‘Give sex or be blacklisted’
Why do we see and hear little of women musicians in Zanzibar? Read Lingson Adam’s report from an island where radio-DJs are known to have ‘blacklisted’ female musicians who refused them sexual favours, and where parents and husbands are reported to be at the core of strong ‘cultural censorship’ practices
By Lingson Adam, writing for Freemuse from Tanzania
“It happened to me several times. You take your CD to a radio station, and then this DJ calls you to meet him. There is no other topic but sexual advances. When you decline you are threatened that your songs will be blacklisted, and they usually do so,” told Baby J as she gave Freemuse her testimony regarding the huddles female musicians face in Zanzibar.
Baby J – real name: Jamila Abdallah Ally – is one of the promising young zenji flavour musicians in Zanzibar. ‘Zenji flavour’ is what the Zanzibar youth calls their local style of hip-hop. Baby J won two prizes at the Zanzibar Music Award 2008, one as ‘female upcoming artist of the year’, and one as ‘female artist of the year’.
“My sprouting into music has not been smooth,” she told Freemuse. On the other hand, she also explained that her being assertive has paid her dividend: “When you are stable and look them in the eyes, they come to respect you. This is all it takes.”
Corruption among band leaders
Maryam remarks that even in the traditional taarab music style, female participants are not free to do what they please. She said, “They do not play or operate instruments. These are normally exclusively for the males who consider themselves superior.”
Maryam Hamdan, who served in many different government positions such as a Deputy Principal Secretary in the Chief Minister’s Office, claims that the music industry in Zanzibar has no future because the youths are not getting the right incentives to get involved.
“And taarab is not an exception,” she said. She revealed that quite a good number of taarab group leaders who are predominantly males are corrupt:
“They hinder advancement of talented female musicians in many ways. In the first place they demand sexual favours so as they promote them in return,” Maryam Hamdan said, adding that in such light many parents and husbands become reluctant to allow their daughters and wives respectively to engage with music in any way.
Maryam Hamdani, in her position within the public service sector, is reported to have made personal efforts to promote Fatma Binti Baraka, popularly called Bi Kidude, in as well as outside Zanzibar.
Husband prohibits his wife
David Murphy, a rap artist and recording studio owner in Zanzibar, is one of the many people with insights about the richly endowed daughters of the island. He is determined to try to change the situation by encouraging and motivating female musicians in Zanzibar. But he says this is not easy.
David Murphy told Freemuse that there are so many talented girls who could revolutionarize the music industry in Zanzibar if only the socio-cultural atmosphere had been more supportive. “On the contrary! Most of these talented, emerging female musicians never find their way to any remarkable success because of this overly constraining situation,” he said, and gave this example:
“In 2005, I had a very talented girl who was an orphan and could rap in Swahili and French with high standards. We did a project that was nominated for the Kisima Awards in 2007. But this girl got married early 2007 and that was the end her story in music arena.” Her husband prohibited her to do any sort of music on the pretext that it was customarily considered an abomination for a ‘decent’ man’s wife to be seen on stages just like other ‘hooligans’
“There are more such stories in Zanzibar,” said David Murphy
David Murphy gave an account of a girl, back in 2006, who was engaged by then, but her parents were free with her because ‘they had been in enlightened’ so she could involve herself with artistic enterprises.
“This girl was a talented actor and she had great presentation of the concept on any script given to her, so I decided to shoot a music video with her as the character in question. God! This changed her life upside down because the parents of the husband to be and the fiancé himself did not expect such ‘hooliganism’ from her,” he told Freemuse.
According to David Murphy the situation became tense and almost cancelled her marriage.
“That marked the end of her artistic life, and there are innumerable accounts of this nature in the isles. A lady is expected to be ‘calm’ and ‘obedient’”, concluded the producer who attempts to put himself in the front line in promoting music of Zanzibar.
Sweet Ray proclaims herself as one of the few lucky female musicians who gets support from their relatives. However, she knows several stories of fellow female musicians, some of whom she regards as having great talents, who have had their talents doomed. In her interview with Freemuse, she remarked that there are a lot of talented girls in Zanzibar who would wish to pursue a music career.
Women pressurizing fellow women
For instance, it was the general public, and especially women, who wanted the film with the female artist Bi Kidude, ‘As Old as my Tongue’, censored on the pretext that it exposes ‘inside ritual things’. “At the Censorship Board we never thought of intervening,” told Suleiman M. Suleiman.
“It is all about hypocrisy and selfishness, not about Islam,” he told Freemuse, adding that Islam offers lots of opportunities for female artists to exercise their talents, but some influential people mystify the topic and deprive women to perform music because of personal interests and biases.
He said there are a lot of opportunities in Islam for music and that those who use this Holy religion of Allah to ban music are doing so mistakenly. His thinking concurs with that of an Islamic scholar of the Beirut Studies and Documentation Centre, Shaykh Ibrahim Ramadan Al-Mardini who proves false the assertion that there should be a ban of music in the Holy Qur’an. (Freemuse.org, 4 October 2005).
Musicians themselves to blame
“It’s not a matter of ladies alone, also males are constrained. Neither it is about the new generation. We were also labelled as ‘hooligans’ during our times, but slowly we came to educate people that the music of ‘taarab’ was not hooliganism,” he said.
The member and leader of Malindi Taarab, which has existed more than a century, pointed out as an example that female and young musicians in general could sit with their parents or guardians and educate them about the importance of music.
”In that way they could reduce the alarm. For example they could conduct concerts during the day instead of nights. Who said music must take place at night? In that way they would slowly gain support from their superiors.”
Sweet Ray has a similar opinion regarding musicians need to act responsibly. Hers is a call upon artists to try to understand the socio-cultural situation of their land so as they can work to avert it:
“Musicians ought to be role models. This is our great challenge. We must check very carefully about clothing. Settings should dictate out attire such as for prayers, mourning, casual and on the stage. This will convince the ‘conservatives’ that we are not threatening their culture. Music should be more about our innermost feelings, not about clothing,” she said
All in the name of traditions
However, Ali Omar Baramia also told Freemuse that the current unreceptive atmosphere for girls in music has its roots in political will of the first President Abeid Amani Karume who banned female Taarab groups following the Revolution of January 12 in 1964.
He narrated that the history of female participation in music was very bright in the years dating from 1902 when Nadia Female Taarab Group was formed. Baramia said that according to his knowledge of the Zanzibarian history, in those times female musicians were very active and they gave life to the lives of the people in Zanzibar.
According to the executive secretary, those female music groups came to a stop following a ban from the government top officials who were of the opinion that those groups were dividing people in groups of fans. The government therefore ruled out that all the female taarab groups of Zanzibar should be dissolved into the ruling party, Afro Shiraz Party (ASP). He said that from then on, females became inactive, as any attempt to reorganise was being rebuked.
Bi Kidude – an inspiration
“She is a great inspiration to all of us. She inspires many and annoys many,” said Yusuf Mahmoud, director for Busara Promotions that organises the Sauti za Busara Annual Music Festivals. He added, “Bi Kidude always speaks the truth, openly which most women here can’t do. They are afraid. But Kidude dares to be herself. She dares to be against constructed conventions. She has always been like that. May be that’s why she lives longer. She’s very witty.”
Portrait photos: by the author
Tanzania: Self-censorship and fear in the “Island paradise”
Threats and intimidations to critical thought expressed through music have reduced musical creations and performances in Zanzibar to mere entertainment function
22 January 2008
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