Sound Track: Stan Mushava
A church type from the countryside sneaks out of Zupco, his place in life disagreeably summarised by the catapult around his neck and the apostolic badge on his lapel. He looks around as if flustered by city lights and is soon blown away by an uptown sweetheart called Mebo who chooses him over her unimpressed digital-vixen friends.
Obert Chari, the Romeo who got away with treason against the capitalist laws of love, ably debuts atop the National FM 2018 chart and crowns it all with a Nama (2019) Song of the Year nomination. Mebo is an instant classic that, along with Winky D’s MuGarden, Jah Prayzah’s Chengetedza and Pah Chihera’s Runonzi Rudo, invites us to think anew about love and art in a time of alienation.
Even if it does not sweep the Namas, Chari has already won something. It is not every year that a new artiste racing up the charts gets to light up a wholesome feeling for listeners to come back to rainy days. Mebo is the fairy tale that affirms what Karl Marx called our species essence; what makes us human outside the omnipresent claims of capital and instrumental reason.
And, because Mebo’s love is not a checklist of practical goals, Obert is not in a hurry to build Mebo a house of lies like Xtra Large, carpet-interview her like Paul Matavire, promise her a dubious Joina City booking like Freeman, shift blame to the accounting department like Leonard Zhakata or cart away the whole boutique except mannequins for her like Lupe Fiasco. He can stick to his happily-even-before love story — his sanity gratefully spared the game theories of social mobility that instinctively take the place of love.
Chari, Winky D, Jah Prayzah and Pah Chihera did not invent the princess-and-pariah motif, but unlike any songwriter in recent times, they have taken the love song back to the mythic days of Yeukai, Madhebhura, Magobo, Furuwa and Murombo and that golden age of innocence: The early 2000s’ urban grooves.
The primitive triumph of love, contrasted to the check-listing of unsentimental goals — contrasted to “money and power, the Mecca of marriages,” as Mr Lamar puts it — is where art meets heart. In Chari’s 13-minute sungura epic, life is beautiful because love is not an instrumentalist contract.
In MuGarden, Winky D and his Eve, Gemma Griffiths, inhabit a paradise where there is no rule except love, where the contaminating influences of money, family scruples and friends are to be hedged out by cherubs with flaming swords.
The garden itself is a symbol of insular, pre-materialist innocence, even if the snake stereotypically dangling on Gemma’s chest and the Steve Jobs tree swinging succulently overhead introduce a vibe of capitalist precariousness to the setting. The fact of the song dropping on Valentine’s Day, the high day of the emotion industry, adds to the precariousness.
Is it a guilty fantasy that in the princess-and-pariah love songs, the underdog finds spiritual comfort in the arms of a rich, uptown or white woman — perhaps subconsciously craving in her the capitalist adornments that life has denied him?
Despite the notorious Rastaman-white woman narrative, German philosopher Georg Hegel would have been cool with Gemma. The princess who only see a pariah cannot feel fully recognised in the eyes of the pariah who sees a princess, both poorer for missing the spiritual signal in the titular noise.
Mebo, MuGarden, Chengetedza and Runonzi Rudo are special moments in a music industry that increasingly reflects the money-minded and self-interested values of our alienated society, a refreshing interlude from the gold-flossing commercialism and chest-beating individualism of dancehall and hip-hop.
While sonically iodising the wounds of austerity, where love in the downtown scheme of things unpredictably turns out to be a flash of fantasy punctuating the damaged life, these classics took me back to Karl Marx, the unlikely patron saint of romanticism.
Marx describes alienation, the running out of our species essence, as the fact of our being separated from the fruits and meaning of our work, separated from each other and separated from our own selves.
In such a posthuman setting, musicians have to keep reminding us how much money they have, how better they are than everyone else and how their statistics, rather than people around them, prove how much love they enjoy. That is because our lives and loves, alienated from us, can now only find expression through money and appearance.
Few remember Marx as a love poet, but long before, the shaggy economist was the poster-boy of regime change. He was an impassioned lyricist, smitten with the mortal madness of love like the rest of us. Despite his documented hate for capitalism, he concluded his love poems in cheesy capitals like: Love is Jenny, Jenny is love’s name.
Understanding how messed up the world is for the underdog, young Karl tells Jenny not of his ambition to be a colourful stroke in the pattern of things, but to destroy the world and its boardrooms “Since my call they notice never / Coursing dumb in magic whirl”.
If Marx had to be the brother who walked out of a rundown bicycle repair lot to meet a Mebo, it is not hard to tell how he would have dealt with the fact of his poverty. Chari turns to religion to make peace with his alienation.
For Marx, money is the chemical power of society, the go-between binding two, and equally the wedge separating two. Without money, love is just a tormenting imagination; with money, it is not only sensuously but also spiritually realised. This is because capitalism has tangled the very roots of the heart and soul of humankind.
“If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent — a misfortune,” Marx reflects in conversation with the plays of William Shakespeare.
Zimbabwean music has no shortage of Marxian romanticists, particularly sungura, which carried on a decade of conversation with the first round of austerity. Whereas Zhakata turned to religion to survive his alienation, the late Simon Chimbetu — whose band was named The Marxist Brothers, after all — turned to revolution. Both were branching away from love in the time of the economic structural adjustment programme.
In fact, Zhakata turned his religion into revolution, as Bob Marley, Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar did with theirs. Secular Marx never foresaw this holy detour.