Zimbabwe: A Case of Music Censorship Before and After Independence



Zimbabwe: A Case of Music Censorship Before and After Independence

Why censor music? About the legislation, self–censorship, and propaganda, then and now

By Omen Muza – researcher and art critic

Why Censor Music?

People in power the world over know the power of music – otherwise they would not be scared stiff of it. Jane Spender of International PEN was recently quoted as saying “The censorship of music is a token of music’s power and the freedom it offers.” According to Marie Korpe, music can and has been censored by states, religions, educational systems, retailers and lobbying groups, usually in violation of international conventions of human rights.


That the governments of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe have censored and continue to censor music and other forms of artistic expression is thoroughly pernicious but hardly surprising, what I find absolutely mind boggling is that they have successively evoked exactly the same piece of legislation to do so. Is music the common enemy? To this day, the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act (Chapter 10:04), whose date of commencement is 1 December 1967,survives in almost its original form despite revision in 1996. The administration of this Act is assigned to the Ministry of Home Affairs, whose mere mention evokes images of the Police. “The Minister shall appoint a board, to be known as the Board of Censors, to perform the functions entrusted to it under this Act. The Board shall consist of not less than nine members who shall be appointed for a period of not more than three years.” The functions of Board of Censors, more commonly know as the Censorship Board, are as follows:

a) to examine any article or public entertainment submitted to it;

b) to make such inquires as it may consider necessary in regard to any publication, picture, statue, record or public entertainment which is alleged to be or which the Board has reason to believe is of a nature contemplated in section seventeen;

c) to advise the Minister in regard to any matter arising out of the application of any provision of this Act which the Minister may refer to the Board;

d) to perform any other function assigned to it by this Act or any other enactment.

Note the sweeping powers granted to the Board by words such as “alleged to be” and “ has reason to believe”. Anyone can incite the Board to lunge at a piece of music or any other work of art!!!

Despite the existence of this legislative framework, what we have seen on the ground is a clear subversion of justice whereby the authority to determine the content of our airwaves has been usurped by one individual or a group of individuals (it could be an overzealous government minister, a ZBC boss, a fearful DJ, a record company executive or a combination of these) without due regard to the legislative process as outlined in the Act. This suits the authorities perfectly in that they avoid the controversy that comes with the formal process of banning music. For example when Leonard Zhakata enquired why most of the songs from his album Hodho were struck off radio play lists, officials at ZBC professed ignorance of the ban. Yet only two love songs were played on radio, the rest remained effectively banned.

As the melodrama in the local music industry unfolds, the Censorship Board remains conveniently tucked in the background, ready to occasionally pounce on some unsuspecting artist when called upon to do so. Otherwise they have displayed their utter lack of interest in working: on 9 September 2004 they snubbed a discussion on censorship of artistic work that took place in Harare; at the time of writing this report, they had spent a year without responding to a legal petition written by Rooftop Promotions’ lawyers in response to the banning of Super Patriots and Morons, a play considered to be critical of government’s policies. The grand plan appears to be to frustrate and wear down the patience and perhaps resources of the poor artist who cannot possibly afford to wait for such long periods of time particularly when faced with the urgent question of survival!! The message is clear: Next time steer clear of controversy and according to Banning Eyre do “not stray from approved messages.”


The reaction to music viewed as “politically incorrect” is therefore utterly predictable – no airplay on state-controlled radio stations. (ZBH is still an ungainly monopoly that must be saved from itself.) No mention in state-controlled newspapers. This has spawned massive self-censorship which at best is a very loud sort of silence and at worst the kind of sorry sycophancy that we have seen from the band of merrymakers literary in the employ of government. If you want your music to be heard, sing about how successful the land reform exercise has been, bash Tony Blair and all the imperialist gay gangsters in the most lurid language imaginable – airplay is guaranteed, you play at all the state functions and nationals events (read galabashes) and you could even get funding for that studio of yours whose idea has been gathering dust on the shelves of your poverty. Some artists are just so overwhelmed by the desire not to ruffle any feathers that they will simply not think about making any music that is relevant to their condition. And music that is relevant to our condition has to necessarily question the social and political ills of our time, not some of the time – all the time!


