Beats Against Repression in Zimbabwe

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.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. brianct said on March 4th, 2011 at 10:10pm #

    another attempt by the cluelesss to turn free Zimbabwe into a neocolony of the west! This one is clever..its takes the music road..or the money road:

    ‘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…”’

    ‘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. ‘

    actually that could be read as a crime…do they intend on doing the same in Zimbabwe? launch a coup and have the govt removed? and who do they wish to put in the place of Mugabe? Tsvangarai and the MDC?
    id advice these stupid musicians to go read:
    http://www.swans.com/library/art8/elich004.html
    Just how genuiine are the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia? ar they any moer democratic? adn what does that word mean when its the demoracies who are out to destroy Zimbabwe, just as the have Iraq and afghanistan.

  2. brianct said on March 4th, 2011 at 10:33pm #

    Opportunists always come knocking..they ponder: has our time come?
    Now has Dissident Voice been deceived? have they seen the words: ‘Zimbabwe’s International Socialist Organization’ and thought…HM these guys are socialists! so they are on ourside.
    BUT not so fast…first the author resides in the country that has Zimbabwe in one of its famous ‘make the economy scream’ holds..that country pretends to be a democracy and the show case to the whole world…
    2nd…the ISO has been exaxmined by Stephen Gowans:
    http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/06/25/violence-in-zimbabwe-and-the-mdc-and-its-social-imperialist-supporters/

    and what does he find?

    ‘Unconditionally support Tsvangirai. Yes, that’s right. “The ISO…has now modified its position to call for unconditional but fraternally critical support to Tsvangirai.” [12]‘

    now Tsvangarai is no socialist, but afree market capitalist, whose party the MDC or MDC-T (it split in two due to T’s nastiness) has the backing of the US and UK, and receives funds from abroad.. as with Venezuela…

    So has Dissident voice been sucked in? Dont they know about MDCs ties to the Empire and their plans to privatise Zimbabwe?

  3. Alexander Billet said on March 5th, 2011 at 8:50am #

    Unconditionally opposing US empire is a given for any self-respecting socialist or social justice activist. It doesn’t mean settling for tyrants like Mugabe is some kind of meaningful alternative. Case in point: this commenter’s defense of Mugabe is based on the shallowest of arguments, many of which aren’t even correct by their own standards, and are insulting to boot.

    But I think the nature of these comments–and whose side he really takes–is made most clear by his insinuation that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are mere “coups.” Here are ordinary people changing the course of history for themselves and “brianct” can only bring himself to sneer from the outside.

    It also says a lot that he uses the MDC as a red herring, completely ignoring the fact that I don’t even mention the party in the article! It’s true that the ISO Zimbabwe used to support the MDC when it was much more of a pluralist organization, but even then were engaged in deep polemics against its neoliberal wing. When that wing gained final control of the party, they left. Even a basic Wikipedia search will yield this info. The quotes that the commenter cites from Stephen Cowan’s already flimsy research are at least five years old!

    This commenter’s arguments are nothing but a shell. If he genuinely believes that a country where the president (who has been sitting for over thirty years) uses violence and intimidation to win elections and tortures trade unionists and activists to maintain a grip on power is some kind of “freedom,” then fine. I’d advise him to get a job as the PR man for Guantanamo Bay; his arguments will do great there!

    Otherwise, I’d recommend he crawl into the dustbin of history next to Mubarak and Ben Ali; he may find that Mugabe may be joining them shortly.

  4. Alexander Billet said on March 5th, 2011 at 11:01am #

    I might also add that many of the musicians who are currently protesting Mugabe’s censorship–including Mapfumo–are themselves former supporters of Mugabe. Not anymore. Years of austerity programs and repression have a funny way of whittling away at your base of support.

    Just one more way in which brianct’s arguments are built on sand. Being opposed to oppression and injustice means being opposed to all forms of it, no matter which cloak is wrapped around the oppressor.