15 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Should Censorship Board Have a Say?

Photo: Freedom to Create
Owen Maseko's work


I WAS not present when Suluman Chimbetu launched his "Syllabus" album in November 2012, but I have heard so much noise being made about it since then. This is what has prompted me to listen to

the album and give an opinion, especially on the controversial track, "Sean Timba". I spent quite a bit of time listening to this well-polished album. I even spent more time listening to the lyrics of the track "Sean Timba" word for word. It went something like this:

"Kana munhu anetsa varume batai munhu. Mubate nepapa, mumurove ndari, kuponda musoro, musote munhu" which is loosely translated as: "If someone has become a problem people should grab him and savagely hit his head in order to sort him out." Then there is a bit where Chimbetu sings about the rationalism behind someone who accompanies others to make money but suddenly changes his mind when a hat goes missing.

Chimbetu defends his lyrics by arguing that they are aimed at music pirates and if someone steals his music, he should be savagely beaten. In his own words, Suluman says: "This is my own work and sweat. If someone just comes from nowhere and pirates my music, getting millions from it, I think I will be justified to take the law into my own hands."

Many people I have talked to on the street think that the hit song explicitly promotes violence and revenge as a way of solving conflicts and should be banned from airplay. The rumour mill already says that ZBC has banned it.

Since Chimbetu appeals to youths, the question to ask is whether it is good advice to sing about violence in Zimbabwe, a country dominated by young people?

When asked about this hit song, this is what one political commentator had to say: "Sean Timba is a deceptively catchy song with a toxic and dangerous message celebrating and promoting the use of violence to settle differences.

"Suluman is an upcoming musician with a large following of young people.

"He must take responsibility not to mislead them with the stupid messages of violence, especially as the nation prepares for elections in 2013," he went on to say.

It has also made me wonder whether the Zimbabwe Censorship Board should be involved when artistes release new albums. The Censorship and Entertainment Control Act allows for freedom of expression but also determines what is indecent or obscene or harmful to public morals.

If all artistes who release albums in this country subject them to the Censorship Board first before release, hopefully there will be no offensive material on the market. Some people might view such a move as an infringement of one's freedom of expression which is guaranteed in the current Constitution. Others will see the move as a means of controlling the unpalatable messages people are sometimes subjected to. Most artistes will see such a move as a destruction of the creative arts. It is almost difficult to satisfy everyone's desires.

Whichever way people I have spoken to on the street think that the Censorship Board is sleeping as they are not putting any pressure to bear on "unpleasant" messages coming out of many songs.

So should there be censorship at all?

South African musician Johnny Clegg once said: "Censorship is based on fear." Fear of what? Music is a free expression of the ideas that may express musicians' hopes and aspirations, their joys and sorrows, or simply how they see things. However, these expressions often conflict with those of people in power. One wonders whether they genuinely feel threatened by (healthy) criticism or they simply do not like or appreciate criticism at all? In Zimbabwe it seems more like some are threatened by the very nature of a free exchange of ideas. Musicians form a critical aspect of social commentary. They, like everyone else, have rights to certain levels of freedom of speech. Music censorship is a threat to the future of music around the world.

Politicians have now woken up to the fact that music exerts a powerful impact on our lives and is important for a well-rounded education. Through "biras" and other music festivals politicians in Zimbabwe are now using music as a propaganda tool, but artistic expression which is not supportive of Government ideology is often relegated to the dustbin. This is why the likes of Raymond Majongwe were complaining that they were left out during the recent Unity Gala held in Gokwe.

Shouldn't humanity be promoted without boundaries? According to Bob Marley (1980) "every man has got a right to decide his own destiny", but it seems in Zimbabwe almost everyone is shepherded into how he should think and what he should say or not say in public.

In public the majority of the populace now exercises what is known as self-censorship through fear of persecution.

There is no doubt that musicians are the best communicators of information which needs to be disseminated to the masses. Music, therefore, become a very strong weapon which can be used for social conscientisation and social awareness.

Way back in 1982, Dr Thomas Mapfumo, Zimbabwe's musical maestro, recorded a song entitled "Corruption". The song basically exposed those politicians who had looted the war veterans fund as well as the housing scheme projects funds. Radio stations throughout the country churned out this music non-stop for three weeks after its release. Then there was a silence. The song had been a subject of debate in Cabinet and the authorities issued a directive to all State-controlled radio stations not to play it.

However, this incident did not deter Dr Thomas Mapfumo, who made it his policy to exercise his constitutional right by acknowledging his freedom of expression as he continued to release more hits which were critical of the Government until he went into exile years later.

The same fate befell other artistes who were critical of Government policies. A lot of artistes such as. Leonard Zhakata, DJ Cleo, Hugh Masekela and Hosiah Chipanga have in the past claimed that their music has been banned from airplay by the national broadcaster. If that is true, it seems the only music genre acceptable at ZBC is that of praise-singers.

It is not clear whether the radio stations are given direct instruction not to play the music which is perceived as anti-government, or the broadcasters are just afraid of losing their jobs. Only last week, Love Johns, a DJ at Zi-FM radio station, was asking me if he could go ahead and play "Ndoita Mugarandega" by Mapfumo.

I told him that as far as I know nobody has told us not to play it and I see no harm being caused to anyone by playing that song. I have been listening to his shows for a week now. He still hasn't played that song.

In my opinion the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe or the Censorship Board should decide what is offensive and should not be given airplay instead of keeping the DJs guessing.

Fred Zindi is a professor at the University of Zimbabwe. He is also a musician, a radio presenter and an author of several books on music.

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