The great African-American novelist, poet and essayist James Baldwin once philosophically asserted: “Music is our witness and our ally. The ‘beat’ is a confession which recognises, changes and conquers time. Music itself must act upon time, not lose itself to it; must stem itself against the empty flood”.
This philosophical and pedagogical reasoning by Baldwin is quite provocative and illustrative in light of the furore, controversy and deeply polarising reception that greeted the release of Winky D latest album titled Eureka Eureka on 1 January 2023.
As far as the dynamic link between music and politics is concerned, a distinction ought to be made between the anti-establishment and pro-establishment forms of engagement. This is precisely because expressions of politics in music have almost always taken a pro-establishment or anti-establishment stance. Scholars remain disunited on the extent to which the generality of the citizens are influenced by political messaging in music, particularly the type which contains direct political messages related to distinct socio-economic contexts. This begs for a critique of antecedent and prevailing contexts before interpreting music with political messages.
Political music includes songs with explicit partisan stances, music calling for the instigation of political mobilisations against prevailing appalling contexts or praise singing of some political actors. Politicisation of music can also occur via the route of cultural association, with the most famous case being evidenced by how the Beatles were censured in the Eastern bloc due to their representativeness of the symbol of change. However, it is worth noting that sometimes variations could exist between a musician’s intentions and the perceptions and subsequent interpretations by the audience. Be that as it may, several scholars converge on the conviction that music possesses an unmatchable efficacy in political mobilisation.
However, in both historical and contemporary times, the Zimbabwean musical landscape has always been punctuated by rebel and protest music and musician activists. In colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, there has always been a generation of artistes that answered to Frantz Fanon`s clarion call of discovering the generational mission and deciding to fulfil it rather than betray it. Socially and politically conscious musicians and artistes have historically risen up to the occasion and acted as the Promethean fiery searchlights of their society, through spotlighting and highlighting the socio-economic and socio-political struggles of the ordinary people and the suffering masses.
Accordingly, musicians like the great Thomas Mapfumo have a tangible and unblemished record of producing hard-hitting protest music both in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe. In his earlier days Mukanya had earned himself iconic status after penning liberation war motivational singing supporting the nationalist cause. However, his early 2000s productions were hard-hitting songs that were poignantly aimed at the obtaining social, political and economic decadence prevailing in Zimbabwe at the time and the subsequent unabated descent into the economic malaise that prevails up to this day.
Moreover, artistes like the late Zexie Manatsa also produced a protest song titled “Musango Mune Hangaiwa” during the colonial era which was subsequently banned by the colonial government. In addition, artistes like Leornard Zhakata and Oliver Mtukudzi have also produced their fair share of protest songs. Zhakata’s latest offering titled “Mupendero Wenguva”, could be politically translated to mean “the end of an era”. The album proceeds to bemoan the moral decadence and corrupt tendencies endemic in the country in his usual melodious fashion.
It is within this historical tradition of rebel music and musician activists that have over time challenged the status quo and the establishment, that I wish to locate and re-contextualise Winky D`s latest music offering Eureka Eureka. Accordingly, I will unpack why Winky D is on the right side of history and also analyse the societal role of musicians within an authoritarian ecosystem. Furthermore, I will also talk about why there has been forceful push-back and vitriolic backlash by the regime sympathisers and enablers to silence, proscribe and ultimately criminalise Winky D’s artistry and musicianship.
The barrel of the microphone
The famous African-American sociologist and dissident black scholar and hip-hop critic Professor Eric Michael Dyson in one of his seminal literary works titled “Know What I mean? Reflections on Hip Hop”, argued that: “In our own day, there are many artists who recognise the power of art to inform and inspire, to instigate and cajole, to make constituencies aware of social, moral, spiritual and intellectual problems and resources”. On New Year’s eve the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC) was transformed into a carnival and celebratory atmosphere as Winky D launched his latest album Eureka Eureka with his customary tour de force of artistic performance.
Accordingly, revellers at the HICC were treated to an energetic, thought-provoking and ghetto-centric performance. There was a cocktail of artistic and musical performance from Winky D and other artistes he collaborated with on his Eureka Eureka album. They included eye-catching and entertaining collaborative performances with Tocky Vibes, Holy Ten, Shingai and others. The audience was treated to a high octane musical fiesta and as such there was infectious resonance between Winky D and his audience as evidenced by the two-way musical communication between Winky D and his legion of fans that convincingly resulted in contagious and voluntary sing-alongs by the audience and the turning of the Rainbow Towers auditorium into a sea of white lights from the cellphone torch lights of the fans.
