Zimbabwe: Profile of Thomas Mapfumo – ‘the Lion of Zimbabwe’

27 November 2007

“Chimurenga” means “struggle”, and as much as the chimurenga music, Thomas Mapfumo stands for struggle. It is the struggle of a nation in the southern part of the African continent to be free. Throughout years of struggle, Mapfumo has been an important revolutionary figure – fighting with the power of music. “My music stands for freedom and justice”, he told the web based American newspaper

By Kristina Funkeson, Freemuse

Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 and grew up in Rhodesia – the country that is today called Zimbabwe. When Mapfumo was a child, his family lived on the countryside, southeast of the capital Salisbury (today called Harare). When he was ten years old they moved to a Salisbury township.

Shona culture

At the age of 16, Mapfumo started his musical career when joining a band as a singer. From then on, he was always involved in one band or another, combining music with odd jobs. At first he played mostly American rock and soul covers, but in the early 1970’s he started mixing western rock with Rhodesia’s traditional Shona music. He sung mostly in the Shona language and started using guitars in a way to make them sound similarly to the traditional instrument mbira, a thumb piano.

The Chimurenga
At the time, Rhodesia was ruled by a white minority and just the fact that Mapfumo was singing in his native language and making music inspired by the native musical tradition, was a political statement. Mapfumo’s lyrics soon became clearly political, supporting the revolution rising from the countryside. He called his music Chimurenga, the Shona word for “struggle” and also the name of an earlier revolutionary movement.

Militant music
In his lyrics, Mapfuno called for an overthrow of the government – using weapons if needed. But it took a while before the government understood how radical his lyrics were. Singing in Shona made it difficult for white people to understand.

Music had always been an important part of life in Zimbabwe, playing the role of an oral newspaper. There were different kinds of music for different occasions – music to encourage people working in the fields, music for funerals and music for parties. Mapfumo’s music was a part of the revolutionary struggle: “We would write songs that would encourage fighters, those who were fighting from the bush, fighting for freedom. That type of music actually motivated them to fight fiercely”, he told The Leopard Man’s African Music Guide.

After a while, the government became aware of Mapfumo and his political struggle. His record containing the song “Hokoyo!”, meaning “Watch out!” was banned from the state-controlled radio and in 1979, Mapfumo was sent to prison without charges. But his records were played in discos and radio stations beyond governmental control, such as the Voice of Mozambique. People kept listening to his songs and large demonstrations were held to protest against his arrest. After three months Mapfumo was released from prison.

In 1980 there were a lot of changes in Rhodesia. The first free elections were held and the country became independent and changed name to Zimbabwe. The elections resulted in a new government with Robert Mugabe as the first prime minister. In 1987 Mugabe became president and at the same time he changed the constitutional legislation, giving the president considerably more power.

At first Mapfumo had supported the new government, but after a while his disillusionment started to grow. “We thought we were liberated, but we were not”, he told the American Time Magazine. In 1989, Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited released the album “Corruption” – clearly criticising Mugabe and his government. This led to the government harassing him with false accusations and in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s (depending on the source) Mapfumo and his family left Zimbabwe – moving to the US.

Apart from Mugabe’s government, Mapfumo was also unhappy about the harassing of the white people living in Zimbabwe. He wanted to unite the people of his country and he tried to do so through music.

Big mouth
In the article in Time Magazine, the journalist describes a Mapfumo concert taking place in Zimbabwe in 2003: “Despite the police, who watch, arms folded, the onlookers sing – no, shout – things they wouldn’t dare say.” The major sing-along moment during the concert came in “Marima Nzara”, a song about a man with a big mouth chasing all the workers away. Everybody knew that the big mouth was the president Mugabe.

Another controversial Mapfumo track described by Time Magazine is “Timothy”. It’s the story about a fool endangering children, and coincidentally Zimbabwe’s president goes under the nick name T.I.M. – meaning “That Idiot Mugabe”.

The state-owned radio still bans Mapfumo’s songs – and once again radio stations in neighbouring countries are used to keep him and other banned artists on the air-waves. But the regime has started to fight back in a similar way, engaging popular singers to make propaganda music.

The problems of today
Mapfumo and his band the Blacks Unlimited are still touring internationally. Mapfumo lives in the US – but he has kept singing about the problems of Zimbabwe and elsewhere. In an interview from 2003 he told The Leopard Man’s African Music Guide:

“We sing about the problems that the world is facing today. As you know there are so many disturbing situations we hear about like the situation back in Zimbabwe, the situation in Palestine, these kinds of situations are all over the world. There are a lot of people who are not very free in this world. They don’t have their freedom. They don’t have a voice. We as musicians, through our music, we can be their voice.”




Thomas Mapfumo is one of the censored musicians of Zimbabwe.


Shona, a Bantu-language, is one of the native languages of Zimbabwe. Although English is the official language of the country – Shona is the language that the majority of the population speaks.




Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, was a pro-independence campaigner who became the first black leader when the white minority lost control of the country during the free elections in 1980. Zimbabwe was one of the most rich and prosperous nations in Africa, but during the rule of Mugabe, the country’s economy has been shattered. Zimbabwe is in a crisis of poverty, crime and unemployment and the nation’s fortunes are tied to Mugabe. According to an article in BBC News – Zimbabwe’s inflation has now reached 15,000% but other sources say “only” 7,000%.



Click to read more about music censorship in Zimbabwe

The press and broadcasters in Zimbabwe are under severe control by the Information Ministry. The two main newspapers as well as the broadcasters transmitting from Zimbabwean territory are state-run and accordingly pro-government. Private publications criticising the government are under severe pressure, risking prosecution and bans. The punishment for “publishing false news” is imprisonment.



Find the music of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited at:
Thomas Mapfumo’s MySpace page

Sources – 4 November 2007:
‘If he had a hammer: music for Zimbabwe’

BBC News – 20 September 2007:

‘Country profile: Zimbabwe’

Wikipedia – 27 November 2007:

‘Thomas Mapfumo’

Time Magazine – 23 February 2003:

‘Singing The Walls Down’

The Leopard Man’s African Music Guide – 7 January 2003:

‘Thomas Mapfumo: Voice of the revolution’

Related reading on the internet

Interview with Thomas Mapfumo – March 2002
Thomas Mapfumo – Profile written by Banning Eyre

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