By Phoenix Gauthier, Freemuse correspondent
Zambian musician Fumba Chama, better known as Pilato, is on trial on charges of “disobeying lawful orders” in the course of a peaceful demonstration outside Lusaka parliament on 29 September 2017. He and and five other human rights activists were charged after a protest march last year where demonstrators criticised the government for buying 42 fire trucks for $42 million, saying it was a misuse of public funds. Pilato has repeatedly faced death threats, harassment, censorship, exile and prison over the past five years. Unable to perform or speak publicly, the 34-year-old was forced to flee to neighbouring South Africa in January 2018 before returning in May 2018 to confront his detractors. Freemuse met with Pilato before and after his court appearance on 24 September.
“I remain monitored, observed and threatened. It’s like being buried alive.” Pilato says from Lusaka, which he describes as “an open prison”. We meet in the Protea Hotel’s open-air bar. “Prison, yes, except for the music, I can listen to what I want. And, more recently, my partner and our two kids have joined me here to make life more bearable. But the pressure never stops.”
Not that this has stopped Pilato from testing the limits to his freedom. On 22 September 2018, a much-touted concert at Evelyn Hone was cancelled after political thugs, better-known as cadres, attempted to attack the rapper only to be repelled by the students amassed at the concert hall. Following this incident, Pilato announced he will stop performing in public places until further notice because “it is not safe”.
Ten days earlier, Pilato had accepted an invitation to talk to the students of Lusaka University only to find his car surrounded by intelligence officers, nicknamed Shushus, who prevented him from leaving his vehicle.
“This has not been an isolated case,” he wrote on his Facebook page, a medium the artist has converted into an effective echo chamber for his numerous op-eds and reflections. “Shows have been cancelled and concert permits denied simply because it’s me. This will not slow me down… Instead, am more inspired now than ever.”
Long history of protest art
For years, Pilato has made such civic questions part-and-parcel of his artistic identity. His huge national following has grown ever since his satirical songs on MPs and presidents began hitting the airwaves in 2011. His latest public foray, the 2017 hit Koswe mu Mumpoto (A Rat in the Pot), uses the metaphor of a rat to highlight the systemic corruption so rampant in Zambia, which is 96th on Transparency International’s list of perceived levels of public sector corruption in countries around the world. The GAN anti-corruption portal, meanwhile, warns potential investors in the country to be wary of “rampant bribery” and “pervasive corruption” touching the government, the judicial system, the police, public services, tax authorities and land administration.
Undaunted by repeated attempts to silence him, the artist from Zambia’s Copperbelt has penned a new song during his year of enforced silence. It alludes to other abuses of power by the country’s political elite. He hints at its contents: “This time I turn to the monkey world to illustrate what’s going on here,” he says with a chortle. “When you go to our Lwangwa National Park, you see them swing from the trees. But the monkeys have no love for the trees, they just want to be on top of them. Yes, they love the power these trees give them, dominating all below. Just like the ministers we have, especially nowadays. They just swing from one president to the next, happy with the position, the power and the control provided by the trees.”
The musician is wary about elaborating on his yet-to-be-released single, asking for forewarning before its release to “prepare any eventual attacks”. His arrest and five-day incarceration in May 2018 and his trial on 10 August have left its marks on his resistance.
“I don’t pretend to be Superman, it’s all scary and I dream for it to end. Back in May, I was locked up at the Emmasdale police station, then the notorious Kamwala Prison. Sharing a Kamwala cell the size of a large living room with 200 people was tough. We slept on top of each other, it was an inhuman environment. A lot came from rough backgrounds but they were kind to me.”
What has been a lot tougher for Pilato has been his growing isolation in the artistic community.
“All our other artists have given up any resistance, leaving me pretty much alone against these leaders.” How did the leaders wear other artists down? “They slowly strangle any means of earning a living, waiting for your desperation point. Then they dangle you a carrot – on condition that you join the party. Musicians are scared. So they join the ruling PF, subscribe to their ideas, and get the women, cars and money that go with their fidelity. Whilst the unlucky ones are just starved into oblivion.”
Strong support from the international community
When it comes to his court hearings, however, Pilato has found strong support. At the August trial, he was defended by an impressive team of lawyers, contracted by the United Nations. In his numerous brushes with the legal system, he has been defended by an impressive team of lawyers, sometimes contracted by the United Nations, who have laid bare the iniquities of the prosecution. At the 24 September trial, these ranks were swollen by an envoy from the George Clooney Foundation for Justice and representatives from Amnesty International, which has helped take up Pilato’s legal costs. The NGO has made his case one of a dozen emblematic symbols of human rights abuse in southern Africa.
“We were invited to meet the Amnesty International’s new Secretary General Kumi Naidoo in Johannesburg last month,” Pilato said. “In South Africa, I shared a roundtable with civil rights activists, trade unionists, and the like. To be honest, I just wondered what a musician like me was doing there. It still boggles my mind. How can a musician be as dangerous for governments as these people? I don’t understand.”
“More broadly, it exposes how shallow our government has become. Music shouldn’t be seen as a threat to any decent leader. If a government means well, it should find our type of music useful because we don’t call for violence. We call for political, social and economic justice, accountability and a fight against corruption. If they attack music, you know that leader is up to no good for his people.”
Pilato’s trial has been adjourned to 1 October. If convicted, Pilato and his co-defendants face up to two years behind bars.