It was Nina Simmone that said it’s an artists’ duty to reflect the times they are in, through their music. But what happens when you try to play your part and the government censors your art or even threaten your life?
Zimbabwean artists know the pain of not being able to freely express themselves especially if speaking against the now former President Robert Mugabe.
Freedom of press and that of expression gradually deteriorated during Mugabe’s 37-year dictatorship. Everyone felt the government’s iron fist rule, and a lot could say they’ve been driven away from home but not everyone can say they’ve been driven farther than the 14 000 KM that Zimbabwean great Thomas Mapfumo has been. “This is a change that I personally embrace as a trigger to real change on the way. Removal of President Mugabe was the miracle of our lifetime,” says Mapfumo.
Speaking from the US where he has been exiled after the government’s accusations of him being involved with a stolen-car. Things got uncomfortable enough for him to relocate.
Unlike countryman and great Oliver Mutukudzi who wouldn’t release music that directly rebuked government wrongdoing, Mapfumo first pushed the government’s buttons in 1989 when he released an album titled Corruption, directed at the president and his government.
“President Mugabe often spoke badly against me and my music that he considered aggressive to his bad governance. He even arranged for my music to be banned from the national airwaves.”
The 72 year-old Mapfumo was jailed shortly before Zimbabwe gained independence in 1979, for his incisive lyrics as he encouraged people to rise and fight oppression and segregation. His fraught history with the government shows that his agenda isn’t personal attack on leaders, but one that stands against incompetent leadership.
“Through ambitious cabinet ministers like Jonathan Moyo who introduced arbitrary laws, free speech was stifled. Music was heavily censored as President Mugabe became a deity. All he wanted to hear was words that praised him and made him feel better. Any truthful statements attracted censure and prosecution. While this was the law, I refused to be silenced.”
It makes sense why on that historical Tuesday afternoon in November when the 93 year-old Mugabe relinquished his reign, throngs of cars on the streets of Harare were playing Mapfumo’s classic Chimurenga (struggle) music, although he hasn’t been in the country in more than a decade.
Luttan King, a Zimbabwean but South African based reggae and dancehall artist whose music’s foundation is the Rastafarian trio of love, peace and harmony, doesn’t make songs that would make corrupt leaders uncomfortable.
“Politics ain’t a thing I like. My family told me never to be a politician, if you want to be free, never sing anything that makes them hunt you.”
Not all artists will be inspired to write music that talks to social issues, regardless of genre, but Luttan King’s comment talks to the fear that the Mugabe regime ingrained on its citizens. Police and security forces camouflaged as civilians were some of the biggest threat to Zimbabwean’s freedom.
Xoliswa Sithole, a filmmaker and producer of award winning documentary Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children experienced this first-hand as she and her team were shooting the doccie in 2010. A South African born but Zimbabwe bred Sithole knew very well going into the production of the doccie that all their moves would be scrutinized since
“Zimbabwe as a country was always very suspicious of journalists and cameras. One had to pray every morning and hope for the best, “says Sithole.
“At one point our equipment and money was stolen by someone posing to be a political ‘somebody’ trying to vet our legitimacy of filming in Zimbabwe.”
Despite the hurdles, they completed their project in eight months and were awarded with a Peabody Award as well as a BAFTA in 2011. Shot clandestine like, the doccie follows the lives of children trying to survive in the gruesome poverty and life of squalor in Zimbabwe. Through their work in the documentary, Sithole and her team attracted donors who assisted in education, healthcare as well as food for the stars of the film.
“The documentary did highlight that plight and there was and has been a lot of help and activism around the children of Zimbabwe. Other initiatives are; 10 schools in Zimbabwe are being assisted by someone, food and the assistance of fees and building of schools is another project happening because of the documentary.”
Luttan King was in studio recording, while Sithole was overcome by emotions in SA and the one also known as “The Lion of Zimbabwe” was in Eugene, Oregon when the news came in that Mugabe had resigned. “I was relieved to hear that and was so excited to see the dictator being removed. The suffering of the people had reached the cusp. It was time for him to go. Regardless of what lies ahead, the good thing is that a long serving dictator is gone,” says Mapfumo.
It’s a silly thought to think of your favourite artist putting a 3:45 song together to sum-up a nation’s turmoil or that an hour long doccie will change the course of history. But frank and organic self-expression shouldn’t be muffled because it unsettles a privileged minority.
Like 2Pac said, he may never change the world himself but he’ll spark the minds that do so and that’s what Simone’s classic protest songs such as Mississippi Goddam and I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free did. They sparked minds that went to change the world.