For years, Chimurenga maverick Thomas Mapfumo has insisted that dancehallers will never make it internationally as long as they continue singing a Jamaican genre in a Zimbabwean language. Speaking at a press conference in Harare ahead of his Bira Guru concert, the archetypal “prophet of the resistance” chided Zimdancehall artists for mixing up their borrowed robes. Young artists, he said, should promote their own culture but when they appropriate foreign culture, they should do so on the originators’ terms.

“You may say, ‘I do dancehall’, but do you know this term? Can you explain to us what dancehall means? It’s a Jamaican word,” said Mapfumo. “We don’t discourage our young people from entering the music world. But when you step into other people’s culture, do it in their language so that you can be heard globally, like them.”

He approvingly cited Lucky Dube for the umpteenth time since he dissed Zimdancehall trailblazer Winky D for singing bubblegum music and not knowing what he was doing. He attributed the South African reggae great’s international acclaim to his use of English.

This recommendation, coming from an artist who takes to beef like a Rastaman takes to broccoli, has repeatedly sailed under Zimdancehall lovers’ radar. Let’s face it; Mapfumo is that warlike king who has no interest in idly warming his throne. He is always out to poke other kings: When Alick Macheso was outselling every Zimbabwean artist, Mapfumo queried where bearer cheques could possibly take the sungura king. And when Pope John Paul II’s dapper-dressed and sword-wielding bodyguards caught his eye, he asked why the holy man was so afraid of dying and going to heaven.

Lucky Dube. Photo: RhythmFM

“Mukanya” is at it again

His biographer, Banning Eyre, also documents Mapfumo’s ungenerous swipe at rhumba musicians and, of course, the souring of his bromance with Robert Mugabe. “Mukanya” is at it again, this time beefing it out with Zimdancehall artists, the starlets currently popping in the streets.

But Mapfumo is serious this time. And this is an argument he has consistently repeated.

Although his comments have already inspired ungenerous barbs from barbershop historians who view the belligerent legend as ageing faster than he is growing, or cloud-chasing, as DJ Akademiks would say, Mapfumo’s contribution to the Zimdancehall conversation is meaningful. And if you consider that the majority of fans insulating Zimdancehall from progressive criticism consume it on ShareIt and WhatsApp, rather than on iTunes or Gramma, Mapfumo’s advice makes even more sense.

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Is dancehall Zimbabwean music?

It is true that dancehall is not recognised as “Zimbabwean music” on the map of world music, whereas the same market will readily warm up to mbira, jit or Afropop as Zimbabwean exports.

Mokoomba, The Bhundu Boys, Oliver Mtukudzi, The Four Brothers and Mapfumo himself have basked in international acclaim while singing in Tonga or Shona – just as all that Bob Marley, Lieutenant Stitchie, Bounty Killer or Beenie Man ever needed to know to make it internationally was their own Jamaican patois.

Apparently, this also works the other way around…

When Biggie Tembo and Rise Kagona started writing English songs and their band pimped up its sound after landing a mainstream contract in the UK, consumers frowned on new songs like “African Woman” and “Wonderful World”, calling them anemic. They craved the raw jit of “Shabini” and “Tsvimbodzemoto”.

Mapfumo is (understandably) telling his sing-jaying young compatriots that there is no basket in between – he who borrows the tie must also borrow the lapel flower. 

In this long and loving look at Zimdancehall, I will give a few reasons why Mapfumo may want to nuance his prescription of the Queen’s grammar book for Zimdancehall artists.

The patois we hear in Jamaican dancehall is mopped up from the ghettos of Kingston, Spanish Town and August Town. To ask the youths of Mbare, Zengeza or Kambuzuma to dump the everyday language of their streets in favour of Jamaican patois is to superficially transplant them.

Music Legend Oliver Mtukudzi shows his versatility by collaborating with younger musicians – Winky D

I cannot possibly express the second argument better than novelist Tendai Huchu: “Zimdancehall is, indisputably, the one area of Zimbabwean popular culture that is doing the most interesting stuff when it comes to the use of the Shona language.”

