The song became a national anthem because the leadership was being asked, rather loudly and publicly, about their abandonment of the Socialist Leadership Code. The post-colonial nationalists, violent and corrupt, were fulfilling the prophecy on the ‘limits to nationalism’. Frantz Fanon had predicted this degeneration in The Wretched of the Earth. It was now playing out in full swing and Thomas Mapfumo had dared give it a voice. To this list, one can add Leonard Zhakata, but System Tazvida too, often their music was loaded with poetry and a searing social conscience about the working class.
University did another thing; there was an endless supply of music compiled by students on USB sticks, pirated quickly in the internet cafes of central Harare. On weekends we would spread on the lawn outside the infamous hostel, ‘Baghdad’ and listen to reggae. On more intense occasions it will be wet towels around the neck, bin lid in hand, a nasty sting of teargas in the nose, friendly matches with the anti-riot police and a collection of empty canisters as souvenirs. I quickly caught up on anything reggae. One starts with Robert Nesta Marley, but a whole world opens, via the reggae greats from Peter Tosh to Gregory Isaacs and might never end. But if there was an end, I would fold it with Buju Banton’s ‘Country for Sale’. ‘I hear them sell off everything’. Percy Zvomuya has chronicled the history and evolution of reggae and dancehall in Zimbabwe, and its links to ‘Zimbabwe’s colonial past and its racialised class system’ and the seductive ‘call for revolution’ and social justice.
It is neither by prayer or supplication that reggae emerged in the ghettos of Kingston or that in Zimbabwe dancehall reggae and the sound clash culture caught up in the ghettos via legendary DJs like Jah B; or that hip hop emerges from the densely packed ghettos of Brooklyn. The artist is an organic intellectual, unadulterated, his or her work, a poem, a book, a painting, a song, a theatre performance, is an expression cooked in the blast furnace of life itself, the interstices of the margins of society where life is a crude blow by blow battle of wits. And the young, feeling the pressure, easily get hooked on all sort of mind-numbing experiments; here one drinks ‘tumbwa’, another ‘cooks pampers’, another one gets knocked off from ‘mutoriro’, yet another ‘sticks’ from ‘dombo’, ‘clear broncho’ or ‘musombodia’. It is here where this art, angry and unsettling, emerges. The men and women behind the mask, with their houses guarded by concrete, special operations soldiers, electric razor wire and an AK 47, and their kids bathing in imported cognac and exotic v12 cars, hate to be unmasked, they don’t want to be told to stop eating what they didn’t show. They want to feast on what belongs to the short ones because they are tall.
Enter Fela Kuti: This Bitch of a Life
Still, at university, another ‘comrade’, the word that carried the full unspoiled meaning, asked me whether I had listened to Fela Kuti. The answer was obviously no. I was coming from herding cows, running after recalcitrant goats, playing a soccer ball stuffed together with used plastic bags, held together by an eclectic combination of elastic, rubber bands, a fibre obtained from the msasa tree or refined from thrashed sisal. In that hot sand, where we jumped into the river butt naked, Fela Kuti was far from my orbit. Perhaps I would have listened to Fela Kuti in boarding school, but the place was barren, conservatism writ large, endless recital of verses and repeated singing of the same hymns, cemented with regimentation, and a broomstick, by the boarding master, literally. In one devotion, sitting in the Beit Hall, an Advanced Level student had set our minds ablaze and filled the hall with juvenile laughter, whistles, feet shuffling on the cement flow, and all sorts of noises as he recited Jamaican dub poet, Mutabaruka’s poem ‘Dis Poem’. The powers be, religious on the surface and conservative had their sensibilities aghast, and provoked. Years later I laughed as I listened to a riveting live performance of ‘Dis Poem’ by Mutabaruka. Rumour had it the performer was whipped, rubber and stick, and listed in a notorious ‘black book’, black being ‘evil’.
What a beauty it was to listen to Fela Kuti. Fela’s life, as he is still popularly known, is not for the faint-hearted. His life was that of the rebel, the one who comes with light and upends it all. In another song he says ‘teacher don’t teach me nonsense’, in another he says ‘everything is scatter, scatter’, at one point he married 27 wives and established a ‘shrine’ and a movement of sorts which ended when it was raided by the military. For his ideas, Fela had to spend almost 20 months in prison and in an interview, he would say that he was arrested for telling the military government was ‘committing crimes against Africans’. A Dambudzo Marechera of sorts, but expanded and exponential. Then one day I met his biography, walking down some small back of the street bookshop, there it was, Fela Kuti: This Bitch of Life, and even in death his biography had to be unsettling. The modern-day Afro-Beats represented by Burna Boy, have their roots in the pioneering and unsettling art of Fela Kuti, and his legacy lives on.