However, by the first day of the New Year, the Eureka Eureka album had ignited a very fiery and polarising debate among the various sections of the Zimbabwean public. That is, there emerged two diametrically opposed camps who had competing and contradicting opinions and views on the lyrics of some of the songs. On one end of the musical spectrum were sections of Zimbabweans who fully embraced the politically charged and thought-provoking songs and performances of Winky D.
However, on the sensitively opposite end you had sections of the Zimbabwean public who felt disturbed and uncomfortable with socially and politically conscious songs and performances of Winky D.
Professor Tricia Rose, the author of the seminal The Hip-Hop Wars and Black Noise, opined that: “Popular music must be dynamic, playful, exciting, cutting edge, sometimes this involves politically conscious content”. Therefore, rebel art and protest music by its very nature is disruptive, thought-provoking and is designed to challenge, unsettle and provoke the status quo and the establishment. Thus rebel music is designed to afflict the comfortable elites and comfort the afflicted subalterns. Accordingly, the Eureka Eureka album is the apt metaphor of protest music crafted in the rebellious tradition of provoking and spotlighting the socio-economic and the socio-political ills within our society. It follows in the tradition of protest albums such as Hokoyo, Chimurenga Explosion and Chimurenga Rebel by Thomas Mapfumo and also Hodho by Leonard Zhakata, and many others.
The two songs which have ignited the most debate due to their politically charged and socially conscientising lyrics are Ibotso and Dzimba Dzemabwe.
“Ibotso” metaphorically bears witness to socio-economic injustices that have been naturalised into a culture amongst the poor by the powerful ruling elites and also the moral degeneracy that afflicts the downtrodden masses. It draws into sharp focus the manner in which the establishment and the powerful who are, in most cases, politically connected to the ruling elites, viciously and corruptly pilfer and pillage the resources of the poor, using their political might, their elite connections and their powerful societal positions.
“Ibotso” is a double edged sword song in that it also highlights the tragic dis-empowerment and pauperisation of the ordinary folks, who in their pauperised state end up fighting and killing each other, whilst the authors of their misery and poverty remain unscathed. Thus continuing with this wanton path of robbing the future and livelihood of the youths and the poor. It also details the mechanics of the suppression of expression of discontent through use of state-sanctioned security brutality which has become common practice against vendors eking out a living on the streets of Zimbabwean cities. Holy Ten in his verse on the song raises the issue of “blessers” and rich guys who flaunt ill-acquired wealth and continue to put the poor girl child at risk. On the other hand, the song speaks out on the cosmetic culture facilitated by social media “likes” and its attendant effect of straying society further from reality.
Dzimba Dzemabwe’s video together with its lyrics are very provocative and bring to the fore some home truths. The inclusion of the iconography of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi
which is reincarnated through juxtaposition by Winky D and Shingai donning similar traditional clothing 125 years later, attempts to draw a historical and political connection between the past and the present. Consequently, it puts into sharp focus the long and arduous road towards democracy, justice and human rights. Dzimba Dzemabwe reads like a lamentation of the dictatorial betrayal of the decolonisation project in which democracy has been bastardised through hypocrisy and treachery by the powers that be. Moreover, the song also highlights the hunger and the desperation that stalk the land, a former breadbasket. The song poignantly asks a question that resonates with the majority of Zimbabweans as it spotlights whether those who endured the sacrifices that characterised the liberation struggle were resting in peace, given the vanity with which these sacrifices were being treated as evidenced by the current state of affairs in the country superintended by the avarice of the ruling elites. It reflects on the vision, desire and objectives of the liberation struggle and the path of betrayal the country is trodding.
Therefore, Eureka Eureka, following up on another Winky D`s album, Njema, is a clear demonstration of the artiste’s metamorphosis into a fully-fledged musician-activist pedagogue in the similar tradition as Thomas Mapfumo, Lucky Dube, Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela and many others. According to Professor Tejumola Olaniyan, author of Arrest the Music! Fela and his Rebel Art and Politics, “Musician activist pedagogues are those who are never shy about publicly defining their art in terms of the cause for whom, in words and in deeds, art and heavy cause are never strange bedfellows”. Thus musician-activists have historically deployed the microphone as a flaming and potent barrel, through singing truth to the power and truth to the powerless. They have used their huge public profiles and musical talents to vocalise the socio-economic strivings and the socio-political aspirations of the poor and the disadvantaged.
