Art is a form of expression, truth telling. Period!
By Kudakwashe Maria Chisvo
Zimbabwe continues to suffer from increasing shrinkage of civil space, where freedom of speech has become a pipe dream for most young people.
In times like this, most people look to influencers, musicians and artists to be their voices, to speak truth to power or to create content that speaks to their lived experience.
Art is an escape for most people and due to the growth of the internet, access to multiple forms of media has become easier with just one click of a button. However, in a country like Zimbabwe a simple song, play or skit that speaks honestly to the day-to-day experiences of young Zimbabweans is seen as a blatant attack on authorities and results in continuous harassment from state agents.
Over the years, creatives have played a crucial role in sending messages of hope and inspiration and unity to the masses. From traditional ceremonies, religious services to political rallies; music, visual art and dance have been used to tell stories, teach lessons and capture history.
In the 1970s, music played a crucial role in rallying citizens against the white minority rule in Zimbabwe.
Chimurenga music was popularised by artists such as Thomas Mapfumo and Comrade Chinx who became the faces of the genre itself. Post independence,, the genre evolved as did the artists’ opinions on the messaging they portrayed.
A great example of this is Thomas Mapfumo who eventually fled to the United States of America after continued conflict with the ruling party around his strong opinions on the state of the nation in his music.
Thomas Mapfumo’s music was also banned from national radio and television stations.
Other Chimurenga artists such as the late Comrade Chinx, became the face of Zimbabwe’s ruling party and he mostly featured at public celebrations such as Heros Day, Independence Day, Unity Day among other public events..
During political campaigns Cde Chinx was also engaged by the ruling party to create music that encouraged citizens to vote for the ruling party. A more modern version of Chinx is arguably Jah Prayzah, who is one of very few Zimbabwean artists allowed to wear costumes that resemble the local army uniform on stage. Jah Prayzah rose to fame in 2014 with his second album that won multiple awards. His career surged again in 2017 when his single Mdhara Achauya became the song of the campaign that saw thousands of Zimbabweans taking to the streets to demonstrate against the late President Robert Mugabe who was deposed from power during a military coup in November 2017.
Internationally, artists such as Bob Marley were common examples of how music and artists play a role in bringing people together as was seen in 1979 at the Smile Jamaica concert. Bob Marley was set to perform at this concert which was an attempt to counter the political unrest in the country. His presence at this concert proved to be of concern as it resulted in a shooting at his residence two days before the concert.
Multiple examples can be given of how creatives have used their art to start bigger conversations around issues that affect their communities but the one question that emanates from all of this is; what is the appropriate government response to messages of change?
In America where free speech is a guaranteed basic human right, artists such as Eminem, and animations such as Boondocks and South Park have been notorious for poking fun at the government and political leaders, whereas in Zimbabwe, similar actions can see one facing jail time, assault, harassment among other forms of abuse.
Legislation such as the Patriotic Bill and the Data Protection Act will see Zimbabwean content creators heavily fined or jailed for sharing ‘false messaging’ or messaging that does not conform with the image the ruling party is trying to portray about the country. Recent examples include the arrest of Bustop TV actress Samantha Kureya in 2019 for wearing a police uniform in a skit. BustopTV is known for using satire as a form of speaking truth to power and addressing socio- economic issues in Zimbabwe.
Most recently , popular dancehall artist, Winky D has been repeatedly harassed by the pro-government activists due to the message in his music.
There were threats to ban his album launch after the government caught wind of his musical message.
Authorities further directed local radio stations not to play his music.
Winky D is known as an artist who speaks on the experience of young disenfranchised Zimbabweans. The backlash for his alleged politically charged songs have been an area of debate on social media, in local papers and other forms of local media.
But can the Zimbabwean government be accused of taking his lyrics personally?
If a song speaks to the lack of jobs in a country with 97% unemployment, is it really an attack or just a song speaking on the t situation in the country?
What is the difference between songs condemning gender based violence and songs on unemployment and corruption? All the aforementioned are experiences of young Zimbabweans. Winky D was accused of ‘tricking’ young artists into singing politically charged songs.
Some of the young artists were also said to have lost endorsement deals that they secured with the ruling party and are now ‘at risk’ due to their new affiliation with Winky D. However again, it begs the question, were these young artists not aware of the music they were creating and its messaging?
Were they so painfully unaware of the history of Winky D and his tumultuous relationship with the government. In addition, is it correct for the government to take offence when artists and content creators speak to their experience and demand for change for a better future for themselves and future generations?
“Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Leon Trotsky.
Creatives play a vital role in bridging the gap between the citizens and policy makers. Art creates a safer platform for issues of injustice and crises to be communicated to a wider audience as was the case with Michael Jackson’s We are the World, which was recorded to benefit famine relief in Africa in 1985 and re-released by Wyclef Jean to spread hope to survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Artists and creatives are just vessels and the victimisation of artists for speaking out against various ills is regrettable. .
In the same way, our forefathers had orators and musicians that composed stories of the glory days and hardships of our ancestors without fear of being ostracised.
In this modern society, we must offer the same space and respect to our creatives who are reincarnations of the story tellers and entertainers of the past.
Kudakwashe Maria Chisvo is a young woman, funky jazz vocalist, voice actor, model and guitarist who goes by the pseudonym Vera. She is a creative catalyst winner of the Women Rising Award from the Hub Unconference 2020, US Embassy International Visitors Leadership Program Alumni of 2021 and Pop Up Small Grants for the creative digital projects awardee. Vera has 10 years of experience actively working as a program’s coordinator for some of Zimbabwe’s well-known arts development organizations such as Young Voices Network, Pamberi Trust, Jibilika Dance Trust, and Magamba Network. She is currently the Arts and Events Coordinator at Magamba Network. She has been a driving force for the creative economy and has strong beliefs about creating programming that is inclusive and accessible for all while speaking to the needs of young people and their communities. Her legacy at all institutions she has worked in has been to create and curate programming that creates opportunities for young women and marginalized communities such as the Women in Arts Celebration at Young Voices Network, Female Literary Arts Music Enterprise at Pamberi Trust, The Training Kombi with Jibilika Dance Trust, Disability Arts and Culture Program with Incubator ZW and lastly The Women’s Cypher at Moto Republik, to name a few.