In the groove: Why is Zim music failing to break through globally?

The addition of the Best African Music Performance category follows a meteoric rise in the global popularity of Afrobeats and Amapiano.

Early this year, the Grammy Awards consortium created a category dedicated for the first time  to African music ahead of the 2024 Grammy Awards held on February 4 in Los Angeles. Needless to say that the Best African Music Performance Category was brought about due to the prevalence, exposure and popularity of African music such as Afrobeats and Amapiano  to music fans worldwide. .

The addition of the Best African Music Performance category follows a meteoric rise in the global popularity of Afrobeats and Amapiano. On Spotify alone, Afrobeats streams have grown over 550% since 2017, according to the streaming platform, making it one of the world’s fastest growing genres. Nigerian music artistes such as Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Davido, Patoranking and Burna Boy are already multi-millionaires through their music which has been accepted globally.

In November 2023 when the Grammy Awards announced five inaugural nominees for the Best African Music Performance category, only South Africa and Nigeria were represented. The news sparked a debate about the continuing trend of contemporary music from both countries – Amapiano and Afrobeats – dominating the continent of 54 countries.

Although the Grammy Awards consortium threw in a category known as Chimurenga, which was meant for music from Zimbabwe, no one took notice of it. What are the reasons for this?

When the category was announced last year, Grammys CEO Harvey Mason Jr. stated that it would be “able to acknowledge and appreciate a broader array of artistes” than the two existing global Grammy categories, where African artists have traditionally had the only real chance of scoring a nomination.

The Academy had even specifically listed some of the genres they hoped to include in the category, from Chimurenga (traditional mbira music from Zimbabwe played on electric instruments) to Ethio-jazz (Amharic melodies from Ethiopia blended with 12-note jazz scales).

But only the two most mainstream African pop styles were represented — Afrobeats and Amapiano — with one nominated track even named Amapiano, a South African form derived from house music whose name translates roughly as “the pianos.”

Although there are an estimated 2,000-plus “living languages” across Africa, the lyrics for all seven nominated songs are either entirely in English or largely contain English words. However, in Zimbabwe, most popular songs are sung in Shona. Although the lyrics are profound, only those who understand the language can make sense of the lyrics. The nominees for the Grammy Awards have other commonalities. They’re all based in cities and hail from either Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, or South Africa, the continent’s third largest economy. Those two nations together account for nearly 20% of the nominations historically in the Grammys global categories.

When we gained independence [in 1980], our fathers left everything in the village.  There was a huge migration to urban areas in the late 1970s. Our culture, our food, our sense of dress and our music also changed. Zimbabweans moved to towns to start afresh, and if anyone brought anything from the village they were labelled as SRB’s (Strong rural background)– meaning ‘from the village’.

I don’t know why we didn’t also move our culture to the cities. Nigerians did, and that’s why they’ve been able to make village life funky and sexy [through their music]. The Nigerian musicians always appreciated those who were before them – so there’s that continuity from the days of Fela Kuti’s Juju music to Afrobeats. The traditional Nigerian talking drum, for instance, is still part of modern Nigerian Afro beats music.

Zimbabwe could have also moved from traditional beats to Chimurenga pioneered by the likes of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. Yet, in most parts of the country, dance floors and airwaves are devoid of Zimbabwean music. Instead, they are filled with Reggae, Soul, R&B, Amapiano, Dancehall and Afro-Beats, which are music genres from outside Zimbabwe. The reason for Zimbabwe’s absence on the continental centre stage is clear. Zimbabwean music has no identity. Attempts have been made in the past to find a name for Zimbabwean music with Thomas Mapfumo calling his beat Chimurenga, the Bhundu Boys calling theirs Jit Jive, Alick Macheso calling his Sungura, Filbert Marova calling his beat Mbiriano and some ghetto youths calling theirs Zimdancehall . Besides, there is no commonality in these genres.

What we call Sungura is an amalgamation of sounds from East and Central Africa. It is believed that the sound of Sungura reportedly originated from the East and Central Africa and the story goes like this: It was the 1940s and 1950s and a man named Mura Nyakura working for a trader in a job that allowed him to travel between Central and East Africa from the then Rhodesia fell in love with the Congolese kanindo-rhumba beat, and he brought home several records. 

