When Zimbabwe’s popular culture historians sit down one day to determine the biggest influences on the Zimdancehall reggae subgenre, it will be difficult to discount the contribution of three figures: reggae legend Bob Marley, chimurenga maestro Thomas Mapfumo and Dennis Wilson, the Black British telecommunications engineer-turned-radio deejay who died in Harare on 6 January at the age of 66.
The story of how Marley, the key figure in that triumvirate, ended up in Zimbabwe is well documented. But a few rudimentary facts about his journey to Zimbabwe need repeating, if only because they illuminate much about the contributions of Wilson and Mapfumo.
Before The Wailers came to play at Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in 1980 – at Marley’s expense – his music wasn’t well known in the country, which was engulfed in war, a liberation struggle. It was Marley’s compatriots who were better known: according to educator, scholar and musician Fred Zindi, artists such as Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and America’s Johnny Nash.
During Marley’s tour in Zimbabwe – between playing for the free Zimbabwe “massive and crew” and sampling the local marijuana varieties – he met Zindi. “You must teach them people to love my music, man. The people standing there like stoogies,” Marley complained to Zindi. In a proselytising move, the reggae star gave some of his records to Mike Mhundwa, a local radio deejay, to play on his show.
Record company Zimbabwe Music Corporation then signed a deal to distribute Marley’s records in the country. In the months and years that followed, it sold hundreds of thousands of them. That one of his records, the 1979 album Survival, had a song with the title Zimbabwe helped endear the Jamaican superstar to residents. “So reggae then caught on,” said Zindi in 2018.