Zambia: Hounded singer remains defiant

13 January 2017

by Phoenix Gauthier, Freemuse correspondent

On 11 August 2016, incumbent Zambian president Edgar Lungu squeezed out a controversial victory in the general elections, taking 50.35% of the votes. In the months that followed, Zambia experienced its worst attacks on press freedom in years. Three of its media outlets were suspended, including Muvi TV, the southern African’s leading private TV channel. The official IBA monitoring body accused the TV and two radio stations of “lack of professionalism”, putting the nation’s peace and security “in danger”. The closures occurred just two months after authorities shut down The Post newspaper, officially for tax evasion.

While the stations were re-opened on 12 September, the two weeks that followed brought to the fore one of the country’s most outspoken singers: Pilato. He was one of the few artists to step into the political arena to denounce the clampdown and the ongoing tenure of a beleaguered presidency.

Pilato’s stance comes as little surprise to those who have monitored the singer’s ascension. He has been a consistent critic of Lungu as well as his predecessor Michael Sata. His biting lyrics have resulted in arrest, death threats, repeated intimidation, censorship and temporary exile.

Pilato wrote in his Facebook blog on 22 August 2016:

My greatest fear is that you, my people, take long to realise. You choose to kill a python yet you keep its eggs under your pillows. A bomb is a bomb even before it explodes. May God grant you extra ordinary grace and wisdom.

A poet at a young age
Pilato, which he prefers to write pilAto, is an acronym standing for “People in Lyrical Arena Taking Over”. The powerfully-built, dreadlocked artist was born on 6 April 1984 under the name Fumba Chama in Ndola. This city is the capital of Zambia’s Copperbelt, a mineral-rich province which, under British colonial rule, used to be the economic powerhouse of northern Rhodesia’s economy.

Pilato claims he began his artistic career as a poet at the tender age of ten. He drew inspiration from the sprawling township he grew up in, with its daily rations of poverty and urban violence, and composed irreverent and humorous texts. His vision of the society he comes from are drenched in pride … and concern:

My mother is from Luapula kwa Kazembe and my father from Mporokoso but my tribe is humanity,” he writes. “Africa is broken and divided today mostly because we have entertained a lot of artificial boundaries between ourselves and this has been perpetuated by our education system… We are taught in groups and raised in groups.

Pilato took his time before launching a professional career, first as a poet, then a folksy-styled singer. In 2010 he won the Ngoma Award for Zambia’s Best Poet and a year later was nominated for the Born ‘n’ Bred Awards in the Best Video section. In between times, the highly-active composer released his first artistic shards aimed at his country’s political circles in which he referred to the parliamentarians as Mps, or “Mental Patients”.

In 2013, his song ‘Bufi’ (Lies), which featured fellow singer Petersen Zagaze, took a side-swipe at former president Michael Sata, calling him a “Father of Lies”. The tune went viral and provoked Sata into suggesting the song could fuel opposition protests against his tenure. The singer, a victim of several death threats, was arrested on 11 May 2013 and a week later his home was broken into. “They stole my two laptops, a video camera and my wife’s mobile phone,” he told me at our September 2015 exchange in Lusaka. “And this year, guess what? They gave us back the phone,” he said with a chortle.

Lungu likes his Jameson whiskey
The year Pilato released “Bufi”, he won a Mosi Zambian Music Award. It was the same year as Born ‘n’ Bred nominated him for the Most Conscious Song prize. His popularity amongst the country’s youth has never shown signs of abetting, ably maintained by the release of three albums and a slickly-produced career.

His popularity extends to the Zambian diaspora and he has performed in several southern African countries as well as the DRC and the United Kingdom. However, he became the source of further controversy by openly supporting opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema in 2015 in his unsuccessful bid for presidency.

Six months after Edgar Lungu narrowly won the vote, Pilato released ‘A Lungu Anabwela’. The song is a remake of a 1970s hit in which the singer parodies the current Zambian leader, describing  him leaving his compound with a suitcase full of Jameson whiskey and taking power after the death of the previous president. Predictably, political circles in the ruling party denounced the song as derogatory and the police arrested him for conduct likely to cause breach of peace.

“They’re scared of people having access to a bit of truth,” Pilato told me in his defence. “And they were really not expecting someone like me to say what is commonly known out loud. I think it was a reaction of fear, the authorities are full of insecurity as the economy spirals out of control. I was the perfect fall guy.”

On 8 June 2015, the satirical musician spent 24 hours behind bars before public outcry persuaded the magistrates to release him. While it was a difficult experience, Pilato found it enriching:

Prison is a terrible place. But if you’re an artist it can be inspirational. It exposes you to a different kind of thinking, gives you a unique perspective on life. I would never have met the people I crossed there: people who sleep on the floors, hygiene is dire, they have no legal representation, are held there for over a month with no access to the courts. But I felt no aggression directed towards me there. Even the police sympathised with me; most agreed with my song.

Opposition party members were also quick to defend his stance. Antonio Mwanza of the Forum for Democracy and Development declared: “Pilato has to be commended for that song because that is exactly what we expect from our artistes. We expect our artistes to sing about the actual social realities.”

