Arts, Culture and Sport
Three Silences of Winky D
Winky D wants to restore Zimdancehall to its default ghetto settings. His 13th album, Eureka Eureka, challenges culture capture by self-seeking patrons and state actors. Noted for his conceptual dynamism and pro-poor devotion, Winky D has repeatedly thrown his weight against trends to influence the industry in his own direction. Will Zimdancehall respond to his latest call?
The lizard that digs its sand nest on the blindside knows that the deepest love is on the back of the mind. To build a house backwards is to reach for the foundation. A house is built with words but held together by silence. Winky D, born Wallace Chirumiko in 1983, is Zimdancehall’s foremost master builder. He was present at the defining moments of the genre but also silent leading up to them. When barbershop historians tell the story of a noisy urban movement many years to come, they will do well to remember the three silences of Winky D.
A lot has been made of how too little is known about Winky D’s personal life. The king of privacy has morphed from a turban-wearing Bobo youth to a kickboxing badman, from the Poor People’s Devotee to the Ninja President, the Bigman, the Dancehall Igwe, the Gafa, ChiExtraterrestial, and now Gombwe. But his off-throne diversions have remained guesswork, 19 years in the industry. Winky D is, above all, a dancehall nerd. Songwriters stain their sleeves red giving their secrets away but Winky D is no One Republican. The artifice – world-building, alter egos, concept albums and intertextuality – maintains a bufferzone around Zimbabwean music’s favourite anti-social extrovert.
But silence is not just the line between the public and the personal for Winky D. It is the core philosophy running through his Zimdancehall reign. Silence gives character to the king’s speech. When the king speaks, the kingdom rearranges itself around his words. The master of the house who runs his mouth after every word wakes up to find his voice mistaken for the sound of falling dishes.
Winky D came to rule already schooled in silence. When urban grooves came to town, the Devotee was underground, a prince among paupers, retrieving his supper from the claws of street wolves. Now that street poets who came after him are dining princely with Babylon, the Igwe’s chair is empty, once again, at Zimdancehall’s feast of shame.
This story tells the three silences of Winky D.
First, we find him breaking the third silence with his 2023 album, EUREKA EUREKA.
Done with silence
Winky D is done with silence on EUREKA EUREKA. Zimdancehall has been bankrolled by Babylon lately. Politicians, pastors, businessmen and wannabes have absorbed the culture to their own narrow interests. And now the Gafa comes to restore it to street settings. While at it, why not also deliver the memo to the relevant doorsteps? In Kendrick Lamar’s parable of the caterpillar and the butterfly, the street realist can no longer look past his conditioned reality, while the industry conformist is lost to society in his immersion in music about music. Winky D has had two decades to work through the blind spots. On EUREKA EUREKA, he is not just restoring dancehall to its street settings but also lining Zimbabwe up for a righteous reboot.
Zimdancehall has been bankrolled by Babylon lately [Politicians, pastors, businessmen and wannabes] and now Winky D — the Gafa comes to restore it to street settings
Opening track, “DZIMBA DZEMABWE”, featuring Shingai, is the first of many bold moments on Winky D’s 13th album. Its patriotically immersive visuals are a tale of two countries that share the name Zimbabwe. Winky D turns out for the poor in a class struggle where their last frontier – their songs and their souls – have also been bought by the system. Going out as a song for everyone, “DZIMBA DZEMABWE” has a broader aesthetic, post-“Dzemudanga”, “Parliament” and “KaSong keJecha”.
A child marriage scene where a little girl is sold for a bucket of maize in the “DZIMBA DZEMABWE” video can be seen on a second level as the Zanu PF government mortgaging “the coming generation” through its cartel economy and extractive capitalism. And on a third level as the slavery our generation has grown up under, just as the Gafa truthfully spits, “They talk about democracy, me look around all I see is hypocrisy.” Stressing the two-countries motif, the image is quickly contrasted by innocence and freedom on the other side of town, the dream that was Zimbabwe but was only allowed a few.
There is no ton of wordplay on this song but every word is well-placed and pointed. Winky D’s collaborator Shingai delivers without the growling-and-yodeling aura we have come to associate with female cultural revivalists. During Winky D’s revivalist turn, beginning with Gombwe, but more pronounced on Njema, there has been somewhat a mismatch between heritage-leaning lyrics and the computerised, commonplace Zimdancehall sound.
