Freemuse report on music censorship in Zimbabwe


Banning Eyre
Playing with Fire: Fear and Self-Censorship in Zimbabwean Music.
Freemuse, Copenhagen, October 2001, ISSN 1601-2127

Banning Eyre, one of the United States’ foremost journalists on African music, on the situation in Mugabe’s increasingly repressive Zimbabwe.
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Zimbabwe is home to a rich array of traditional and popular music. This fact is all the more remarkable when you consider the obstacles faced by musicians and music professionals there. Government’s complete control of broadcast media, and its notorious reluctance to support or facilitate development of the local music industry help to keep most musicians in a state of poverty.

Now, as the country sinks more deeply into economic and political crisis, Zimbabwe’s musicians face new problems. Long depended upon to voice the suffering, hopes, fears and aspirations of people in this country, musicians today are being subjected to scrutiny and intimidation that leaves many afraid to express themselves freely.
While censorship laws and the mechanisms to enforce them have always existed in Zimbabwe, official censorship of music occurs rarely if ever. Such direct measures are simply not needed.

A climate of fear affects composers, singers, DJs, journalists and writers alike, muting and even silencing many artistic voices. Broadcasters are closely watched and often scripted to avoid any criticism of the state. Some have lost their jobs when they were judged to have crossed the line. At the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the practice of posting lists of banned songs is now a thing of the past, but DJ’s there know very well what can happen to them if they do anything to offend the sensitivities of their superiors. At a time when the government faces its first credible political opposition since independence in 1979, ZBC officials are more sensitive than ever before.

The record company Gramma/ZMC operates an effective monopoly for the distribution of foreign and domestic music in Zimbabwe. In the area of sexual content-or anything deemed vulgar in music-the company acts as a de facto censor, ensuring that music that might offend conservative social values never even hits the market, let alone the air waves. An aversion to public expression or discussion of sex goes back at least to the British colonial period when Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia, and few within the country complain about it. But the consequences have been tragic in modern times. Hesitant to broach sexual matters openly, Zimbabwe’s leaders largely ignored the spread of HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and early ’90s, a time when frank publicity about the disease, perhaps involving popular musicians, might well have stemmed a staggering death toll. Zimbabwe’s HIV infection rate, somewhere around 40% of the population, ensures that it will remain one of the world’s most AIDS-affected societies for years to come.

Today, many musicians feel strongly motivated to address political realities in their music. Those who dare to do so take enormous risks. Musicians have been interrogated and threatened. Thomas Mapfumo, consistently the bravest popular singer in the country’s history, has had songs restricted from radio play in the aftermath of the 2000 elections, which went badly for the government. Worse, he has now moved his family to the United States, citing concerns for their safety and his own, and he has no plans to return any time soon. Another veteran singer, Oliver Mtukudzi, took substantial heat over the past year when one of his songs, “Wasakara,” was interpreted as a call for aging President Robert Mugabe to resign. Mtukudzi has fervently denied this interpretation, but he’s been forced to do a lot of explaining, and his fans have been victimized, sometimes brutally.

Random violence, often carried out by so-called liberation “war veterans,” is rampant in the townships of Harare, the nation’s capital, and in the rural areas. Similar tactics were used in Zimbabwe’s hard-fought independence war, in which villagers were routinely terrorized by both guerillas and government troops. Southern Rhodesia was, of course, famous for its repression and censorship. Sadly, the leaders of “liberated” Zimbabwe have learned many bad habits from their predecessors, and now seem determined to stay in power through generating fear of dissent and change. Property destruction, farm seizures, beatings, and killings are reported daily in the nation’s opposition newspapers. Meanwhile, the government appears more concerned with curtailing the power of the judiciary and parliament to intervene in these matters than with halting the growing violence and lawlessness.

The result of all this is widespread self-censorship on the parts of artists, DJs, and others involved with the music industry. This report details the contemporary situation in Zimbabwe and examines three case studies: 1) the reported restriction of two Thomas Mapfumo songs during and after the 2000 elections, 2) incidents surrounding the controversial Oliver Mtukudzi song “Wasakara,” and 3) the failed effort to launch Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station, Capital Radio, in late 2000. The report concludes with recommendations about how those inside and outside Zimbabwe can help to reverse the effects of intimidation and self-censorship in the country’s music industry.


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The music of 56-year-old Sungura musician Hosiah Chipanga has been banned on national radio, Radio Zimbabwe, wrote the newspaper ZimDaily on 7 June 2009.
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30 January 2009
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A song composed by Tongai Moyo, a popular Zimbabwean musician, has reportedly been denied air play by the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC
26 January 2009
Zimbabwe: Two men arrested for listening to banned music album
Job of a secret police officer in Zimbabwe now hangs in balance. His offence: he was linked to music that is deemed to be ‘sensitive’ by president Robert Mugabe’s regime
18 June 2008
Zimbabwe: Censored musician launches internet ‘protest radio’
Voto Radio Station invites all protest singers whose work is banned in Zimbabwe to use it as a platform where they can musically voice their concerns without fear of repression
26 May 2008
Zimbabwe: How musicians avoid censorship
In Zimbabwe, musicians manage to evade censorship by creating songs with double-meaning. And sometimes they get away with it, reports Freemuse’s correspondent
28 November 2007
Zimbabwe: Profile of Thomas Mapfumo – ‘the Lion of Zimbabwe’
Throughout years of struggle, Mapfumo has been an important revolutionary figure in Zimbabwe – fighting with the power of music.
27 November 2007
Chiwoniso Maraire
Video interview with Chiwoniso Maraire together with Chirikure Chirikure and Paul Brickhill about their personal experiences with music censorship in Zimbabwe
05 November 2007
Zimbabwe: Urban grooves blacklisted by state radio
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC, has issued a directive to producers to ‘drastically’ reduce the number of urban grooves musicians on air
24 October 2007
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Radio programme about music censorship in Zimbabwe – with radio manager K. Nyoni, lawyer K. Phulu, poet A. Nyathi, and radio presenters R. Moyo and S. Mkhithika
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Zimbabwe: Dispute over gospel music album cover
The release of the gospel album ‘Zim-Praise Volume 1’ has allegedly been stopped by Zimbabwian authorities because of its cover photo, writes The Zimbabwe Standard
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Video interview with Zimbabwean journalist Maxwell Sibanda about the situation in Zimbabwe in 2006 concerning music censorship
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South African DJ and music producer DJ Cleo has been barred from entering Zimbabwe because he “uttered bad things” about president Robert Mugabe
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Zimbabwe’s current political and economic crisis has destroyed the once vibrant music industry
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Article prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe, April 2005
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Six articles on music censorship in Zimbabwe
Prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe held Thursday 28th April 2005 at Mannenberg Jazz Club, Harare
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Tracing the Footsteps – Censorship and Music in Zimbabwe
Article prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe, April 2005
12 May 2005
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings’ Policies on Censorship of Music
Article prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe, April 2005
12 May 2005
Zimbabwe: A Case of Music Censorship Before and After Independence
Article prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe, April 2005
12 May 2005
Zimbabwe: Blacklisted – My Personal Experience
Article prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe, April 2005
12 May 2005
Zimbabwe: Censorship of Locally Recorded Music
Article prepared in connection with a seminar on Music Censorship in Zimbabwe, April 2005
12 May 2005
Zimbabwean Censorship Board absent from censorship discussion
“Artists in Zimbabwe do not know what the censorship board looks at when accessing productions, so this was an opportunity for them to know.” A meeting in Harare discussed the growing concern about the Censorship Board
22 September 2004

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