Fleeing the Tatters
African pop musicians have rarely dared spit in the eyes of politicians. But the exceptions are striking. Fela Kuti needled a succession of Nigerian leaders into launching attacks on his communal household. Congolese rumba hero Franco earned jail time for far lesser affronts in Mobutu's Zaire. South Africa's musical poet Mzwakhe Mbuli and Tanzanian singer Remy Ongala have also earned battle scars. No African musician, however, has had a greater hand in changing political realities than Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe, who once worked to put Robert Mugabe in power and now roundly condemns his rule.
This past June, Zimbabweans braved government intimidation to elect a new parliament with almost half its members coming from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. The result dealt a staggering blow to President Mugabe, whose ZANU-PF party has run Zimbabwe at all levels since his historic election in 1980. Those two pivotal elections present a stark contrastjubilant liberation from colonial rule, bitter rejection of failed leaders. But both times Mapfumo's songs helped shape popular opinion with powerful moral argument, and nurtured solidarity among fed-up citizens.
So why at this moment of personal triumph and artistic power has Mapfumo opted to move his family to Eugene, Oregon? He hesitated when I asked him this question in a recent phone interview, then said that he left Zimbabwe for the safety of his family. "My own life was in danger," he said. "I could read the situation. I had been hearing a lot of rumors from my friends who work for the police and the government."
I lived in Zimbabwe and trailed Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited for six months in 1997 and 1998, and I have never seen a band work harder. They rehearsed four days and played three or four gigs a week, each lasting between six and nine hours, and many involving long drives, sometimes to the other side of the landlocked southern African country. Twenty-five years of this has made Mapfumo seem older than his 55 years. So I wasn't surprised when he conceded near the end of our talk that he is also here because he needs a rest.
This past year, as citizens in Harare rallied, voted, and ultimately celebrated their blow to Mugabe's regime, Mapfumo and his band played to the biggest crowds they'd seen in years. As the results came in, Mapfumo sang to a packed beer hall in Chitungwiza, a decaying, densely populated city just south of the capital. I could envision the scenemostly young working-class men dressed in modest Western clothes and drinking cheap bottled beer, waving their arms and performing crouched, quick-stepping traditional dances to Mapfumo's undulating, spiritually charged songs, deeply rooted in the Shona people's ancient religious music. "Iwe!" Mapfumo surely crowed to his fans. It means "You!" and it expresses Mapfumo's abiding belief in common people.
"The destiny of any country is decided by the people themselves," Mapfumo told me at the start of his summer 2000 U.S. tour. "If the people say enough is enough, you've got to understand them." Both at home and abroad, Mapfumo is cast as a "political" singer, but he always counters that he is an advocate of his people, not a politician. In the 1970s, he named his music for the chimurenga guerrillas, but rather than criticizing Rhodesia's white government directly, he devoted his lyrics to rural hardships and the pain of mothers who sent their boys to die fighting in the bush. As an early shot across Mugabe's bow, his 1988 hit "Corruption" caused shock waves in political circles, but it named no names. It simply poked fun at "something for something, nothing for nothing" political culture.
Lately, Mapfumo has grown bolder. Two songs on 1999's Chimurenga Explosion were banned from Zimbabwean state radio. One title, "Disaster," was more or less self-explanatory. The other, "Mamvemve," means "tatters." "That country is in tatters," Mapfumo told me, distancing himself from his homeland. "That country has lost the rule of law. People who want to live in peace are leaving, running away from a bad situation." The state's action against his music neither surprised nor troubled Mapfumo. "I've been with this thing for too long," he said wearily. "I remember when they [Mugabe and his comrades] were in the bush and I was supporting them with my music. They talked about me as a hero. Today I'm like a villain, an enemy of the state."
In London last March, Mapfumo all but called for Mugabe's resignation in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. After that, band members were harassed by police. "This comes from the top," a sympathetic officer told lead guitarist Joshua Dube during one house search. In July, Zimbabwean officials confiscated Mapfumo's four prized cars, including three BMW Dolphins, claiming that they were stolen. The writing was on the wall. As he left for his summer tour overseas, he told interviewers that the unavailability of fuel in Zimbabwe had made travel there impossible. He did not reveal his plans. During the tour, Mapfumo's family quietly moved to Oregon, and only when the Blacks Unlimited returned home without him in September did the press notice. The Zimbabwe Standard reported that "Zimbabwe's top musician has left the country for the United States, amid speculation that he has gone for good in order to avoid persecution from the government."
But how could no one have noticed that Mapfumo's family had been gone for months? Reporter Michael Kariati failed to supply any specifics about Mapfumo's new home, and referred vaguely to the band having "signed a long-term contract to play in the U.S.A.," the sort of fantasy notion one often hears from naive local fans. It took a South African paper to reach Mapfumo and learn that he plans to return and play his traditional end-of-year concerts this December.
In Zimbabwe, I was often amazed at the local press's obliviousness to cultural events. Foreign outlets from The Economist to All Things Considered interviewed Mapfumo during the election campaign, well aware that his concerts were helping to rally the opposition. But even the most staunchly antigovernment newspapers in Zimbabwe paid little attention.
"It's one of the tragedies of this country," Zimbabwean broadcaster Geraldine Jackson told me from Harare. "We don't make heroes of our own people. They have to go somewhere else to become heroes." Jackson lost her job in state radio when she broadcast news of safe routes out of the city during the 1998 food riots. Her words gave the lie to the official line that all was calm and peaceful. Recently, Jackson has been working with Capitol, Zimbabwe's first independent radio station. Mapfumo told me that he was interviewed live by Capitol, but despite a landmark free-press ruling by Zimbabwe's highest court, the station has been closed down, and the interview does not seem to have aired.
Mapfumo knows that returning to Harare will be dangerous. "But this is not a storm in a teacup," he told me from his Eugene home. "The whole world will be watching." Mapfumo's police contacts assure him that he faces no charges, nor any risk of arrest, but he adds, "You can never tell with these people. They are sometimes very tricky." And very rash. Faced with the threat of impeachment, Mugabe is now lashing out anew at his foes, promising to arrest former Rhodesian president Ian Smith, who has lived peacefully in Harare since his downfall. Mapfumo is reportedly getting heavy airplay in his absence. He certainly could become a target if he returns.
Meanwhile, back in Harare, Mapfumo's remaining musicians are rehearsing, waiting for him to come back. But even if he does, their lives will never be the same. In an e-mail message, guitarist Dube reports that the band's fans, who have traditionally shown the dedication of Deadheads, now feel betrayed, and that other chimurenga artists are rising to fill the vacuum. The country may not recognize its cultural heroes, but it needs them. If new figures of Mapfumo's courage and stature were to emerge from Zimbabwe's present crisis, he might be doing his country, and African music, the biggest favor of all by staying away.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.