It has previously taken rock-heavy mbira metallica to sing about culture but Winky continues to do this on synthetic dancehall beats. Is this a generational statement? Like, yes, Zimbabwean culture is youth culture too. We will present it on our own terms, away from heavily appropriated tropes. Without his peer Jah Prayzah’s detailed sonic repertoire, Winky has to solely rely on his voice as the instrument for his maturer message. Its charging vibe and internal variations ably ride the minimalist production of this new album.
“DZIMBA DZEMABWE” was the first album cut to turn ruling-party meddlers and officials into incoherent Phillistines. Some of them have called for Winky D to be banned from performing in Zimbabwe. Some have alleged that he is playing the tune of his American paymasters and threatened to produce receipts.
By the end of the album rollout, Zimdancehall was on shifting ground. Right-leaning industry actors were coming at Winky D for his now-or-never statement against culture capture.
EUREKA EUREKA is the latest chapter in the three silences of Winky D.
But how to map these silences?
Map of silence
Winky D launched EUREKA EUREKA at the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC) on December 31, bringing out some of the hottest names in Zimdancehall and hip hop to perform their collaborations with him from the album. Di Bigman had the Zimbabwean internet to himself over the next 11 days during an unusual album rollout that saw him release one or two songs everyday. EUREKA EUREKA carries 14 tracks, accompanied by three videos so far, “DZIMBA DZEMABWE” (feat. Shingai), “XYZ” (feat. Quonfuzed) and “PETER FRIEND” (feat. Nutty O).
The new career highlight is preceded by War (2004), The Devotee (2005), Vanhu Vakuru (2008), Come 2 Tek Ova (2009), Chatsva (2009), Igofigo – The Unthinkable (2010), PaKitchen (2011), Life Yangu (2012), Gafa Life Mixtape (2015), Gafa Futi (2016), Gombwe (2018) and Njema (2019). Winky D paced himself between his longer album silences, 2005-2008, 2012-2015 and 2019 to 2023, with singles, mixtapes and short-form lyrical exercise, including Luckspin Medley (2005), Singles Collection (2006) and Ragga Musambo (2020).
The time of each album silence represents a deeper silence. Winky D worked behind the scenes to embody his own type of change and pull the industry after him
The time of each album silence, however, represents a deeper silence. A long night of the soul. Committed for the long haul, Winky D found himself in the tide of industry dynamics. He worked behind the scenes not just to survive the changes but to embody his own type of change and pull the industry after him.
The three silences of Winky D are his 2005-2008 radio silence during the urban grooves era, his 2012-2015 album silence as Zimdancehall went mainstream, and his abstinence from industry politics 2018-2023 as Zimdancehall went from the organic mouthpiece of the ghetto to the playground of the “mbinga” (street-speak for rich patrons, powerful politicians and eminent meddlers typically associated with the ruling Zanu PF).
The Devotee’s first silence ends with Vanhu Vakuru (2008), a hardcore album that nonetheless takes him from the underground to the mainstream, setting the stage for the end of urban groove and the rise of Zimdancehall. His second silence ends with Gafa Life Kickstape (2015), a concept album we may not fully make sense of without pulling the dancehall clock a little backwards.
The year is 2011. Winky D is cleaning up and softening for the mainstream. Only an urban groove singer would have dedicated a 14-track album to courtship and marriage. But that’s just Winky D gives dancehall with his “mjolo” album, PaKitchen (2011). Perhaps the kitchen, a Zimbabwean metonymy for marriage, even carries the broader symbolism of settling down. The transformation of the brawling and roving Ninja President to the mature Bigman.
And now its 2012. Winky D’s circle of detractors is no longer underground deejays but urban-groove era dancehall acts, Trinta, formerly with Honey Vybz, and Sniper Storm. No less artist than Thomas Mapfumo is also in the mix. In the 1980s, Mapfumo told sungura artists to stop singing rhumba, tired of going it alone with the good old Zimbabwean sound. In the 1990s and 2000s, he found time to go at everyone from the Congolese rhumba artists proper to Pope John Paul II and Alick Macheso. 2010s are Winky D’s turn to get the memo. Dr. Mapfumo reliably tells the young one to give bubblegum music a break, repeats the message whenever anyone cares to listen, before miraculously doffing his hat to Winky D in 2020.