When government introduced the 75% local content policy in 2001, many, including musicians hailed it as a positive development aimed at improving their lives. Soon this was increased to 100% – a wholesale ban of foreign music- and suspiciously, “whole” cabinet ministers began to take sustained interest in mundane issues like the recording of music albums, jingles and videos. It became apparent that the ultimate aim was not only to deprive Zimbabweans of an alternative voice but also to determine what they listen to and when – which is practically all the time. Maxwell Sibanda recently wrote that the Rambai Makashinga jingle was played approximately 288 times in one day on all four radio stations and flighted on television approximately 72 times a day. Government has not only encouraged the recording of thinly veiled propaganda masquerading as entertainment but also sponsored it actively. Resultantly, music that talks about human rights abuses, corruption and abuse of power has been replaced with shallow music supposedly promoting revolutionary ideas, sheepishly played ad nauseam by scared DJs.

Then and Now

Due to the outlined legislative onslaught, some people will credit Government with some measure of discretion in its quest to suppress dissenting musical voices, which cannot be said of the Smith regime – while The Green Arrows were performing a revolutionary song titled Madzangara Dzimu in 1978, security forces broke into the concert venue, beat up the band members, arrested and imprisoned them for two nights. This had already happened to them earlier in 1975 while they were performing at Jamaica Inn. Ironically, it was The Green Arrows’ involvement in political campaigns that dealt the group its final blow. Thomas Mapfumo spent three months without trial at Chikurubi Prison and was only released when he agreed to play at a political rally for Bishop Muzorewa. These are some of the few documented incidents of music censorhip in Rhodesia.

Whither Now?

In my opinion, the tragedy of the music industry in Zimbabwe is that there is no sustained and coordinated effort in terms of tackling the issue of censorship. This must begin with education. It is absolutely important for musicians, record company executives, producers, retailers and arts administrators to understand the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act that governs them. A bad law is better than no law at all. Daves Guzha recently summed it up when he said, “We need workshops on censorship so that we know our parameters.” To merely make music or any other form of art is not in itself enough, there should be more interest in whether it is actually getting to its targeted audience and if not let’s find out why? The National Arts Council must collaborate with the Musicians Union of Zimbabwe (MUZI) and implement programmes to educate musicians. Musicians must share their experiences of harassments and speak with one voice. They must overcome their fear of speaking out about what’s eating them and seek some relevance in the scheme of things.

Seminars such as these should be held more consistently because they keep the issue of censorship of music in focus. Another issue of concern is that there is almost no database or index of cases of music censorship in pre- and post- independence Zimbabwe. Appendix 1 outlining some of the cases of censorship of music in Zimbabwe was compiled from a wide variety of sources, most of them foreign. Foreigners are currently more interest in the censorship of our music than we ourselves are. Freemuse (Free Musical Expression) is an international organisation that concerns itself with the censorship of music and has documented some of Zimbabwe’s cases of music censorship. Marie Korpe, a Swedish journalist, is the Executive Director of the organisation and in October 2004,she published a book titled Shoot the Singer! Music Censorship Today. Freemuse is attempting to establish a global network of informants to help build up a complete picture of censorship around the world. Let’s play our part!

The Censorship Board must make itself more accessible for public discussions such as the one they snubbed on 9 September 2004. It is hoped that more interaction will remove the mutual feelings of suspicion that currently characterises their relationship with the arts community.


Playing with Fire: Fear and Self-Censorship in Zimbabwean Music, Banning Eyre.

Complete Control: Music and propaganda in Zimbabwe, Maxwell Sibanda

FREEMUSE, Freedom of Musical Expression website www.freemuse.org

Sleeve notes for a compilation album titled The Green Arrows – Analog Africa/ZMC

The Standard, 10 April 2005

The Zimbabwe IndependentXtra



Some instances of music censorship in pre-and post independence Zimbabwe

1977-1978, Nyoka Yendara was one of The Green Arrows’ “all-time favourite (songs) and a good example of the mood of the time, and probably one of the masterpieces in the art of ambiguous language used to transport a covert message to the masses. Unfortunately, one of the guys working at the studio, and who happened to be fluent in Shona, translated the song to the Censorship Board. The song was swiftly banned from the air!!!”
“Another impressive revolution (ary) song, Madzangara Dzimu, astonishingly slipped through the censor’s fingers. Unfortunately, security forces entered a concert venue where The Green Arrows were performing the track. The band members were arrested, beaten and imprisoned for 2 nights. This had already happened to them in 1975 while performing a critical song at Jamaica Inn!”
Thomas Mapfumo had much worse luck. He was arrested by the Smith regime and spent 3 months without a trial at a Chikurubi prison.

