No more internal power struggle;
We come together to overcome the little trouble.
Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary,
‘Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary.
— Bob Marley, “Zimbabwe”
March 3rd marked the fifth annual “Music Freedom Day.” Associated with Danish artists’ rights organization Freemuse, it’s designed to bring attention to the repression and exploitation of musicians around the world. Over 30 events were held in a variety of countries, including, notably, some in North Africa and the Middle East, whose nations have recently been gripped by uprisings and revolutions. Egypt and Jordan were both among those counties whose Music Freedom Day took on a whole new meaning.
And so it was in Zimbabwe. This year’s event took place in Harare’s Book Cafe, featuring performances from three of the country’s best-known political artists. The really impressive act, however, came from the 2,000 artists who ordered the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation to observe six hours of silence.
According to Albert Nyathi, musician and head of the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association (ZIMURA), the demand came as a protest against the rather brazen ripoff of Zimbabwe’s artists. “The ZBC owes musicians more than $300,000 in unpaid royalties and this is unacceptable,” said Nyathi. “We have tried in vain to have that money paid, but ZBC have not given us a firm commitment…”
The vicious, tyrannical and corrupt practices of President Robert Mugabe are by now common knowledge among human rights, labor and solidarity activists. Once a major figure in the country’s leftist liberation movement against white rule, he is now a leader who has made his peace with the lash of austerity. During the most recent General Election in 2008, when Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party suffered serious defeats, Mugabe engaged in widespread intimidation, assaults and arrests to maintain his rule.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Mugabe cares little for the nation’s rich and varied musical traditions, or their deep connections to popular struggles. In fact, if Mugabe had his way, that connection would be severed at the root.
There are no obscenity laws in Zimbabwe, Rather, says US writer and filmmaker, Banning Eyre:
A climate of fear affects composers, singers, DJs, journalists and writers alike, muting and even silencing many artistic voices. Broadcasters are closely watched and often scripted to avoid any criticism of the state. Some have lost their jobs when they were judged to have crossed the line.
The ZBC – whose four channels are the only legal stations in Zimbabwe – maintains nothing less than a blacklist of artists who dare to speak out. Countless artists, including some of the country’s most famous, have complained of having their most political songs denied any airplay whatsoever.
To make matters worse, the Zimbabwe Music Corporation and its subsidiary, Gramma, run what is basically a monopoly over all domestic or foreign music released within the country’s borders. “Apart from the ZBC not playing us, the recording companies are also refusing to release our music,” says artist Leonard Zhakara. “I have albums that are ready but the record companies are afraid to release them.”
The consequences of this censorship aren’t mere trifles. During the 1980s and 90s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was reaching disastrous proportions in Zimbabwe, artists who even mentioned the diseases had their songs banned on the grounds that they might offend conservative values on sex. It was only one aspect of a full-fledged state refusal to acknowledge AIDS. Today, the HIV infection rate in Zimbabwe hovers somewhere around 40%.
Then, there’s the toll that the state takes on the musicians, themselves. Artists who write political songs risk harassment and even violence. Fans of their music or concert attendees have been assaulted by gangs identifying themselves as “veterans” of the war for liberation. Thomas Mapfumo, the famed “Lion of Zimbabwe,” innovator of Afropop, who once toured with Bob Marley, has faced such harassment for his anti-Mugabe views that he was forced to flee the country in the late 90s.
Now, with a wave of revolt sweeping down the African continent, Mugabe’s repression only appears to be intensifying. On February 19th, forty-five activists and members of Zimbabwe’s International Socialist Organization were arrested and detained on charges of “treason.” Their crime? Watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The activists have been tortured, denied medical care, and currently face the death penalty if convicted. The severity of punishment they face speaks to how much Mugabe and the Zanu-PF fear such a revolt in their own borders.
It’s been said that one can measure the freedom of a society by the diversity of its art. At one point, Mugabe’s cronies appeared to believe this. In 1972, when the Zanu-PF was still struggling against Rhodesian apartheid, it publicly stated:
In a free, democratic, independent and socialist Zimbabwe the people will be encouraged and assisted in building a new Zimbabwe culture, derived from the best in what our history and heritage has given, and developed to meet the needs of the new socialist society…
Compared to the present reality, those words ring hollow. For the Zimbabwean people, their country isn’t free, democratic or independent. It most certainly isn’t socialist. Like countless other tyrants on the continent, it’s time for Mugabe to face the music.