Still in 2012, the album released under the stimulus of radio detractors is further proof that Di Bigman has softened. Life Yangu (2012) is a bleating-ram approach to beef. More Dr. Martin Luther King Jr than Vybz Kartel, really. No name dropped, no Shaolin kicks threatened. Winky D is merely threatening to fast and pray like Lt. Stitchie, cleansing his name from personal attacks by fellow artists, and basically refusing to have anyone fish out his ghetto venom in this his mainstream phase. He is caught up with the mature card when the turf is pulled away from under him.
The year is 2012. Winky D is all glammed up for his altar act when forgotten sons of his youth show up from Mbare and every other ghetto. They are singing about beef, violence, ganja, hard mixes, raw sex, just being uncensored ghetto chroniclers. Their badness and slackness turns Di Bigman’s blood to water. He goes into the booth to chastise them but they rude yuts remind him his own path to fame was not all that innocent. We are witnessing nothing less than the Oedipal crisis of Zimdancehall. When barbershop historians talk about how the Dancehall Igwe used steampunk hats, Eureka tubs, space symbols and old-head talk to outwit coup plotters, they will do well to remember Gafa Life Kickstape, the 2015 concept album that broke the second silence of Winky D.
These are the three silences of Winky D, told backwards like agama mimetics.
Back to the third silence of Winky D.
Third silence of Winky D
Thirty pieces of silver
Something is sick in the state of Zimdancehall. On a real-to-real, the genre has been rumoured dead in the last few years. How did we get here? On the night of May 21, 2022, journalist Kennedy Nyavaya attended the attended the 10th anniversary of Zimdancehall’s foremost label, Chillspot Records. Young people who had come to celebrate their ghetto heroes grew restless as the event was overtaken by speechifying politicians. Merely the title of Nyavaya’s report, “Zimdancehall is dead – Critics say Zimbabwe’s ghetto sound was sold for a song”, captures the anti-climax weighing the hearts of many Zimdancehall lovers.
In 2018, no less Zimdancehall stable than Chillspot released Pfee Medley, endorsing ruling Zanu PF candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidential campaign. Rising stars Bazooker, Boss Pumacol, Poptain, Uncle Epatan and others featured on the riddim. From here, anybody could snout Zimdancehall’s rear for a penny. Zanu PF actors and wannabes took their turns. Especially in lockdown when artists could no longer live off paying masses, riddim culture morphed into public relations. If this was Zimdancehall’s big payback, then it came at the cost of organic traction.
“Recently Collins and Sean Mnangagwa are reported to be running Scarfmore Records which has been financing a number of musicians, some of whom have been seen posing for photos with the twins at their offices,” Sindiso Dube reports in The Standard article, meaningfully titled “Zanu PF frets over Eureka Eureka… As Winky D reignites protest music”. Scarfmore Records (named after President Mnangagwa’s ubiquitous talisman) allegedly donated $10,000 worth of studio equipment to Chillspot and financed serial hitmaker Enzo Ishal’s paintball business. Passion Java has been more open about his public relations work for Zanu PF, coughing up thousands of dollars for artists to sing Mnangagwa’s name and drape his famous scarf.
By capturing Chillspot, Passion Java is centrally placed to tap fresh talent for his political masters
Java has been smarting from stray fire off EUREKA EUREKA since the album launch, particularly “SHAKER”, where Winky and Enzo make light work of mbingas. Per Java’s 2020 claim, the Gafa turned down the pastor’s $30 thousand offer to manage his career for one year. Not many dancehall artists have been of the position or conviction to resist. They wind up sounding like a broken record with out-of-place shoutouts to Zanu PF cartel bosses and Mnangagwa. By capturing Chillspot, Java is centrally placed to tap fresh talent for his masters.
EUREKA EUREKA may have minimalist production but it is a maximalist spectacle. By lining up a new generation of performers for his pro-poor album, Winky D is making a statement against culture capture and living up to his Gafa (gaffer/teacher) persona. Java, who ironically calls himself the Gafa after Winky D, is in his feelings. “I promise you. No one will take ma streets angu pa internet, This week chi album cha winky Cheku Promota violence ndochinyararidza even chisina Hit song… Java the strategist,” he recently posted on Facebook, as he apparently lined up a new cast to sing his praises and Mnangagwa’s.
But one won’t do justice limiting the most relevant artist of the generation to Java’s overnight stunts. Winky D is walking in the rails of no less artists than Zexie Manatsa, Thomas Mapfumo and Leonard Zhakata. It will take us the healthy virtue of patience and few more instalments to get to the depth of his three silences.
Y’all down for Part 2?
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