Zimbabwe: Censorship of Locally Recorded Music



Censorship of Locally Recorded Music in Zimbabwe

Censorship, both voluntary and forced, is still part of the local recording industry in Zimbabwe

By Emmanuel Vori – Gramma Records Marketing Director

Censorship, both voluntary and forced has been part of the local recording industry in Zimbabwe from its early beginnings in the mid seventies and is still part of the industry even up to the present day.

There are two common types of censorship. The one is political and the other is based on morals.

Politically there has been censorship before and after independence. During the pre–independence era, most bands / musicians performed and recorded music which either encouraged youths and indeed the population at large to join the liberation struggle or that which gave moral support to those already engaged in the struggle. This was meant to boost the morale of the fighters so that there would be no turning back until final victory.

This development did not go down well with the authorities. Their first move was to deny exposure of such songs by banning them from the airwaves, both on radio and television. This was made easy because they controlled that media. In the absence of independent radio, these songs were never played. However they did not stop them from being sold on the market.

Musicians, working with local record companies went ahead and recorded more such songs and made them available to the public. The popular format then was vinyl. Record companies had an obligation to offer to the public what the musicians had composed without “diluting” those compositions. The choice of whether or not a particular song would be recorded or not, from the record company’s point of view, depended on its appeal to the masses and of course its sales potential. There were however, some cases were the producers advised artists to “tone down” their lyrical content if it was perceived to be hitting too hard on the targeted group which in almost all cases was the sitting government and its puppets.

While almost all artists were affected by this censorship, those affected the most were people like Thomas Mapfumo, Zacks Manatsa, Tineyi Chikupo, and Oliver Mtukudzi among others whose music was perceived to incite the general populace to take up arms against the colonial masters.

In one of his songs ‘Tumira Vana Kuhondo’ translated “sending children to war”, Thomas Mapfumo warned the colonial masters that they would lose their loved young men and women as the majority were going continue fighting and killing them until final victory. On one of his many such compositions, Zuvaguru, Thomas sang about the big day when the truth would be there for all to see ie. victory was certain and the majority were going to celebrate the arrival of independence. These and other songs led to his arrest and brief detention at Chikurubi Maximum Prison where he was later released without being charged. This made Thomas more determined to record and release more hard hitting songs which calumniated in the recording of a full length album entitled Hondo meaning WAR. Needless to say that none of the songs from that album were ever played on national radio. As an artist, Thomas never allowed his compositions to be voluntarily censored in the studios. He felt very strongly about his works. His record label obliged because Thomas was very popular and almost all his recordings sold very well.

Independence ushered in a new era of political censorship. In the mid eighties musicians, who always seem to be the “voice of the voiceless”, the masses, spoke up against the political leadership for its failure to fulfil promises made during the pre-independence era. They saw corruption creeping in and going on unchecked, neglect of the masses, deteriorating health services and many other social ills. Like before, they spoke through recorded music. Record labels took the risk of releasing such songs. Once again Thomas Mapfumo was in the fore front of this campaign. When requested by his record label to change some of the lyrics on his most critical song “Corruption” Thomas refused flatly and opted instead to go independent and have total control of his compositions. He went on to record and release Corruption on a 12 inch. Interestingly, he sang it in English so that his targeted audience would not be in doubt of the message he was sending to both the officials and the nation and the world at large. He lamented the fact that society was corrupt specially those in positions of power and this had filtered down to the masses causing untold suffering to the man on the street. Since then Thomas has remained independent. Because he had exposed many heavyweights, Thomas feared for his life and went into self-imposed exile in the USA.

Lovemore Majaivana in his song Umoya Wami lamented about the lack of development in Matebeleland which had driven its young men and women to other areas in search of fortune yet they would rather work and live in their beloved province. He pleaded with Joshua Nkomo to re – visit the Unity – Accord as it had not and continued not to benefit his own people – the Ndebeles.

Solomon Skuza on JSCI sang about what was later referred to as the Willowgate scandal which exposed a lot of high ranking officials in a car buying scandal – only they and their mates had access to new locally assembled cars which they bought and on sold to desperate car seekers at exorbitant prices..

Leonard Zhakata on one of his many protest songs sang about how justice seemed to favour the chosen few. How there seemed to be different laws for different groups of people and how those same laws seemed to favour those aligned to the ruling party and their associates.

Oliver Mtukudzi sang about one having to accept that they are indeed old and tired. That was interpreted by the powers that be to mean that the President and most of his colleagues were old and should go.

In all of the above cases, the record labels did not interfere with the lyrical content though naturally they were worried about what Government’s reaction would be. These works were never played on radio and television.

The other form of censorship in Zimbabwe is based on morals. In the absence of a censor board, record labels have acted as guardians of society’s moral values. Whilist sex and violence, drugs (as in hip hop / rap) is said to drive sales of music that would, for now, not be acceptable in our society which is by all standards, very conservative. To this end, songs that are deemed to contain offensive / obscene language are not recorded at all. In most cases artists have had to change such lyrics to an acceptable standard. One such case was the late Paul Matavire’s Tanga Wandida. In the song Paul was talking about how it has become like the norm for men to ask for sexual favours before they could do things for women like offering them employment, making available scarce commodities etc. Another notable example was the Four Brothers’ Vimbai. The artist was describing the physical beauty of his loved one to the point it got very explicit and had to be changed to at least be acceptable in keeping with our traditional values.

With international music, record labels seem to allow anything to be recorded and made available for sale as long as it is “stickered” i.e. Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics. Whilist local record companies have no control over such material, they have adopted a strict stickering policy of such music i.e. if it is not stickered already so that whoever buys that music buys with the full knowledge that it contains explicit lyrics.

In Zimbabwe total freedom of expression, both politically and socially, is not likely to happen anytime soon. It will be many years before our artists and indeed the nation as a whole can speak freely about how they see things and express themselves freely without fear of the law of the land.


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


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