Poetry, Art and Performance: Holding the Mirror
There is a famous lecture delivered by the African revolutionary and liberation theorist, Amilcar Cabral, on National Culture and Liberation. It will be appropriate to re-read this novel lecture, in which Cabral lays out into the open why culture always unsettles the status quo and is an important arena of contestation for liberation
Whatever may be the ideological or idealistic characteristics of cultural expression, culture is an essential element of the history of a people. Culture is, perhaps, the product of this history just as the flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and it reflects the organic nature of the society, which may be influenced by an external factors (Amilcar Cabral, National Culture and Liberation)
Culture, then, summarises the souls of a civilisation and its imaginations. To see the character of Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart), ‘slippery as a fish’, and defeating Amalinze The Cat; to go North and grieve with Aissatou, letter in hand (So Long A Letter); to then jump down to the east of Africa, to imagine the character of Dedan Kimathi (The Trial of Dedan Kimath) in the trial, to sweep a bit to the east, and see society painted on canvas via poetry, Song of Lawino, with the dancing youngsters courting; to then jump down the Southern part of the continent, and see the character of Tambu (Nervous Conditions), but also the playful youngsters, Bastard, Godknows (We Need New Names), but also those brilliant lines, ‘I got my things and left’, (House of Hunger). All this is to be witnesses of the artist, the writer, as an intellectual in motion.
These are the rich legacies conjured into life by our artists and their gifts keep giving. ‘Theatre in the Park’ in Harare, the legendary Amakhosi Theatre in downtown Bulawayo, shepherded by Cont Mhlanga, the voice of Albert Nyathi, staccato-like gunfire. Down in South Africa the dub-poet, Mzwake Mbuli, performs as if his words are fed from the conscience of society itself but also the words of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba come to mind. The greats of Pan-Africanism and liberation expressed resistance as poems, one can read those by Leopold Senghor and Aimee Cesaire. The tradition of creativity, imagination and intellect carried on by performing artists stretches everywhere, in and time space.
The classics, of ancient Greece, were written as dialogues and Homer wrote my favourite books, Odysseus, and Iliad, as poems. So well-written and elaborate are the Homeric poems one can read them over and over. Whenever I travel long distances, I often put on audiobooks of ancient Greece and the journey is shortened as the characters of these great poems jump into life in my mind. The siege of Troy, the beauty of Helen, the games of chivalry of young men, the Gods of Greece in dialogue. Such is the power of the artist. The playwright, a keen observer of society, has cemented their role in society. Often their role has been to hold a mirror and even to indict society about an injustice. Poetry, delivered by the griots of old, is a repository of a people’s dignity, and that is why conquering armies killed historians and slaves were executed for speaking their language.
The Gaffa and ‘kurova bembera’
Our ancestors, said Dr Alex Magaisa, had their ways and means of discussing, deliberating and solving issues. A stranger to these ways of doing things, or a traveller invited to listen to whole conversations would not grasp what they have discussed, what they disagreed on and even lose what had been agreed on. Matters were approached slowly, cautiously and with no hurry until a pernicious issue was solved. Anyone who has sat amongst elders can listen to an issue being presented by the youngest to the older, the older to the eldest and the one with authority seated in silence until they are formally presented with the issue. What is lost in this whole tradition is that the slowness and the repetition allow for wide consultation and deep contemplation.
In such a setting the young, with their boiling blood for quick action, would be disappointed, the fast, the quick talkers, the fast to anger were on the losing side. In the Art of War, the Chinese philosopher exalts the virtue of patience as a strategy and says “In good order, they await a disorderly enemy; in serenity, a clamorous one. This is control of the mental factor.” In situations where investigations were being carried out, this slowness to action often irritated the impatient, and the vindictive and often provoked them to display their foolishness until the ‘court’ could see surely ‘the shoe fits’. Winky D, popularly known as The Gaffa has torched a storm and the usual troops have come out of the woodwork swinging and like the proverbial court jesters. For the one who knows some Shona culture then The Gaffa has done that historical role: kurova bembera. But this is not new. Legend has it that the late Simon Muzenda was kicked out of school for reciting the poem, Nehanda Nyasikana.
The Gaffa and the 48 Laws of Power
The Gaffa’s response has been one of poise as if he read the 48 Laws of Power by Graham Greene. The 9th law says, ‘Any momentary triumph you think you have gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory’. The 9th Law itself states the rather obvious but often missed point: Win through your actions, never through an argument. To this, one can add how The Gaffa has used scarcity to create a myth and demand for his art, that’s the 16th Law of Power which states that one can ‘use absence to increase respect and honor’. There is also another angle to this, a commercial one, which is to say that in the modern digital age, publicity on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok creates brand awareness for The Gaffa and increases streaming numbers (income), brand presence (income as brand ambassador) and global presence (potential income from concerts).
The whirlwind of provocations, excitement, and the trending for days means that the observers of society will have to witness, in real-time, as the ‘Art of War’ combined with ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ plays out in Tweet after Tweet. The particular lyrics that has stirred the hornet’s nest is ‘kudya zvevapfupi nekureba’, loosely translated to ‘the tall ones who eat what belongs to the short’ because they are arrogantly able to. The classes that extract from society are always on the watch to dilute ideas that don’t entrench their rule, there is a battle of ideas going on, and what The Gaffa has done is to blow open the bareness, the formlessness and the degeneration of the ideas and expose the crude rule of those in charge in Zimbabwe. For this sin, he is celebrated by the plebeians, for that sin he is also a marked man by the status quo, but the emperor better listens to Peter Tosh’s Stepping Razor.
TLChimedza has written for Zimbabwe’s independent media, for The Elephant, book chapters and journal papers on democracy and development in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa. See Tinashe Chimedza | The Elephant.