Singing For Your Supper

As I am writing this, on the eve of the March 31st parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe, the tunes playing over the airwaves there are as tainted as the strong-armed tactics of Robert Mugabe’s government. Zimbabwe’s music and politics are coming from the same place – a corrupt regime bent on retaining power at all costs, even if that means hijacking the airwaves, the styling of catchy political jingles by propaganda minister Jonathan Moyo and pimping popular musicians for votes.A few musicians like Andy Brown and Chiyangwa, known as Tambaoga, have cozied up to the Mugabe’s Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) and sung for their supper praising Mugabe’s policies on the government controlled radio stations. But Andy Brown’s “Siyalima” (We Are Farming) and Chiyangwa’s recent song attacking Britain’s Tony Blair have had the opposite effect for both musicians, marking them as Zanu-PF toadies and have resulted in plummeting record sales and popularity. Gospel artist Elias Musakwa has suffered the same fate with his CD lauding the Mugabe regime.

Another popular Zimbabwean musician, Oliver Mtukudzi, has been in trouble with fans over his song “Totutuma” (We Are Boiling) after it was used in a Zanu-PF campaign ad. Outrage over the use of the song and threats of a boycott prompted Mtukudzi to come out with a statement vowing that he is not a Zanu-PF supporter. He also responded that an invitation to sing to a private group that was filmed and distributed as part of a Zanu-PF event was done without his knowledge or permission. He also stated that the use of “Totutuma” in a Zanu-PF event was done without his permission. In his statement Mtukudzi states, “As a musician, I have been appalled that the Government has used its monopoly of the airwaves to restrict airplay of artists who they see as unsupportive of its policies. People who do not promote government’s image are often seen as being enemies of the government and attempts are made to silence them or undermine their careers. This is a gross abuse of human rights, so many of which have been violated in order to secure government’s grasp on power.”[Read Mtukudzi’s entire statement here].

The situation in Zimbabwe is such that suspicion and fear abounds, where musicians like self exiled Thomas Mapfumo aren’t officially banned, but just not played on Zimbabwean radio- ever. Musicians are forced to walk a fine line and self censor. Oliver Mtukudzi understands that fine line when a lighting technician was arrested after in a 2000 concert for spotlightng a picture of Mugabe as Mtukudzi sang his “Wasakara” that translates to “You are worn out.” Mtukudzi claims there is no political motivation to the song and fans are free to interpret the song as they wish, but there is an uncomfortable wink-wink-nudge-nudge to everything in Zimbabwe right now.

Towing the Zanu-PF line has been profitable for some with the Mugabe government supporting musicians by offering money and recording studios. The downside is of course brutal as Tambaoga found out when he was assaulted by opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) fans. Boycotts, lagging record sales and general disgust might sway the opinion of some of these musicians, but as long as the Mugabe government is holding out the purse there are sure to be others willing to sing his praises.

The question I come back to in all of this is when you’re forced to sing for your supper does it really matter what the entrée is? I am the first to step up and express outrage over any censorship in any of the arts. As an American, thousands of miles away, is it my place to shame musicians supporting the Mugabe government? And isn’t my criticism of these musicians a form of censorship? Do I have the right to criticize musicians in the midst of poverty, AIDS, election scandals, food shortages and daily threat of violence who are just trying to make a living and feed their families?

Of course it is possible that the sentiments of these pro-Mugabe musicians are heartfelt, just as much as the commitment of the people at white power Panzerfaust Records are devoted to putting out songs such as “Commie Scum.” (Bet the folks at Panzerfaust Records never thought they’d be mentioned in the same sentence as a bunch of Africans!) In no way shape or form do I support Robert Mugabe and his swath of terror power trip across Zimbabwe, but at the same time I won’t condemn any musician for expressing his or her point of view. In the end is it right and proper to kill the message for the song or the song for the message?


[Photo 1: Andy Brown; photo credit: Thomas Dorn; Photo 2: Thomas Mapfumo].

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