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February 28, 2012

Music Freedom Day a Challenge in Zimbabwe

This week, Zimbabwean musicians join their colleagues from around the globe in celebrating Music Freedom Day. But Zimbabwe still applies old laws to censor artists and composers.

Praising Mugabe

Listening to Zimbabwe’s state-owned radio stations, one could get the mistaken impression that all is well in this impoverished country. This song praises President Robert Mugabe crediting him with being a liberator, a visionary and a statesman.

Traditionally, music has been an artistic avenue to express - among other things - political dissent rather than approval of mainstream politics.

Artists here say there is plenty of music in Zimbabwe questioning the government and the order of things. But they say they are being silenced because the only broadcasters, which are state-owned, refuse to air music that is critical of the government, of Mugabe or his ZANU-PF party.

Broadcasting

One of them is Raymond Majongwe who has published 20 albums. But, despite his music being popular in nightclubs, it is rarely featured on local radio stations.

“Nothing much has been played from my stable. Many a time I have tried to have shows, I have been frustrated," said Majongwe. "My posters have been pulled out. People who are predominantly [ZANU-PF] they are not happy with me performing because my music is deemed anti-ZANU-PF. I have critiqued the tribulations people of this country have gone through. That has not gone well with [ZANU-PF].”

Majongwe is not alone. His mentor Thomas Mapfumo got frustrated and left the country in the late 1990s. Mapfumo created and popularized radical struggle music, which he called Chimurenga, and in which he called for the overthrow of the minority white government led by Ian Smith. But today his music is not aired in Zimbabwe.

Old laws

This is one of his popular songs denouncing corruption by senior government officials in Zimbabwe and is typical of the music he wrote in the early 1990s. Singer Majongwe says draconian laws enacted by the Ian Smith government to restrict dissent are the same ones being used against dissidents by ZANU-PF officials today.

“It is quite sad that we are still using the products of white supremacists on blacks by people who claim to have brought independence unto us," said Majongwe. "These are necessary contradictions of our times. When liberators start using the laws promulgated by the people who were oppressing them… It is quiet sad …”

Board of Censors

Majongwe is referring to the 1967 Censorship and Entertainment Control Act. It established the Zimbabwe Board of Censors to which musicians and artists must apply for certification.  Without this they cannot perform or publish their work.

Solomon Chitsunga, an inspector from the Board of Censors, says the law is in the public interest.

“Musicians are supposed to get [a] certificate that allows them to provide entertainment to the public," said Chitsunga. "So any musician who wants to entertain the public must have that certificate which will guide him - the dos and don’ts - especially on the moral, decent aspects, since that is the other function of the board. Recording companies must check if the art they are recording is coming is from a registered member with the censorship board. There might be chances that the music might be banned.”

Chitsunga says there are many valid reasons why certain music might be banned, but when pressed to explain he would only say some music might cause a public outcry.

Because of the censorship, many musicians have resorted to praising Mr.
Mugabe and his policies. Such music enjoys unlimited airplay.

This song which applauds Mugabe’s policy of requiring that all foreign foreign-owned firms give a majority stake to Zimbabweans, has enjoyed lots of play on all Zimbabwe’s state-owned stations.

But as Music Freedom Day approaches, protest musicians like Majongwe hope for political change that will bring them the creative freedom for which they yearn.