Reading Zimasa Mpemnyama’s ‘Spitting Truth to Power’ (The Con, June 19 2014), I couldn’t resist drawing parallels with Zimbabwe’s urban music scene and how it remains rooted in self-censorship. The title of Ras Kass’ 2013 mix tape, Spit No Evil, describes the status quo aptly.
For me, that allusion to Zimbabwe’s hip-hop and other music forms is irresistible, considering Kass’ body of work as a cerebral MC who “spits truth to power”.
Though the title Spit No Evil, like any other text, is open to multiple readings, it becomes a fitting caption for Zimbabwe’s hip-hop scene, and perhaps more specifically Bulawayo’s music space, where the tropes are etched in a “spit no evil” didactic tip: no Immortal Technique-type political rap here, thank you.
For many years, since the end of Zimbabwe’s bush war in the 1970s, Bulawayo has been a centre of discontent against the ruling elites, the kind of milieu that elsewhere would have sparked something close to the United States’ anti-Vietnam War sing-alongs.
It is well documented how activists have complained for years about how Bulawayo is an “insignificant other”, a part of the country where secessionists flourish – some loud, others in hushed tones –knowing well the fate of their comrades who decided to “spit truth to power” only to end up in Khami maximum security prison facing treason charges.
A few years ago I was commissioned to have a series of chats with Bulawayo-based artists, the idea being to enter their minds and try to understand what drove their art within Zimbabwe’s contemporary politics.
The conversations were premised on Bulawayo’s status as a centre of protest art, particularly against the backdrop of Owen Maseko’s incarceration for a visual art instalment documenting the 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities.
The authorities had quickly moved to pull down the offending art and threw Maseko behind bars, effectively attempting to define art for the artist.
Thus it was that I had numerous sit-downs with sculptors, poets, visual artists and musicians, but it was one response from a poet that was telling: “If you use your poetic licence to insult people [politicians], you will get arrested. I don’t want to get arrested, soI don’t insult people.”
It was a piece of Aristotelian logic that I found astounding yet very practical, all things considered, in a country where comic relief that pokes fun at politics can be a punishable offence.
It was essentially the portrait of an artist as a coward, the antithesis of “spitting truth to power”, but if you were to superficially trace the history of Bulawayo’s post-independence music space, you would encounter Lovemore Majaivana, the celebrated the son of the soil who pulled no punches in spitting truth to power as far back as the 1980s.
Majaivana, who remains immensely popular in a city that continues to reel under what activists see as deliberate economic marginalisation by the central government based on ethnic binaries, still found space within officialdom’s ‘entertainment’ channels – state radio and state TV – despite his acerbic commentary.
His brand of protest would never see the light of day in today’s Zimbabwe’s, yet it can still be argued that the circumstances of The State versus The People were not as abject as they are today.
But even then he saw it and sang about it. And he got away with it.
The nascent totalitarian state apparently could afford to dismiss Majaivana’s flirtation with Socrates’ gadfly persona, as one would imagine, because the political landscape had not yet birthed a Morgan Tsvangirai.
Even the lamentations penned by Edwin Hama, of Edwin Hama Experience fame, going on about how the cost of living being just too high for the ordinary folks, still found space on state radio and TV, the gatekeepers apparently unfazed by the potential to stoke political street protests with what today passes for seditious sociopolitical commentary.
Hama came from the Midlands, which shares Gukurahundi’s history with Matebeleland.
He was involved in cultural production in the 1990s, a period in Zimbabwe’s timeline some writers point out as the harbinger of the economic nonsense that has seen more than 80% unemployment.
At the time, the inimitable Solomon Skuza was a staple on state radio and television. His protest was against corrupt politicians, the kind who flourish today with astounding impunity.
Skuza’s Love and Scandal anthem, with its nuanced roots/rock/reggae rhythms, still has indelible resonance, but I wonder if state radio jocks are even allowed to have this classic on their playlists.
It is public record that artists who decided to bear the people’s torch had their music struck off official playlists, not for being radio unfriendly but for rubbing up ruling party apparatchiks the wrong way.
