Tanzania: Self-censorship and fear in the “Island paradise”

22 January 2008
Zanzibar is marketed to tourists as an “Island paradise”. The reality for its local musicians is quite different: Threats and intimidations to critical thought expressed through music have reduced musical creations and performances in Zanzibar to mere entertainment function.

By Lingson Adam, writing for Freemuse from Arusha, Tanzania

Zanzibar, once the world’s largest producer of cloves, is an archipelago made up of two islands, Zanzibar and Pemba, as well as several islets, located in the Indian Ocean, about 30 kilometres from the Tanzanian coast. The islands are promoted to the Western world as a “paradise” with palm trees and white beaches, blessed with a unique and varied selection of musical diversity. On the sunny surface it appears as if everything is fine. But if you listen carefully, you will notice that something is missing. Songs that express criticism of the authorities or the political system, or songs revealing the inner most feelings of people’s daily lives, have been shunned away.

Yusuf Mahmoud, director of Busara Promotions, the organisers of the renowned Sauti za Busara annual music festival in Zanzibar, revealed why. He explained to Freemuse that the situation was a result of historical trends that befell music since early 2000s. In those years there was a rise of voices telling through music about real life in the island. He referred in particular to the song ‘Hali ya Pemba’ by Alhaji Goya which hit the music world in Zanzibar then.

‘Hali ya Pemba’ (‘The Situation of Pemba’) is a song about the political and economic realities in Pemba island post general elections of 2000 which led to blood shed and some Zanzibaris seeking refuge at Shimoni in Kenya for the first time in history.

According to Yusuf Mahmoud, ‘Hali ya Pemba’ was an honest reflection of what was happening then in the island, and nothing was exaggerated.

Freemuse has been informed that ‘Hali ya Pemba’ was censored in many different ways. There has been reports of government officials haunting the artist, Alhaji Goya, on one hand, and on the other radio stations stopped playing the song. Furthermore, individual leaders of the ruling party, CCM, have allegedly increasingly been harassing Alhaji Goya.

“Following the censorship of this song, ‘Hali ya Pemba’, local pop music and Zenji flavour (the Zanzibar version of hip hop) have only been about love, fun and luxury,” said Yusuf Mahmoud. “There are no critical voices about real life.”

It is the opinion of many people who were interviewed by Freemuse that because the two main islands of Zanzibar are relatively small, news about the government reaction to this song spread very fast, and almost every artist instantly heard what had happened to Alhaji Goya who was even reported to have been kidnapped by government people. This scared many musicians, and as a result they stopped creating critical music to avoid being harassed and their songs blocked on the news media.

Alhaji Goya, the composer and singer of ‘Hali ya Pemba’, told Freemuse that artists in the islands are not granted the freedom they deserve. He said:

“Whenever one comes up with anything different it is hastily associated with politics. Opposition politics. Right after I released my song ‘Hali ya Pemba’ in 2002, I was being followed everywhere by people I didn’t know. There was this day in 2003, I was ambushed and kidnapped by people I suspected were from the government Intelligence unit. They held me up for many hours and interrogated me.”

“They asked me why I sang that song. Who sent or contracted me to do so? They even asked me if there was anybody who composed that song for me. This was so embarrassing and degrading. I told them I did it myself and that if there were any problem with that they should take me to court.”

Alhaji Goya confirmed what other artists of the islands had noticed as well: that from this moment on, his hit song was never heard in any of the radio or tv stations in Zanzibar again.

“It is very difficult to sing what one wants to in Zanzibar. You must have guts. These people, the ‘government’, can’t tolerate criticism. And the media is not supportive as well,” Alhaji Goya said. He added that despite such threats, he released another two singles, ‘Hali Halisi’ (‘The Real Situation’) which is a remix of ‘Hali ya Pemba’, and ‘Polisi’ (‘Police’) which is all about deep rooted corruption in the police force.

Killing creativity
“Apart from what happened in 2002 to ‘Hali ya Pemba’ and likeminded songs, the rest is more a story of self-censorship. Nobody censors the artists. But they are all very much aware about the reactions,” said Yusuf Mahmoud, and added, “I feel bad about this. It’s killing creativity. ”

“We are backward in terms of development because of corruption and nepotism. This calls for more critical voices for the people,” said Yusuf Mahmoud.

Josiah George who performs under the artist name Mjusi Kafir is a Zenji flavour singer and performer who formed up the Zenji Kijiwe Squard. He echoes Yusuf Mahmoud’s remarks:

“As mirrors of the society we artists are supposed to be creating lyrics that express what really happens in this society. What are the real problems that our audiences face? What are their successes and failures? We ought to be giving out the real messages and proposing alternatives. But here it’s quite the opposite,” he said.

In America, the rap and hip hop genres have been transmitters of strong social messages. In many countries all over the world, hip hop is known as an alternative communication channel for young people and marginalised groups. As such it could be expected that those of Zanzibar’s artists who took inspiration from these genres and created the ‘Zenji flavour’ style – which means groups such as Wazenji Kijiwe, Off Side Trick, Shaka Zulu, Murder Squad, 2Berry, and Rama B – would also have come up with a mix of critical ideas, bearing in mind that the dominant traditional music of the islands such as Taarab is basically joy music for wedding and related events meant for relaxation.

Mjusi Kafir said that as a result of overly intolerance from the government people, topped up with hypocrisy from some of the community members and the media, Zenji flavour artists find it very hard to perform such a function.

