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Brown: A talent truncated by politics


“Form is temporary, class is permanent,” goes a sports metaphor.

Musician Andy Brown, who died last Saturday, had class, but to some, he contrived to make this temporary — like form.

There is no doubt that Brown was greatly talented as a musician. I first saw him perform “live” in the mid-1980s when Ilanga was the band of the moment. Though much reserved at the time, Brown was superb at what he did.

That was at the height of global anti-apartheid protests as the world became outraged by the excesses of the white Afrikaner regime in South Africa as it vainly tried to stem the march of change through brutal suppression, killing unarmed demonstrators and carrying out extrajudicial killings of known human rights activists.

Besides entertainment value, music serves as a vehicle for social causes and change through powerfully and effectively questioning the established order. Its strength lies in its spontaneity.

Ilanga correctly read the politics of the moment as they composed and recorded a song titled Botha in reference to hardline South African Prime Minister PW Botha, questioning his political conscience.
Brown was on the right side of history as the apartheid regime crumbled within a decade.

But such a great talent as Brown could not forever be held back; cream always rises to the top. A good person or idea cannot go unnoticed for long. Brown inevitably emerged from the shadow of de facto Ilanga leader Don Gumbo to form his own group Storm.

Fast-forward to 2000, Brown’s career took a plunge. Why? Because he hitched onto the “wrong side of history”. “History, like God, is a good thing to have on your side, no matter what political party you represent,” wrote columnist Richard Handler. Brown became associated with the detestable goings-on of that time.

In 2000, Brown recorded the song Chigaro Chamambo (The King’s Throne), plainly stating that President Robert Mugabe was unchallengeable. How can there be a sovereign king under a republican constitution? This country is called the Republic of Zimbabwe, not the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

To many of Brown’s fans, this sounded like a discordant note. The musician they adored had disappeared into the clutches of the system they were beginning to loathe. Brown and his fan base were moving in opposite directions. Now he was singing to them with contrived messages which did not resonate with them. The beat remained, but the spirit and spontaneity had gone.

Moreover, the surfeit of airplay unrelated to popularity and/or sales meant one thing: propaganda. Not to mention that there is something patronising, presumptuous and intrusive about Zanu PF which rubs many people the wrong way. As soon as Brown became associated with that, his popularity plummeted. Rhodesia had its propagandists such as Wrex Tarr who sang Rhodesians Never Die, but where is Rhodesia today? They totally failed because the lyrics did not resonate with conscientised blacks hungry for freedom and justice. It was like singing out of tune. Music reflects social issues, including ills, without sanitising them. An example is Thomas Mapfumo’s song “Corruption” recorded in 1990 but still going strong despite a complete ban from airplay. Why? Because corruption is here among us and getting worse.

Of course, it was Brown’s democratic right to openly back the so-called fast-track land reform programme, but the decision was dreadful professional-wise. He thought his fans would automatically go along with him, but people are not motivated by such idolatry. Land invasions became an emotive issue because many lives – both black and white – were unnecessarily being lost. The violence became gratuitous. This offended the basic sense of justice and fairness across race.

This had echoes of Mao’s socalled Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when intellectuals and other free thinkers in China were targeted. Mao alleged that bourgeois elements were infiltrating the government and society at large, aiming to restore capitalism. He insisted that these “revisionists” be removed through violent class struggle. The Cultural Revolution damaged the country on a great scale economically and socially. Millions of people were persecuted in the violence that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including torture, rape, imprisonment, sustained harassment, and seizure of property. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced. Isn’t this similar to the farm displacements witnessed here plus political violence, the endless talk of sovereignty that “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” and the economic implosion of 2008? Brown was used as the likes of then Information minister Jonathan Moyo unleashed Zanu PF’s version of the Cultural Revolution purging State media of those suspected not to be loyal enough and blacklisting musicians from airplay.

I don’t think Brown really knew the implications of what he had gotten himself into. His stance could have been born out of more personal reasons. Brown, whose original name was Cadia Shoko, was of mixed race or “Coloured” and was brought up by his black mother in rural Mberengwa. His white father is never mentioned probably because he was never ever there for him and his mother. This upbringing could have crystallised into the radical stance he took against white farmers. This simmering anger could have burst into an uncontrollable rage which seemed to rule him later in life.

Yes, there is need to temper criticism with understanding, especially in this polarised society, while at the same time avoiding over-the-top praise such as “Brown the music magician, performed miracles of a music menu” by Zanu PF national chairman Simon Khaya Moyo. Said Khaya Moyo after Brown’s death: “The silence is stunning, bewildering and leaving (sic) music lovers like orphans.” Now, now, do we need all this hyperbole? How very sad for such a marvellous talent to be truncated – all on the altar of politics which was not his vocation in the first and last analysis.

At the end, Brown appeared much cooler and calmer – he was regaining his form and class. He will live on in his songs.

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