Months before Huchu’s article appeared, Tocky Vibes’ verbal aerobics had earned him the nickname “Marshall Munhumumwe of Zimdancehall”, a nod to Mapfumo’s own world-renowned cousin whose songwriting appropriated and matched Shona literary notables WB Chivaura and Mordecai Hamutyinei.

The “Mhai” singer has since retreated into obscurity, thanks to genre-straddling experiments that have not exactly aligned to the market – which brings me to my next point.

The young dancehallers are out to find themselves – and local languages are naturally intertwined with that journey of self-discovery.

Zimdancehall is marshalling a cultural revival, not just at the lyrical but also at the sonic and the conceptual level. Beyond slavishly imitating their Jamaican predecessors, the young dancehallers are out to find themselves – and local languages are naturally intertwined with that journey of self-discovery.

Read: Patoranking becomes first African musician to perform at Jamaica’s Reggae Sumfest

Synthetic riddims have long been the hole in the Zimdancehall roof. The genre cannot shelter you on rainy days of the soul. Its ephemeral medleys are not a safe repository for your memories.

Here is how that has been changing.

When Tocky Vibes was at the height of his reign, he started fusing traditional instruments with his music, at one point calling his brand “ragga-marimba”. On another occasion he shocked revellers by performing in a Nehanda-style (Shona  spirit medium) costume and leg rattles.

His first EP in 2015 was another experimental deep dive, surfing into Afrofusion and giving a nod to reggae while maintaining the marathon wordplay that characterised his breakout singles. On the 2016 album, he enlisted Mono Mukundu, Munya Vialy and Lyton Ngolomi, producers who, at the time, were generally associated with older artists like Oliver Mtukudzi or Blessing Shumba.

Winky D performs at Thomas Mapfumo’s Home-coming bira at Glamis Arena in Harare in April.

Winky D is also signed up for this programme of cultural patriotism. Whereas his previous album was built around a space opera concept and the alter-ego “ChiExtraterrestial”, his latest offering is decidedly a nod to Afrofuturism, or, more specifically, Zimbofuturism.

The album title and alter ego “Gombwe”, derived from Shona spirituality, the Egyptian royal dress on the cover, and the promotional soundbites about “Gombwe” as the ancient guardian of national consciousness, though not fully realised on the album, capture the Afrocentric quest that mainline Zimdancehall is embarking on.

Killer T, Winky D and Tocky Vibes’ 2018 albums, Mashoko Anopfuura, Gombwe and Tsamba lean heavily towards Zimbabwean sounds, and this is all good. These are the baby steps of a genre finding its soul.

Chairman is one of the most agile penmen and consistent deliverers in the game, but if he was to be judged by his mastery of the Queen’s grammar book, he would have left the studio to look for a factory job by now.

Zimdancehall as protest art

Zimdancehall is, crucially, the storefront of protest art – which is hardly surprising, given its roots in reggae, the Pan-African language of struggle.

Semiotic resonance with images of ghetto dislocation, the “sufferation” of Jah’s people, rebellion against capitalist barriers, renunciation of imperialism, invocation of fraternity and resistance against oppression has carried many cultures of the global south along the reggae current.

Zimdancehall may not exactly be immune to Babylon and Lucy, but which other genre is belting out pro-poor anthems like “Mundinzwewo”, “Dzemudanga”, “Twenty Five” or “Mavanga” these days?

In closing, Mapfumo may chide the dancehallers for importing a foreign genre but they landed on Zimbabwe’s hit parade long after Solomon Skuza, John Chibadura, Pied Pipers, The Zig Zag Band and Mapfumo himself had articulated the issues of their day on a reggae tip.

The millennial singjays are negotiating middle ground between Mapfumo and their more direct predecessors, Trevor Hall, Munya Brown, Tendai Gamure, Potato, Major E, Booker T and others, as they blend cosmopolitan influences with their home turf.