JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Zambian hip-hop artist Fumba Chama won’t say where he is, or whom he is referring to in a song that caused him to run for his life.
But when the artist, who goes by the stage name Pilato, spoke to VOA this week, after fleeing condemnation and death threats from supporters of the ruling party, it’s clear why the dance track has upset some of Zambia’s ruling class.
“A rat has entered into the house and is stealing,” he raps in the Bemba language over a drum-heavy track filled out with African instruments. "Rats steal even the things they do not need. They steal briefs which they don’t wear.”
“I was going to be killed”
His latest track, "Koswe Mumpoto" or "Rat in the Pot," was released in December. By the beginning of January, the mounting death threats convinced him that he needed to leave the country. He spoke to VOA by phone, from an undisclosed location.
“I started getting threats, both as (WhatsApp) voice notes and video clips, of warnings telling me what they were going to do to me,” he said. “They told me they were going to beat me; some were saying to me I deserved to die, I was going to be killed. Some were saying that even if I went to the courts, I was going to be snatched away from the courts and dealt with.”
Pilato took these threats seriously and left Zambia earlier this month. That’s because rights groups have documented a tightening of restrictions under President Edgar Lungu, who took power after his predecessor’s sudden death and was re-elected in a highly contentious poll in 2016. That poll eventually led to fallout that included the arrest of Lungu’s main rival, who was charged with treason. but later released, and Lungu’s declaration of a state of emergency last year after an arson attack in Lusaka, the capital.
Between those big events, rights groups say, has been a growth in political intolerance and politically motivated arrests.
Sparring with words, sparing none
The 33-year-old singer and poet is no stranger to controversy - and spares no one with his sharp words. In 2011, he released a song in which he called some Zambian parliament members “mental patients.” That was followed in 2013 with a single in which he called then-President Michael Sata the “father of lies.” Then, in 2015, Pilato says he was arrested for defaming the president and disturbing the peace for a song in which he called Lungu “a drunk.” Pilato says the case was thrown out of court.
The recording artist's newest track drew immediate condemnation from the ruling Patriotic Front’s youth league, which released a statement giving him 48 hours to withdraw the song. He refused.
VOA calls to Zambian officials, in Zambia and in South Africa, went unanswered, but the nation’s high commissioner to South Africa has vigorously denied any threats came from the government.
Rights group Amnesty International has called on Zambia’s government to stop cracking down on dissenters. The group also noted, with concern, the recent prison sentence given to a doctor who created a fake Facebook account that made fun of Lungu.
‘It’s not going to stop’
Amnesty researcher Lloyd Kuveya says the group believes these aren’t just songs and social media posts, these are about important freedoms.
“We are really concerned about the issue of freedom of expression and assembly and association,” he told VOA. “So the moment a government starts to crack down on one individual, it’s not going to stop. And we have seen that sort of thing happening in countries like Zimbabwe, for instance.”
Pilato says whatever happens, he won’t stop singing.
“I keep making these songs because they are necessary,” he said. “I believe somebody has to stand, somebody has to speak out, somebody has to challenge the wrongs if we are to move forward, if we are to make a better country for ourselves. Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong; things shouldn’t go in this direction.’”
After all, he says, it’s in his very name. Pilato is an acronym, he says, for "People in Lyrical Arena Taking Over."