24 January 2019

Zimbabwe: A Tribute to the Social Activist Tuku

Photo: Rock Paper Scissors/RnW
Oliver Mtukudzi.

Oliver Mtukudzi was the husky voice of the people, decrying social injustice and affirming the human rights of all.

The Zimbabwean griot is dead, yet he is very much alive. It has been only one day since Oliver Mtukudzi died and we are all part of the worldwide wail that is washing across the World Wide Web. Millions of us are mourning and paying tribute to Oliver Mtukudzi. With his husky but dulcet voice, he decried social injustice, defended human rights and captured the beauty and power of Zimbabwe, Africa, its culture and its people.

He was our social conscience. Now that he is physically gone, "Todii? What shall we do?", as Tuku asked in one of his most famous songs. At a time when the HIV epidemic was a taboo subject and carried stigma in Zimbabwe, Tuku sang "Todii" to show the devastation caused by the virus to the family unit and relationships in the African context - where community and interconnectedness is at the core of the culture.

We are family

In Shona culture, there is no such designation as cousin, aunt or uncle; instead we have brothers, sisters, dads and moms. People of no relation are still referred to with familial descriptors to show and embody that we are all inextricably linked - ubuntu. Our current Eurocentric views on nuclear and extended families seeped in with postcolonialism, but to the indigenous languages that Tuku made a point to sing in, those traditions of communal living are intrinsic.

Tuku sang predominantly in Shona as a cultural beacon, upholding African philosophy, idioms and parables and resisting the Westernisation of our social truths. He remained true to the continent and was fêted for his authenticity. This love of community is one of the reasons that "Todii" is so poignant. HIV endangered and in many cases destroyed family and community dynamics. This virus both created and exacerbated fissures in the African community.

"Todii" was Tuku's call to action; a call to respond collectively to the epidemic that destroyed our way of life. He played his role as human rights activist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the Southern Africa Region one lyric at a time, never losing his identity as an African man with Zimbabwean values.

The literal translation of "todii" is "what shall we do". Now we utter those very words in mourning for the man who penned and sang them. Our African hero, poet, a voice of reason, a treasure whose social consciousness and inimitable voice booms in our mind's ear and hearts. Now his heart has stopped beating, but ours will hold on to his memory and his vibrations will continue in our audio devices and in the lives of those he influenced.

As many albums as his age

This hero had as many albums as his age - 66 - each with unapologetic and topical societal commentary. Even in his many collaborations, done with artists from across the globe, he brought his message, his ethnicity and his ethos to the stage and the studio. The social relevance of his music made it timeless. For example, his song "Neria", the soundtrack for the eponymous movie written by Tsitsi Dangarembga, placed him firmly on the map, not only for its musicality but for the message advocating for a widow in a male-dominated society.

In "Neria", Tuku tells the widow to be strong in the face of abuse, misogyny and greed. He was ahead of his time. It is 2019 and the women's rights movement now has more clout, but "Neria" came at a time when feminism was still a dirty word and female oppression was even more insidious and pervasive.

Continuing his concern for women's rights, Tuku sang "Tozeza baba" ("We fear father") in 2011. This song describes a man who comes home drunk and brutally beats his wife. Tuku implores the man to consider his actions. The song was a clear message to wife-beaters and the monsters who attack women to stop.

One would think that someone who sang to people in 1977 would be no more than a vestige in 2019, yet he remained relevant and loved across the decades. Few artists entertain for generations and cross the age divide as fluidly as Tuku did. Grandparents and great-grandchildren all went to his shows, bought his albums and heeded his messages. He remained topical and prolific throughout his career.

He used meta-art to self-reflect and explain his role as a griot in many of his songs. (I have consciously selected the word "griot" over "singer" because his work went much deeper than belting out a tune.) In my opinion, his most self-reflective song in regard to his art, and to the trades of others, is "Murimi Munhu" ("a farmer is a person"). In the song, Tuku speaks about a farmer being a human being and soil being the core of the world and of nations. He was the first to highlight the fact that in Zimbabwe, land and agriculture are at the heart of the economy and land reform and all its socio-political implications are foundational to our discussion about the country. As the song progresses, he turns to other trades, like hunting, preaching and singing, explaining that these are equally valid forms of work and of passion. These trades and passions feed families. In a post-colonial, "more British than the British" society, where we are exhorted to be doctors, lawyers or accountants, this message has extreme significance. He bravely defended his art, in a country where artists are sometimes looked down upon.

He also ushered in new talent: Tuku created the Pakare Paye Arts Centre, where he not only sang about supporting young artists but mentored them himself.

Tuku is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren, but he is also survived by us, you and me, a nation and a world that will never forget him, never stop playing his music and never stop learning from his message.

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