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with fire: Fear and self-censorship in Zimbabwean music
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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.
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
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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