However, as expected there was considerable push-back and resentment against Winky D`s latest album and performances from certain sections of the Zimbabwean public. Their arguments and reservations against Winky D are not in any way based on the objective critique of his musical performance and offerings, but were based on the content of his lyrics. They believed that his songs are too politically charged and his socially and politically conscious songs are a deviation from the “traditional” and expected artistes’ role of purely singing to merely entertain drunken revellers. This intellectually and historically dishonest argument was largely voiced by the people and organisations which are usually and deeply connected with the Zanu PF government.
Consequently, a shadowy outfit which goes by the name Economic Empowerment Group (EEG) arranged a Press conference at which it called for de-platforming of Winky D through extra-legally banning him from performing at any public event or public venue in Zimbabwe. One of EEG’s major reasons for advocating for banning Winky D music was that they believe the lyrics of his songs are not politically correct and were likely to foment dissent and protest amongst ghetto youths.
However, what EEG fails to appreciate is that Zimdancehall in general and Winky D’s music particularly are part and parcel of ghettocraft, that is a ghetto-centric music of “keeping it real” or in the tradition of Malcolm X “make it plain”. Thus, Winky D recognises that the ghetto is a systematic matrix of socio-economic deprivation and class discrimination that has emasculated and castrated the potentialities and aspirations of the ghettoised youths.
Nonetheless, this should not be dismissed as mere empty threats, just coming from a group of disgruntled citizens.
This is because the Zanu PF government has a notorious record of de-platforming musician-activist pedagogues and protest music. Artistes such as Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Zhakata, Oliver Mtukudzi and even Winky D himself have had their musical products and performances censored and banned in Zimbabwe. Evidence gathered so far points to the fact that already musical content off this latest album is not receiving kind airplay.
Ironically and surprisingly, Holy Ten, who featured and collaborated with Winky D on Ibotso, tweeted he regretted taking part on the song, because the song has been politicised. This was a notable departure in opinion by Holy Ten who gave us hard-hitting lyrics in his earlier track Ndaremerwa, which laments the burdens of survival in Zimbabwe. His subsequent interview by radio presenter Ollah 7 was a mere public
relations effort which discredited both Ollah 7, who appeared at pains to be kind and depart from his usual inquisitive and hot seat journalistic style, to appease the young man who now enjoys the acquaintance of the sons of the First Family. Moreover, his very frivolous reasoning and intellectual dishonesty is a lack of appreciation of basic understanding of politics. The very existence and organisation of humanity is inalienably linked with the politics of the day. Politics has direct ramifications on the everyday conduct, behaviour and sustenance and decision making of every single Zimbabwean regardless of station in life, hence the personal is political and the political is personal. Therefore, we should celebrate the fact that Ibotso is an invaluable addition to the market of political ideas and political debates.
Freedom of expression in “censorship democracy”
What was quite telling about the address by EEG was their accusations directed at the Censorship Board and the National Arts Council. The group’s spokesperson ranted at how these two state institutions had slept on duty and should have been pro-active in ensuring that Eureka Eureka should not have been allowed to reach the ears of citizens. This was not surprising, given that 42 years after Independence, the Zanu PF government still enjoys a monopoly in broadcasting. This is despite tenuous and notable efforts made to register independent radio and television stations. Such efforts have always been met with regulatory red tape facilitated by state apparatus aimed at muzzling alternative opinions as if we remain in the Iron Age of information.
Needless to say that music and especially rebel art has always been a potent instrument for socio-cultural and socio-political change. Therefore, musician-activist pedagogues are social and cultural change agents, who have over the course of human civilisation acted as a force for good. Accordingly, Winky D`s anti-establishment rebellious ghettocraft and musicianship should be fully embraced and appreciated rather than considered anathema by the Zanu PF government and its supporters.
Nonetheless, history has always vindicated a lot of musician-activist pedagogues, who were hitherto criminalised and censored by their respective insecure and authoritarian governments. The critical first step in addressing Zimbabwe’s information crisis should be the admission that it exists in the first place and deployment of humble leadership attitudes towards prioritising the national interest in deriving solutions to the same. Denialism of the existence of the vice of intolerance is undoubtedly polarising and counter-productive in rebuilding the nation.