1984-1985, At the height of the differences between the ruling ZANU (PF) and PF ZAPU, ZBC directors, most of them ex-combatants are reported to have driven to the Radio 2 studios library and confiscated all recorded music the youth wing choir (LMG) of PF ZAPU and destroyed it.

December 2000, Phillip Schadendor, a lighting engineer is charged with inciting hostility against President Robert Mugabe after aiming a spotlight on his portraits during the performance of Wasakara, Oliver Mtukudzi’s song that urges people to accept old age with grace. He was charged with violating the Law and Order Maintenance Act.

May 2003, Leonard Zhakata’s album titled Hodho (Shot Gun) is banned after only a few days on the airways. Only two love songs from the album received airplay thereafter.

Early 2004, Thomas Mapfumo reportedly experiences difficulties in booking studio time to record a new album and subsequently the master recordings disappear mysteriously.

April 2004, Leonard Zhakata is questioned for about 30 minutes by police officers at Harare Central Police Station, regarding the inclusion of his song Ngoma Yenharo on Red Hot Riot – Rocking The Regime into Retirement, a compilation album produced by Zvakwana, a civic pressure group.

April 2004, Raymond Majongwe alleges that he has been receiving telephone calls from state security agents, telling him to remove his music from the British –based SW Radio Africa. He also claims that he has stalked by shadowy characters since the release of his album The Daily News.
November 2004, Thomas Mapfumo releases a live album called Chaputika including a previously unreleased song called Masoja NeMapurisa. It has been reported that gangs of unidentified people raided flea markets confiscating and destroying the CDs. The album producer’s father was attacked and his car burnt in a Harare suburb. Thomas decided not to return to Zimbabwe for his traditional year-end concerts.

November 2004, Alishias “Maskiri” Musimbe says that his latest album Blue Movie has been banned from the airwaves because of what State radio bosses considered offensive content.

What has been said about music censorship?

“Censorship is based on fear.”
Johnny Clegg

“We need workshops on censorship so that we know our parameters.”
Daves Guzha

“All this sends a clear message to young musicians, who now understand that if they want to pursue a career in music, they must not stray from approved messages.”
Banning Eyre

“True censorship is something that we are not really aware of on a day-to-day basis; it’s something that’s inherent in the system. There’s an ever-increasing element of that censorship going on everywhere.”
Damon Albarn, Blur

“Governments have tried again and again to censor my music and my ideas…. Governments all over the world will go to great lengths to silence the people.”
Thomas Mapfumo

“For all too long the plight of those musicians who are denied their right to perform (and of their audiences to enjoy) their music and their messages has been ignored. We have hardly considered that the performing of music and song could endanger the life and freedom of the performer.”
Morten Kjaerum, Director, Danish Institute of Human Rights

“ In a democracy, art and politics are in fierce competition for the people’s hearts. Both compete to project, as accurately as possible, the people’s dreams and aspirations. Politicians and artists quarrel occasionally, but still respect each other’s right to exist.”
Zimbabwe Standard reader

“As a musician, I have been appalled that the government has used its monopoly of the airwaves to restrict airplay of artists who they see as non-supportive of its policies. People who do not promote government’s image are often seen as being enemies of the government and attempts are made to silence them or undermine their careers. This is a gross abuse of human rights, so many of which have been violated in order to secure government’s grasp on power.”
Oliver Mtukudzi

“It’s very easy to censor the press, for instance, because newspapers need big offices, and they need reporters. Music can be produced outside the country, it can be smuggled in, it can be distributed, and it can be copied ad infinitum. Even if the censor could gather up all the CDs and cassettes and burn them, the songs would still be in people’s heads – which makes it so much more powerful”
Andy Morgan, journalist and co-organiser of Mali’s Festival in the Desert

“Yes, it happened, but please let the matter rest because it’s too risky to talk about it. I will jeopardise my livelihood if ever I comment because these people will stop at nothing and I will never sing again if they ever hear about it. Zvinotipinza pa-tight tikada zvokushambadzira mumapepanhau. Regerai arohwa aende kunomhangara ”
Cephas Mashakada, commenting on the assault of his band members and revellers after a show at Brooklyn Club


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


Go to top
Related reading