In July 2015, the case was dismissed as the state entered a nolle prosequi, a notice that the state would not pursue prosecution. However, according to the musician’s lawyers, the complaint can be brought back into the courts and Pilato could once again be arrested.

Harassment, censorship and exile
After his release, the singer’s troubles were far from over. Refusing to shelve his bitingly satirical pen, Pilato released a third album, ‘Forsaken Prophecy’, which included the song ‘Bashi Tasila’.

The song was a barely-veiled denunciation of Lungu’s “inconsistencies”, both in policies and what the singer calls “service delivery”.

“‘Bashi Tasila’ means Tasila’s father, which, in this case, is symbolic for our President,” Pilato tells me. “He has a beautiful daughter named Tasila, so the song is about him being inconsistent with the Sata legacy, which he promised to protect and uphold.”

The Ministry of Information refused to provide the production company with the hologram which, by Zambian law, must be placed on every audio and video release found on shop shelves.

“We currently have 2,000 CDs hidden in some farm house waiting for a day when the government will change and then we will legally sell it,” Pilato said. Meanwhile, his Yaku Records company is able to recoup some of its investment thanks to online distribution, “which is beyond government control”.

Towards the end of 2015, events took a turn for the worse. He explained in an online conversation:

I began to get systematically hounded. At first, some gentleman at the News Cafe where my friends and I socialise asked if I wanted some easy money. He told me if I cut criticising the President he could arrange that we go together to [the] State House and meet the right people. I told him I don’t maliciously criticise the President, but try to be factual … He left. Then another gentleman excitedly pressed me to accept a black wristwatch because I stood up for the poor.

Three days later, on the road between Kitwe and Ndola, Pilato was sandwiched between two cars and narrowly avoided a deadly accident.

“One of the drivers began calling my name and telling me how lucky I was. A day later, I found out from a security friend that the wristwatch was some kind of tracking device,” he said.

Literally clipped & commercially crippled
In the year that followed, Pilato claims he has been repeatedly harassed, and his family has also been intimidated.

“My wife has had strange calls, teachers at my daughter’s schools have told me about unidentified people wanting to pick my girl up. And I have endured threat after threat,” he said.

In July 2016, after a tip-off – “I have a few security friends who alert me whenever there’s any plans against me” – Pilato decided to leave for Pretoria, South Africa. It was only a short stay, but on his return to Lusaka, something appeared to change:

I plan to do more commercial songs just for my survival financially, hoping that the system may relax on me following their fraudulent win of the elections,” he wrote to me on 16 September 2016. “I was literally clipped and didn’t get opportunities to work and make money from my music so now I want to try my luck after (Lungu’s) victory.

Still, while Pilato’s songs soft-pedal Lungu’s policy decisions to focus on the man himself, he remains outspoken on social media:

“President Lungu risks going down in history as being a low voltage dictator who shut down media institutions that chose to give platform to opposing views,” he wrote on his Facebook page in August 2016.

He then addressed the Patriotic Front (PF) leader directly:

You, Mr. President, have the power to be our hero, you have the power to be an inspiration to the youths of the world, just decide to become (a role model). The men in muscle t-shirts and guns don’t inspire us, they scare us. We want men in slim fit suits like you and honourable women in lovely chitenge suits like Mama Inonge [the first woman to hold the position of Vice President in Zambia], to take away the fear and instill hope. Just decide.

Pilato’s attempts at more commercial tunes, such as ‘What If’ and ‘Danger’, do not seem to have given him the peace of mind he hoped for. In our last exchange on 4 January 2017, he wrote:

I’m currently crippled commercially. I have not had shows since September 2016. The promoters have continued to be threatened for hosting me … We had successful shows, but more like undercover shows. Whilst I have had no direct attacks on me my younger brother was attacked badly by youths from the ruling PF party.

** UPDATE **

On 9 January 2017, shortly after this Freemuse article was finalised, the news website Zambia Reports reported that Pilato has decided to apologise to the ruling PF party and its leader, president Edgar Lungu. On his Facebook page, Pilato said he is now “ready and willing to support the government in any possible way to deliver development to every Zambian”.

The Copperbelt musician justified his decision as a way of influencing authorities in their policies towards the street children, students and orphans he has been supporting for years.

“I want to go to the president’s office and present [their] problems directly because I can’t be a fisherman who doesn’t go to the river…. With this apology I will now have the confidence to approach the authorities and cry to them on behalf of my people.”

In their article, Zambia Reports claimed Pilato has distanced himself from the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) and “pledged total loyalty to the ruling party”, being “welcomed by PF deputy secretary general Mumbi Phiri”. This does not at all transpire in Pilato’s own version and Freemuse has not been able to corroborate it with the musician himself.

Photo: Pilato official website


» Zambia Reports – 9 January 2017
Pilato reconciles with PF … washes hands off UPND

» Mail & Guardian – 1 September 2016
Zambia’s general elections: Africa’s flagship democracy under scrutiny

» All Africa – 19 May 2013
Zambia: Suspected ‘state agents’ break into Bufi singer Pilato’s house

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» 11 June 2015: Zambia: Singer Pilato detained and prosecuted for song about president

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