WHILE discussing music prodigy Jah Prayzah’s career last week and his run for the African Entertainment Awards amid adversities he is facing with his fan base around social and political questions of the day, arts and culture writer Addy Kudita interviewed music guru Thomas Mapfumo to tap into his oasis of wisdom in the industry.
In the interview, Mapfumo, the famous Zimbabwean Chimurenga music exponent whose music was the soundtrack of the country’s liberation struggle, says Prayzah’s talent is obvious and should be supported, but he needs courage.
“The young man is a Zimbabwean and must be supported in the award, but he has to understand that the people have a right to not support him if they feel he is concerned about their welfare. It is not easy, but it has to be done because 40 years down the line we are still in the same place we were in,” Mapfumo says.
“The country is in shambles. So the role of the artist is to represent the people in their issues and not to seek after money as some do.”
Mapfumo who left the country for self-imposed exile in the United States after falling out with the government of Robert Mugabe.
Mapfumo, once a darling of the regime, turned critic in the late 90s and 2000s releasing songs such as “corruption” in which he railed against venality in government and society in general.
He says that he did not go to war physically, but chose to fight using his music and that was his risky choice.
He had contemporaries such as Tuku and Madzikatire who chose to play it safe and not risk his career by wading into political waters.
Mapfumo chose the road less travelled and his career took a knock due to exile. It is the time in which Tuku virtually monopolised the music scene in Mapfumo’s absence.
The Jamaican music icon Bob Marley and Nigerian Fela Kuti both suffered personal harm for daring to question the overreach of political elites in their respective countries.
Marley survived an assassination attempt and Kuti had his compound destroyed and mother dashed to the ground. It is risky to speak truth to power and artist of fame and influence must walk the fine line between art for art’s sake and art to reflect a society’s zeitgeist.
Whether Prayzah stands to suffer in terms of his career because of close proximity to the current regime is a matter for posterity. There will be a price of course as there was for Marley and others though for different reasons.
But Zimbabwe has examples such as Mapfumo and Andy Brown whose career nosedived as a result of being shunned by the urbanite fans who had initially supported him.
His participation in the Hondo yeminda (land reform program of the 2000s) propaganda campaign was the death knell. Brown’s patron became the Mugabe regime under the direction of his spin-doctors. But the musician’s gigs towards the end of his life dried up as the man’s political inclination earned him the ire of hard-pressed urban dwellers who most likely felt betrayed by Brown’s fronting of the regime’s propaganda.
The story of the late talented band leader and guitarist can be considered as evidence of what happens to an artist that deviates from the popular path.
By popular, I mean the path that those that pay him expect and normally for a night club circuit band such as was The Storm, to pay the bills, an artist must play to music lovers with disposable income.
As the economy plunged, urbanites stopped patronising the entertainment joints. It did not help matters that Brown was perceived to be an enabler of the regime running down the country.
He had allowed himself to become grist for the political mill.
But being a purveyor of Agit Prop or agitation and propaganda as originally spawned by the Soviet communist party of yesteryear in its propaganda exercises comes with its price.
Agit prop is the use of Art forms to push political views. It is the direct opposite of artivism which is basically the harnessing of the critical imagination to design strategies and events that provoke new questions about the way society is set up.
The term artivism is basically referring to highly politicised art and was first broached by the artist Rosalind Krauss. The proposition is that an artist cannot simply stand on the sidelines when there are social movements and concerns bedevilling society.
What must the artist do? On one side of the argument is the freedom of association right, as well as the right not to join political bandwagon. It is a fine line to walk of course. At some point, it becomes unsustainable for an artist to plead that they are non-political in the case of a nation at war with itself, in flux and grappling with a newness that’s really old.
There are those who feel the need to draw clear lines for though much was supposed to have changed, much has stayed put from the old. In fact, much of the old has regained strength and redoubled its power to obliterate rising hope.
Concerning the Africa Entertainment Award US, the words of veteran journalist Tapfuma Machakaire capture the essential point about the exercise which is that people have “a right to campaign for and against Jah Prayzah”.
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