tolerate any music that would hint at the need for fairness on the political playing field. Thomas Mapfumo was to remain a victim of his pro-people music to the extent that his contemporary albums have never been played on state radio or television since the emergence of a strong civil society as well as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. This is not to say Mapfumo has become an obvious supporter of the MDC, but for Zanu Pf as well as the censorship board it controls, Mapfumo speaks unpalatable truths about the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe. The same too can be said of Leonard Zhakata who has since been receiving less and less airtime because his music remains that of a stubborn artist who insists on defending his artistic genius in the field he feels most comfortable in, that of explaining the ills of our society.
In the midst of the protest music and its brave purveyors, there are those that have retained comfort in composing music that deals largely with religion and other social issues that the government is comfortable with. Most of these artists, both long-standing figures and newer ones on Zimbabwe’s music scene have been daring enough to put their ‘artistic’ talents at the disposal of the ruling Zanu Pf party, thus violating the significant principle of artistic independence. Whilst it remains in the interests of freedom of expression for these artists to compose whatever they wish, it also remains even more important that they understand the repressive and propaganda context in which they are complicit in participating.
Music in Zimbabwe has however never been more beholden to the government as it is now. The political polarization and renewal of the Zanu Pf liberation war project has put Zimbabwean music and culture backwards significantly. Where the country should be celebrating the diversity and independence of its artists, their music as well as a cultural environment laden with freedom of expression, the opposite is sadly true. There is no freedom of expression in the country and very few of the musicians seem to realize this. Be that as it may, the voices of Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Zhakata, Lovemore Majaivana and Solomon Skuza serve as telling ones to those that make it a habit of singing on behalf of a dictatorship.
This article was written in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe held on April 28, 2005, at Mannenberg Jazz Club in Harare