Music x Politics: the legacy of Oliver 'Tuku' Mtukudzi
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
‘As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. It has to be for revolution.’ - Fela Anikulapo Kuti
A musical and cultural icon in his native Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi, who fans have affectionately nicknamed ‘Tuku’, made music that reflected the daily life and struggles of his homeland by blending together a number of Southern African music traditions. Tuku was not just an inventive guitarist and singer, he was also an astonishingly productive recording artist, releasing 67 albums in his four-decade career. But it’s not his creative productivity that is so fascinating about him; Mtukudzi carefully walked the line of creating politically dissenting music in an environment where any opposition to the ruling elite is dangerous, and in some cases even lethal.
Tuku’s homeland, Zimbabwe, has been in the grips of a socio-political crisis since its independence in 1980. Violent authoritarianism prevails due to the alliance of political ruling and military elites, who prove to be ready and willing to employ extreme violence in order to execute the Machiavellian vision of former president Robert Mugabe and current president Emmerson Mnangagwa. This military entrenchment of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party has resulted in a breakdown of the rule of law, abductions, and torture of dissenting voices and widespread corruption, whilst the masses are struggling to put food on the table and make ends meet.
For a while now, popular music has increasingly become a mode of expressing political concerns for the country with artists like Tongai Moyo, Winky D, Leonard Zhakata, and Thomas Mapfumo writing lyrics that are explicitly or implicitly political. The general themes of these works are Black oppression, corruption, nepotism, the silencing of dissenting voices, state-sponsored electoral fraud, and recurring politically motivated violence. However, within the confines of the authoritarian regime, protest songs have frequently been banned from radio and television airplay, and artists are often stalked or harassed by state agents, while others have opted for self-imposed exile out of fear.
In this political context, Mtukudzi’s Tuku music is characterized by nuanced political satire, underlying dissent and continuous advocacy for lasting peace. The interesting thing here is that the songs are carefully constructed to capture and subtly portray political dissent, often through riddles and innuendo, as to not explicitly become ‘protest music’, at times leaving people arguing about the intended meanings.
The closest Tuku came to explicitly protesting national leadership was in his 2001 hit song Wasakara, which means ‘’You’re old’’. The song was an indirect call to president Robert Mugabe, who had been in power for twenty-three years and had just reached the age of 76, telling him to accept that he is too old to continue as the incumbent and that it was time for younger and fresher leadership. After the song’s release, hoards of police officers confiscated copies of Tuku’s CDs and cassette tapes from flea markets and record stores. Additionally, in 2004 a lighting technician at one of Mtukudzi’s shows was arrested and detained for a number of days for shining a spotlight on a picture of Mugabe during the performance of this song. Released during Zimbabwe’s worst political crisis since independence, this song could not have been better timed. In 2000, the Zimbabwean government launched their Fast-Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP), a policy program involving compulsory land acquisition aimed at redistributing land from the minority white population to the majority Black population. A coalition of politicians and veterans, many of them children or grandchildren of the pro-Mugabe ruling elite, forced white farm owners off of their land, predominantly without compensation and often involving violence, along with their workers, who were typically of regional descent. As a result, several million farm workers were left displaced, unemployed, homeless and often excluded from the land redistribution. At the same time, the ruling political elite had acquired hundreds of farms among them, and had allocated the majority of the other farms to friends and family members. Consequently, Zimbabwe experienced a disastrous drop in total agricultural output, resulting in widespread famine.
Another example of Tuku’s political commentary can be seen in the song Magumo, released in 1999, which serves as a warning against the corrupting effects of the excesses of power and money. Tuku describes how the acquisition of wealth and power tends to inflate someone’s feelings of self-importance, resulting in them abusing that power in the oppression of those less fortunate. The lyrics point out that there is no honor in cruelty and the oppression of the weak and the poor; it is a cheap victory attainable to anyone willing to try.
Ma ulemali enengi besuhlupa abantu
(When you have lots of money then you start to trouble people)
(What do you hope to gain with that?)
(Where will you end up?)
(Where will you end up?)
(You beat your chest)
Tozvinzwa kuti ndisu tiri pano
(Feeling all your importance)
Mugumo acho chii?
(How will you end up?)
(You may beat your chest)
Kushambadza kuti apo
(Screaming that you are important)
Magumo acho chii?
(But how will you end up?)
Typical of Mtukudzi’s music, the song makes no direct mention of Robert Mugabe, but audiences far and wide have interpreted the lyrics as being directed at him. After obtaining office in 1980, Mugabe has amassed a staggering personal fortune and has transformed the nation into a full-fledged military dictatorship. The most egregious example of Mugabe’s willingness to employ unspeakable violence was the Gukurahundi, a series of massacres of Ndebele people carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army between early 1983 and 1987. The Ndebele people are the second-largest ethnic group in the country, while the largest is the Shona. Although there is still no clear death estimate being reported, local Ndebele put the figure anywhere between 20,000 and 80,000 lives lost. Mugabe, a Shona, has never publicly claimed any responsibility for the genocide, but reports show him to have been personally involved. The song lyrics, besides representing a clear critique of Mugabe’s cruelty, use a combination of both Ndebele and Shona throughout the song, in an attempt to universalize the critique against Mugabe, making his dictatorship a national issue instead of an ethnic one.
Mtukudzi’s most famous song, Todii, which translates to ‘what shall we do’, addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis and calls for a collective response. Released in 1999, when many South African countries were reaching the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, this song catapulted Tuku into international fame, becoming popular in other Southern African countries where the disease was running rampant. This song was a break from Zimbabwe’s stigma around HIV/AIDS and the culture of silence around sexual matters. This taboo on sex that characterizes many Southern African cultures has led to a lack of information and education on sex, particularly on sexually transmitted diseases and intermarital rape. Interestingly, the lyrics employ Shona, Ndebele and English in order to reach the widest possible audience. Additionally, Tuku magnifies how those in positions of authority were violating their responsibility to care for their people by not addressing this major health crisis. He ends the song with a solemn appeal for help and ideas in view of this devastation.
In 2017, Robert Mugabe was impeached as president at the age of 93 and replaced by his first vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a fellow member of the ZANU-PF. Though Mnangagwa is not as explicit in his wealth acquisition as his predecessor, he does not break with Mugabe’s repressive dictatorial style of governance. Mtukudzi passed away on the 23rd of January 2019 after a lifelong battle with diabetes. Tuku’s passing has sparked a debate about the meaning and nature of many of his lyrics, since Tuku has publicly stated he has never aimed to make political music, saying “I sing what I see happening in society and my music has always been for peace”. However, due to the political environment he was in, and the very real danger that members of the political opposition are in, it is no surprise he would deny any political motivations in the writings of his music. He sang songs that comprise sociocultural and political commentary in very subtle, salient but powerful ways as evidenced by their impact locally and globally. He used music to heal, encourage, guide, advise, and celebrate. When asked about his reasoning for the themes of his music in a 2015 interview, he answered ‘‘Why do we sing, why is there art? Art is to give life and hope to the people. Art is for healing broken hearts. Like in Zimbabwe, you don’t sing a song when you have nothing to say.’’