At the time the influence of black American jazz was at its peak in Rhodesia. The hot acts were performing mostly in quartets and they had exotic names like De Black Evening Follies, The City Quads, the Epworth Theatrical Stutters and Capital City Dixies. They all worshiped Nat King Cole and the black American jazz scene. So, in essence rhumba was merely a niche fascination. It slowly became to be adopted as the sound of Zimbabwe when most Congolese bands came into the country and some of them started singing in Shona.

Groups such as The Great Sounds, O.K. Success, Super Mazembe and others who came up with Shona hits in rhumba such as Anopenga Anewaya resonated with Zimbabweans and influenced the spread of Sungura or Museve as it is sometimes called.

As Nigerian and South African music gains international acceptance, Zimbabwean music’s absence is provoking a debate back at home.

Some of the best-known names today like Jah Prayzah, Winky D and Alick Macheso who all play different music genres have achieved some level of crossover across the continent and clinched national awards  of their work like their Nigerian and South African counterparts. However, their fame and appeal still lag behind that of their Afro-Beats and Amapiano counterparts.

Even within Zimbabwe, Amapiano and Afrobeats enjoy frequent airplay.

When Universal Music Group (UMG) announced the launch of Def Jam Africa in 2020, the label announced locations in Nigeria and South Africa, but promised to sign music from all over Africa. Other big record companies like Warner Music and Sony Music have also set up shop in both Nigeria and South Africa.  While some of the artistes signed do come from outside of those music hubs, Zimbabweans have yet to break in.

 Music identity is a sound and an important phenomenon if a  country’s culture has to advance itself. Afrobeats and Amapiano have music identity and are distinctively African. By comparison, there is no existing equivalent in Zimbabwe.. Why, then should Zimbabwe be included in internationally recognized awards if no such music identity exists?

What almost came to be accepted as Zimbabwean music used to be characterised by the distinct plucking sound of a guitar, strummed to imitate a traditional mbira as shown by the likes of Pickett Chiyangwa and Jonah Sithole. When it was heard, everyone could tell that it was Chimurenga music derived from the War of Liberation in the 1960s and spread across the country during the 1970s.

Musicians transferred the sounds of traditional Zimbabwean songs to the guitar, creating the distinct plucking mbira sound Chimurenga is known for. Quite a few musicians had picked up the mbira sound in the 1980s. Thomas Mapfumo was the pioneer. The likes of Pio Farai Macheka and the Bhundu Boys had got closer to the traditional rhythms. They were just short of a name for this newly found Zimbabwean beat.

With Thomas Mapfumo going into exile, Zimbabweans lost their musical traditions and with that, their chances of entering the mainstream. It is surprising to notice that the Grammies this year had a category of non-existent Chimurenga beats.

I also believe that the political and economic situation in the early days of post-independence Zimbabwe didn’t allow for music to thrive.

Indigenous culture was really suppressed by the settler community. The guys who came into power after independence just carried on with the same sort of policies. They admired the Western and the British way of life [more] than they did their own. That also killed the traditional music.

Colonialism isn’t the only thing holding Zimbabwean musicians back – according to some musicians I spoke to.

The other problem is the apprehension to define music as a career.

“A lot of artistes are hesitant to go into music full time,” said Noel Zembe, a Zimbabwean gospel singer . “The issue is that we’re just not developed as an industry. South Africa and Nigeria, have been building and evolving their music industry for a very long time and we have not. Without a functioning industry with some form of structure, you’re not going to make any money.”

This creates an inevitable loop: the industry is underdeveloped because people don’t pursue art full-time. People don’t pursue art full-time because the industry is underdeveloped.

Studios in Zimbabwe are underfunded, and the production quality can, at times, be years behind other African countries. Some say the Zimbabwean music scene is defined by chasing the success of Nigeria and South Africa.

People want to know what Zimbabwean sound is and how to work with it. I suggest that a lot of musicians in the industry should go back to the drawing board as people all over the world want to know what real Zimbabwean sound is.

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