But despite the climate, Jah Solo, Skuza’s alias, authored Love and Scandal at the height of what became known as the Willowgate scandal, a late-1980s opprobrium where government ministers bought vehicles at what were considered ridiculously discounted rates only to sell these automobiles at obscenely inflated prices.
But it is recorded in the country’s checkered post-independence history how these corrupt men and women, who were the vanguard of anti-white minority rule, were pardoned by the highest office of the land, which is the very reason that today members of the public are skeptical that anything will come out of the latest anti-corruption crusade.
Don Gumbo and Fanyana Dube (both late) are two sons of the city of who became representative of a distinct sound that came to define Bulawayo’s Afro-jazz cauldron, and could weave political narratives into their synths and still be able to reach thousands of fans through generous airplay on state radio.
Dube is remembered for what remains one of the ‘made-in-Bulawayo’ classics, Ongelakho Kuyini – an obvious dig at unemployment, what Dube called “perpetual empty pockets”.
The chorus became a sing-along that captured Bulawayo’s zeitgeist, and listening to Dube left one in no doubt that he was in touch with local social realities. Because the city is steeped in cultural expressions that depict a people estranged from their government, an expression of that disenchantment through music hit the right cords with listeners.
Gumbo was not sleeping behind the microphone either. He might not have been the militant type who sought the spotlight as expressed through Bulawayo’s political prism, but his music became the city’s soundtrack.
One has to revisit Gumbo’s evocations in the album Visions Foretold in the late 1980s as Ilanga’s frontman to get a sense of where he was at with his social, political and economic commentary.
Gumbo certainly had a feel of the pulse of the local and regional political issues of his time, and his was the kind of expressionism that still eludes contemporary musicians in that part of the country.
One would have imagined that in the Third Chimurenga fervor – where young and old men flourished whom many considered of dubious creative talent – what was expected was a counterpoint to that reimagining of nationalist discourse.
But trying to listen for hints of subaltern musical malcontents in Bulawayo’s urban soundscapes becomes a futile voyage.
There is no Majaivana or Skuza incarnate, and as one inveterate cynic put it ages ago, you cannot sing about love on an empty stomach, but that’s exactly what the genre christened “urban grooves” has unfailingly promoted.
It can still be argued, perhaps, that these protests in song are not viral today, as Majaivana and Skuza’s were back in the day, because they have been denied available mass media platforms, meaning that although they may well be extant, they are played behind closed doors, defeating the logic of mass consumption.
Even the emergence of “private radio” does not seem to have provided space for politically discordant musical notes, and the reasons are obvious: any “private radio” that promotes anti-establishment music will have its licence revoked.
I use the word “private” here rather reluctantly, as it is no secret where the political sympathies of “private” radio stations lie.
As such, “urban groovers” effectively elect politically correct oeuvres that will earn them airplay, and perhaps fame and fortune.
Thus it is that while “spitting truth to power” becomes a calling for South Africa MCs for whom midnight visits by men in dark suits and glasses is confined to Men in Black films, it’s a real and present danger for Zimbabwean M and Fem Cees, and other Majaivana or Skuza wannabes.
I spoke to one MC recently, one steeped in the revolutionary but gangster black power militancy of Dead Prez.
He relocated to North America a few years ago. He is pursuing his art there, and although he told me it is not all rosy, he said he is not about to return to Zimbabwe, where he would have to contend with electricity blackouts and anti-riot police.
The content of our conversation is essentially what “real MCs” need to be spitting in their verses at home, but the omnipresent and repressive state apparatus has effectively outlawed such discourse. What is the relevance of a rapper going on about Zimbabwe’s power cuts and police brutality from the safety of North America?
School of hard knocks-type music critics hope to live to see Zimbabwean M and Fem Cs and other creatives performing their art and craft in, not outside, the country. We need artists who are brave enough to “spit truth to power”, artists like South Africa’s Black Moss, whose words, as quoted by Mpemnyama and are worth repeating here, says: “I don’t wanna sugar coat (…). I don’t wanna say, like ‘Oh, the ANC government is trying their best. No, they are fucking us in our assholes. It’s like they’re raping the people.”