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Playing with fire: Fear and self-censorship in Zimbabwean music
Banning Eyre
October 2001

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Zimbabwe is home to a rich array of traditional and popular music. This fact is all the more remarkable when you consider the obstacles faced by musicians and music professionals there. Government's complete control of broadcast media, and its notorious reluctance to support or facilitate development of the local music industry help to keep most musicians in a state of poverty.

Now, as the country sinks more deeply into economic and political crisis, Zimbabwe's musicians face new problems. Long depended upon to voice the suffering, hopes, fears and aspirations of people in this country, musicians today are being subjected to scrutiny and intimidation that leaves many afraid to express themselves freely.

While censorship laws and the mechanisms to enforce them have always existed in Zimbabwe, official censorship of music occurs rarely if ever. Such direct measures are simply not needed.

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. At the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the practice of posting lists of banned songs is now a thing of the past, but DJ's there know very well what can happen to them if they do anything to offend the sensitivities of their superiors. At a time when the government faces its first credible political opposition since independence in 1979, ZBC officials are more sensitive than ever before.

The record company Gramma/ZMC operates an effective monopoly for the distribution of foreign and domestic music in Zimbabwe. In the area of sexual content-or anything deemed vulgar in music-the company acts as a de facto censor, ensuring that music that might offend conservative social values never even hits the market, let alone the air waves. An aversion to public expression or discussion of sex goes back at least to the British colonial period when Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia, and few within the country complain about it. But the consequences have been tragic in modern times. Hesitant to broach sexual matters openly, Zimbabwe's leaders largely ignored the spread of HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and early '90s, a time when frank publicity about the disease, perhaps involving popular musicians, might well have stemmed a staggering death toll. Zimbabwe's HIV infection rate, somewhere around 40% of the population, ensures that it will remain one of the world's most AIDS-affected societies for years to come.

Today, many musicians feel strongly motivated to address political realities in their music. Those who dare to do so take enormous risks. Musicians have been interrogated and threatened. Thomas Mapfumo, consistently the bravest popular singer in the country's history, has had songs restricted from radio play in the aftermath of the 2000 elections, which went badly for the government. Worse, he has now moved his family to the United States, citing concerns for their safety and his own, and he has no plans to return any time soon. Another veteran singer, Oliver Mtukudzi, took substantial heat over the past year when one of his songs, "Wasakara," was interpreted as a call for aging President Robert Mugabe to resign. Mtukudzi has fervently denied this interpretation, but he's been forced to do a lot of explaining, and his fans have been victimized, sometimes brutally.

Random violence, often carried out by so-called liberation "war veterans," is rampant in the townships of Harare, the nation's capital, and in the rural areas. Similar tactics were used in Zimbabwe's hard-fought independence war, in which villagers were routinely terrorized by both guerillas and government troops. Southern Rhodesia was, of course, famous for its repression and censorship. Sadly, the leaders of "liberated" Zimbabwe have learned many bad habits from their predecessors, and now seem determined to stay in power through generating fear of dissent and change. Property destruction, farm seizures, beatings, and killings are reported daily in the nation's opposition newspapers. Meanwhile, the government appears more concerned with curtailing the power of the judiciary and parliament to intervene in these matters than with halting the growing violence and lawlessness.

The result of all this is widespread self-censorship on the parts of artists, DJs, and others involved with the music industry. This report details the contemporary situation in Zimbabwe and examines three case studies: 1) the reported restriction of two Thomas Mapfumo songs during and after the 2000 elections, 2) incidents surrounding the controversial Oliver Mtukudzi song "Wasakara," and 3) the failed effort to launch Zimbabwe's first independent radio station, Capital Radio, in late 2000. The report concludes with recommendations about how those inside and outside Zimbabwe can help to reverse the effects of intimidation and self-censorship in the country's music industry.

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