Zimbabwe’s Powerful Music of Struggle

In April of 1980, when Bob Marley arrived to headline the independence celebrations that would see Rhodesia become Zimbabwe, his song “Zimbabwe,” the centerpiece of the “Survival” album, was the most popular foreign song in the country.

Marley, whose religion of Rastafarianism had long preached cultural and political resistance against white oppression in Africa, wanted to “build a blood-claat studio inna Africa, have hit after blood-claat hit”—so much so that he spent thousands of dollars flying lighting and sound equipment to Zimbabwe to create a concert atmosphere that would match that of Madison Square Garden.

In Zimbabwe, popular songs were central to the century-long fight to end the colonial system, and Marley’s claim that music was “the biggest gun because the oppressed cannot afford weapons” was nowhere more resonant. After Marley’s performance that night, when he shed tears watching the Rhodesian flag come down and Zimbabwe’s go up, the local musician Thomas Mapfumo took the stage. Mapfumo was a leading singer of chimurenga music, the music of struggle. Never mind that it was late, and that Prince Charles and all the other foreign dignitaries and top-ranking army officers—the nation’s new V.I.P.s—had left. The freedom fighters stayed behind, waving their guns. Peasants who had been locked out of the main event joined in dancing to the chimurenga music until the next morning.

I spoke with Professor Mickias Musiyiwa, of the University of Zimbabwe, who told me that chimurenga music continues to be “one platform that Zimbabweans always resort to whenever they want to express their grievances against their leaders and against Western imperialism.” The word comes from the name of Murenga, an early ancestor and warrior of the Shona people. In Zimbabwe’s liberation war, of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the military wings of guerrillas based in Mozambique and Zambia set up choirs to sing chimurengasongs that derived from folk hymns and other folk songs. These hymns connected the living with the world of the ancestors and recorded the struggle for those to come. Revolutionaries played these songs at rallies held in urban areas and at all-night vigils called mapungwes, where guerrillas and peasants would come together to sing.

Songs like “Muka, Muka!” (“Wake Up, Wake Up!”) and “Tumira Vana Kuhondo” (“Mothers Send Your Children to War”) were sung to politicize and educate Zimbabweans about why the war for independence was being fought. “The song became the classroom, so to speak, just like in South Africa and in Kenya, through which people could access information of what was happening in different parts of the country,” Maurice Vambe, a professor of African literature at the University of South Africa, explained to me. The songs could also correct a historical narrative. Songs such as “Vakawuya Zimbabwe” (“They Came to Zimbabwe”) narrated the exploitation of Zimbabwe and sought to revive old stories about pre-colonial times. Much like reggae would seek to do, the music was making contemporary social commentary and preserving ancient cultural memory.

Although Thomas Mapfumo was not among the guerrillas in Mozambique and Zambia, his music championed the war for independence, leading to his detention and multiple arrests. His popularity as the leading chimurengamusician was fuelled by his band’s adaption of the mbira, a thumb piano that is central to Shona spiritual communication. By using a traditional instrument—particularly one with ties to ancestor worship—Mapfumo was signalling his participation in acultural revolution against colonial rule.

In the first half-decade after Zimbabwe won its independence, Mapfumo, like other chimurenga musicians, would sing songs like “Mabasa” (“Let’s Get Back to Work”), about the need for unity in order to build the new nation. But, as the eighties turned to the nineties, the tone of his music changed. In 1988, his song “Corruption” brought to the national airwaves the whispered frustrations heard in private offices, marketplaces, and homes about the unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth. The outcry wasn’t, as we might assume, for the former President Robert Mugabe and other leaders to step aside. “People were not really thinking about issues of succession,” Musiyiwa explained. Most citizens, having recently made personal sacrifices for the new nation, were instead demanding a redirection. “People now were beginning to say this is not what we fought for,” Musiyiwa said. “They lost their lives in order to build a society in which everyone benefits. In which services are provided.”

Mapfumo, who is now seventy-two, will return to his country later this month after ten years of self-imposed exile, in Oregon, as a persona non grata of the Mugabe regime. He once explained that “independence in Zimbabwe brought much-needed freedom but triggered other unexpected tribulations.” Chimurenga, he wrote, has shifted to focus on the “elimination of public office corruption while advocating for the citizen’s pursuit of peace, happiness, equality, dignity, comfort and the rule of law.” Music as a weapon in the hands of the people has been turned against the old revolutionaries. Mapfumo’s “Maiti Kurima Hamubvire” (“You Used to Say You Are Good Farmers”), to take one example, touches on the failure of the national government to make land reform work and lists its other broken promises. But the ruling class was not blind to the power of chimurenga. To counter the popular music, the government started holding galas during national holidays, in the early aughts. The goal, as a former minister of information and publicity told the state-owned daily newspaper the Herald, was for “a new form of Press statement” that “whipped people into common liberation thinking and kept them informed, educated and united.”

On Tuesday, November 21, 2017, when Robert Mugabe resigned from his position as President, onlookers on the streets of Harare cheered on a solitary young man in a red bucket hat, who played a song called “Kutonga Kwaro” on a trombone. Although the song was released just a week before the protests had started, it had been adopted as the unofficial anthem of the uprising. In the marches that saw the fall of Mugabe, and at the inauguration of his former Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, “Kutonga Kwaro” was blaring from thousands of cars in the streets and on radios everywhere. The song talks about the coming of a familiar but long-awaited hero, a fearsome character before whom other men cringe, one who will change the rules, open the granary.

But is ‘Kutonga Kwaro’ true chimurenga music? The song was written by Jah Prayzah, who has spent most of his career as a brand ambassador of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (Z.D.F.). Accordingly, the lyrics of his music extoll the military strongman, and he styles himself in military fatigues and apparel. It has been dangerous in the last decade to sing or produce chimurenga music that criticizes the state; Mapfumo and his family faced physical threats before fleeing the country. Prayzah’s music embodies the paradox of Zimbabwe’s revolution. The military affiliation has protected his right to free speech, to sing for a new day, but such protection is only necessary because of the rigid and censored society that the military has created.

Zimbabweans have had mixed reactions to the military’s involvement in the removal of Mugabe and the precedent that it sets. One prominent Zimbabwean blogger, who was derided for taking a picture with a soldier while standing next to an army tank, wrote about how big a deal it was to feel safe for once around the soldiers. Zimbabweans have been told for decades that they owe their liberation to these soldiers and the military, but the military had yet to show any concern for the will of the people until now. Mapfumo’s anti-Mugabe song “Masoja Nemapurisa” (“Father, If Soldiers and Police Refuse to Beat People, What Will You Do?”) feels prophetic. But, with the leadership connected to Mugabe still in charge, he concedes, “It’s still the old train that we’re riding but they’ve got a different driver.” Soldiers seizing power is nothing new, but the change in power, for a few weeks, suggested a return to the state of affairs that was interrupted by colonialism—a time and space when Africans have the greatest say in the use of their land and the formation of their culture. In that sense, what’s happening in Zimbabwe is another verse in the longer song of struggle, where the past is always present and the future available to be fought for.

  • Anakwa Dwamena is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.

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