Zimbabwe: Blacklisted – My Personal Experience



Blacklisted – My Personal Experience

“The last five years have been my worst in as far as my artistic career is concerned,” states the Zimbabwean musician Leonard Zhakata in this personal account of how being blacklisted has affected him

By Leonard Zhakata – Musician


I grew up in my rural village of Rusape where as a child I was exposed to the liberation war that pitted the colonial Ian Douglas Smith regime and the Black liberation fighters. I was one of the smallest war collaborators and my experience during that time forms part of the music that I sing today.

I would like to reiterate that I am not a politically oriented musician, I do not support any political party and as such do not sing for any politician. My music is about Zimbabweans and for them.

I was surprised the first time that I heard that certain of my songs had been banned from the airwaves because they were perceived to be politically incorrect. I did not waste any time when I learnt about this. I went to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) to enquire about this new development. At ZBH I held a meeting with the then Chief Executive Officer, Munyaradzi Hwengwere who professed ignorance at the said ban. Hwengwere told me that Disc Jockeys (DJs) at radio stations had the liberty to play whatever songs they preferred and that it was not ZBH’s policy to blacklist particular songs. It was disheartening to learn that the highest authority at ZBH could not help me, and that the banning of my particular songs were to the discretion of presenters. But I had doubts over Hwengwere’s explanation.

If I can point out that the last five years have been my worst in as far as my artistic career is concerned. Since when I released the album Hodho, which has several blacklisted songs, I have had negative articles in the state media who have gone all the way to show that I am a spent force. The independent print media has tried to give me coverage, but now with the absence of the Daily News which was shut down in 2003, my print coverage has been limited.

ZBH’s banning some of my songs saying they were politically incorrect, has led to some quarters thinking I am sympathetic to the opposition political parties. The result is that I have lost a number of my fans who do not want anything to do with politics. I have had to cancel a number of live shows in areas dominated by the ruling party as they threatened my person.

My story is one of growing up in the rural areas, then surrounded by war. I learnt to survive the hard way early. I have a lot of stories to tell from my childhood to where I am today. My music is a recording of events as they occur. I sing about my environs and people are free to interpret my songs the way they feel. It is unfortunate that with the current political, social and economic problems affecting the country, every song that I have released has been reviewed to suit a particular existing condition. If I sing about holding on to power, people think I am singing about the current President. But there are many people holding on to power – in companies etc. If I sing about change, people think I want the ruling party to be replaced.

The real sad thing is that our sole broadcaster, ZBH has also fallen into this mischief. The station has misinterpreted several of my songs and classified them as politically incorrect. I have several new music videos which I have prepared and given to ZBH for arial promotion but they have never been played. In making follow ups to my music videos, I have received conflicting statements on why they are not being played.

But I have high hopes that art stays longer and that with time my music will be played. I am eagerly awaiting that time when the airwaves will be free to play my music and hopefully that of other musicians who have been affected by this informal censorship.

The Zimbabwe censorship board has not come up with any spelt guidelines as to what we should sing or not. What they have done is to let broadcasters decide what they want played and what they do not want played. This has left the ZBH with a monopoly to blacklist songs it sees as politically incorrect.

My situation and that of other musicians has been made worse by the fact that we do not have independent radio and television stations that can offer alternatives. This situation has affected the smooth promotion of my products through the electronic media.

I still continue to work hard and promote my music through live shows around the country. What I have said to myself since my music began been censored is that I would continue to record music in the format I have been all along. I will not change my style, I will not tone down my lyrics and I will continue to sing about issues affecting the people of Zimbabwe.

I sing for Zimbabweans, and rightly so I sing in my native Shona language. I do not sing in English, and in singing in my native language I endeavour to be as elaborate as possible in my messages.

People who replace my lyrics with those that suit them are worsening my predicament with ZBH and government, but it is my hope that one day the broadcaster will accept my music for what it is – entertainment.

It is my hope that my music will remain provocative and create debate among the Zimbabwean society. As a musician I have the duty to serve my people, to sing about what I see around me, to sing about one man’s injustices to another, to rebuke those who manipulate others by virtue of being in powerful and authoritative positions.

Governments the world over censor music, and my case is not a unique one. But as my music is being censored there are fans who have remained loyal to my compositions and they have supported me through and through.

A lot has happened in the past and I have had no chance to come out in the open to give my side of story, luckily I have this time around. The next time, I will be talking about my once banned music receiving airplay on radio and television. Like the late great reggae star Bob Marley sang: “Time Will Tell”.


Leonard Zhakata

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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