“There is nothing bad in telling the truth through music. We don’t advocate for lies and exaggerations. ‘Hali ya Pemba’ was a very good song accepted by the majority. It was all about what was really happening. It was not inciting violence nor hatred. It was only a lamentation of a citizen for what had befallen Pemba,” he said, reciting one of the verses to prove his views:

Saidi Comoree, Master J
Ngojeni niwape skendo
Karafuu ni zangu mwenyewe
Nikisafirisha naambiwa magendo
Tupeni bei za uhakika ili mafanikio yake muyaone
Saidi Comoree, Master J (two music producers, ed.)
Let me tell you this scandal
If I transport my cloves
I am told I am smuggling
Fair prices are needed for us to develop

Responding to a question to whether the government had been instructing them not to sing “hard” or “revolutionary” music, Mjusi Kafir resorted to an adage: “Mwenzako akinyolewa wewe tia maji,” which calls for one to be cautious upon seeing another person suffering.

He said: “It’s not only we musicians who are hindered by such intimidations, No. The media falls in the same trap. I am very sure no such critical song is going to be played by local radio and tv stations here. So, as a musician I ask myself why I should compose such a song at all.”

Mjusi Kafir called for the government to respect differences in opinion, and mentioned the stopping of a tv programme known as ‘Zenji Talent Search’, ZTS, on the government-financed television channel TVZ late in 2007 as evidence of an extremely intolerant government:

“This programme attracted more than 500 emerging young ‘undergrounds’, and it was leading out talents from most of the unheard artists. All of a sudden the tv show was cancelled. In the beginning it was claimed that it was stopped during the Holly Month of Ramadan. Then the fasting was over, but it didn’t continue, and still today nobody is able to tell when the show is going to resume,” he said.

Contradicting responses
When Freemuse followed up on the cancellation of the programme, contradicting responses came up.

Whereas an official with the Censorship Board of Zanzibar, Suleiman Mbarouk Suleiman, admits that the ZTS was not in line with the codes of conduct and that he took part in advocating for the closure of the programme; on the other hand, the director of the government-owned television TVZ, Chande Omar, refuted:

“No. we didn’t cancel the show on such grounds. It was stopped only temporarily as we are looking for a more convenient venue to accommodate it. Plans are underway to resume it soon, maybe at Bwawani Hotel,” said Chande Omar in a telephone interview with Freemuse. It is over four months now since the show was ‘temporarily stopped’.

National ethics
Speaking in an interview with Freemuse at Stone town, a Technical Arts Officer for the Zanzibar Film and Arts Censorship Board, Suleiman Mbarouk Suleiman said the organ which operates legally under Act No 6 of 1983, article 22–35, was there to oversee the works of art and ensure that they were in line with National Ethics and Conduct.

“Our duty is to promote not hinder music. The problem that arises is with the artists. Many of them do not want to adhere to simple procedures that have been laid down. They don’t want to forward their lyrics for approval, for example,” said Suleiman. “The body is open to every artist, free of charge,” he added.

Suleiman’s stance was however countered by the views of one of the leading rap artists of Zanzibar, who performs under the artist name Dotcom. His real name is David Murphy, he belongs to the Akhenaton family and is the Managing Director for a recording studio called Akhenaton Records. According to Dotcom one of the key problems for artists in the islands is lack of transparency and access to policy and regulation documents.
“These documents and information are hidden,” he told Freemuse.

The last nail
While Freemuse recommends to take heed to Mjusi Kafir’s call for a unified effort by musicians and other artists in Zanzibar to place themselves in a position where they raise and make their voices heard in opposition to any threats to their freedom of expression, we round off this report from Zanzibar with four verses of the reputed ‘Hali ya Pemba’ song, whose blacklisting is claimed to have put the last nail to the critical music coffin:

Hali ya Pemba miji isha fifia jamani,
Si Wete, Chake wala Mkoani
Miji haipo kama zamani,
Ni kwanini?

The towns in Pemba island is in shambles
Neither Wete, Chake nor Mkoani is any better
The towns are no longer like what they used to be,

Karafuu za kwangu mwenyewe
Serikali wao ndo wanunuzi,
bei wao wenyewe wajipangia,
Wala hili zao halijanadiwa

The cloves are mine
The government the sole buyers
It sets the prices arbitrarily

Tuwekeeni maji na umeme wenye uhakika
Ili wawekezaji waje Pemba kuwekeza
Pesa mlizouza mmenunulia silaha?
Maana hizi tumeziona

We want reliable tap water and electricity
So as to attract investors to Pemba
Did you buy weapons with the money you got from our cloves?
Yes, we have seen the weapons!

Awamu iliyopita Zanzibar
Kwa Pemba ilikuwa mashaka
Huu ni ukweli usofichika
Ila umefichwa

The previous government phase
did nothing to Pemba
This is the naked truth
Only that some people are trying to hide it

Portrait photos: by the author


Yusuf Mahmoud, director of Busara Promotions

Alhaji Goya

Photo: Courtesy of Akhenaton Records

Mjusi Kafir, member of Zenji Kijiwe Group

Censorship Board officer Suleiman M. Suleiman



Web links

Sauti za Busara annual music festival in Zanzibar:

This year’s festival will take place 7–10 February 2008

  Click to go to has a catalogue of approximately 40 orchestras and artists on the islands:

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