Being a huge fan of Chimurenga Music, I had told myself on countless occasions that come what may, when Thomas Mapfumo returns from exile I would attend his home coming show without fail. Having a conversation with him was however way out of my wildest imaginations but thanks to his longtime friend Cosmas Zamangwe this far-fetched idea became reality on a sunny Saturday morning hours before his big show.
With his reputation of being an acerbic tongued Gandaga (rebel) taking no prisoners, I must admit that I was more than a little nervous to be in the presence of Mukanya as Thomas Mapfumo is adoringly addressed by his legion of fans.
After initially failing to get a hold of the legendary musician at the Crowne Plaza Hotel where he was staying, we eventually managed to track the Lion of Zimbabwe, to the Glamis arena in Harare. It was just before his sound check with his Blacks Unlimited Band for the Big Bira – his homecoming show after a 14 year absence from Zimbabwe – that I managed to grab an opportunity for a tête-à-tête.
Seated in one of the backstage tents meant for the artists – in the company of a few close friends and family; casually dressed in a red t-shirt with his name emblazoned on it, Thomas Mapfumo who was evidently in his element made me feel at ease. Like a long lost friend he talked about life in America, Donald Trump, Robert Mugabe, the prosperity gospel, Zim -Dancehall among many other issues. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Tunga. How is it like staying in America?
Thomas Mapfumo. America is a great place to live so to speak, but it also has its issues. You know, because of our skin where ever we go there is a lot of prejudice. Our black brothers and sisters are suffering in America. I am sure you heard what happened to Bill Cosby. There are a lot of allegations against Donald Trump, but Cosby just because he is black was convicted. Just because he is a black man they are trying to bring him down. What about this man in power? He has a lot of accusations levelled against him. He is white. That is the disease that we have there, racism.
Tunga. Have you personally experienced racism in America?
Thomas Mapfumo. Yes, without a doubt. There was this place we went to perform. We usually perform in front of white crowds, but don’t be fooled, there are some white people who hate black people, and they even wish that black people did not exist. We had a performance in one of the rich white neighborhoods, as we were performing in a park, the white people there would just pass by as if baboons were performing (laughs). There are also groups of good white people who know how to treat everyone as equal human beings and then the racists we were talking about, they despise other races; these are the ones who voted for Trump. You know Malcom X said that he was shocked at black people who identified themselves with the Democrats. You are democrats? Which Democrats? Which party do you belong to as black people? How can you identify with the Democrats when you are black he asked. He was telling the truth because racism won’t end in America. It won’t end. It won’t end.
Tunga. When you sang about corruption what was really happening
Thomas Mapfumo. It had just started to manifest. I had already seen the signs, a lot of individuals where getting involved in corruption. You know what Mandigora (former Dynamos FC coach David Mandigora), there is a misconception that there is a cash crisis in this country. Banks do not have cash, but the cash is there in people’s homes. Is that the way to govern the country? If door to door searches were to be carried out, you would be shocked at the amount of cash that would be discovered stashed in people’s homes.
Tunga. How was your relationship with former president Robert Mugabe
Thomas Mapfumo. The relationship was very bad
Tunga. What where the reasons for the bad relations?
Thomas Mapfumo. There were a lot of things that I saw being done by the old man. His wife was a bad influence. He lost his way. When you are the president, you are a national leader. You represent the whole country. You do not represent your family alone. You should not exploit people because you are the president. You are supposed to work for the people. You should not steal. As the leader you should set a good example. When your followers discover that you are a thief. They will follow your example because that is the way things are done.
Tunga. Of all your songs do you have any favorites
Thomas Mapfumo. No. I do not have a favorite song. My music has a story to tell. All my songs have a long story. The history of this country is in my music. Even as the composer, sometimes I listen to my music and I am like oh boy. You know, I have this electronic music device which I placed my whole music catalogue, when I listen to the catalogue song by song I just say wow (shakes head smiling).
Tunga. Who do you have respect for among the older generation of Zimbabwean Musicians?
Thomas Mapfumo. I respect all those musicians who have managed to preserve our culture. All of them like Oliver Mtukudzi who have strived to preserve our culture and others who are also following in the footsteps like Alick Macheso, even late musicians like John Chibadura, the likes of Tinei Chikupo, they have done well in preserving our culture which is what we want; not this stuff that we are now hearing of which they call dancehall. You have naked women dancing; we do not like that; that is promoting prostitution. We are not supposed to behave in such ways. We are supposed to follow and preserve our traditions and culture. People went to war singing Mbuya Nehanda kufa vachitaura shuwa. Mbuya Nehanda was a custodian of our traditions and culture. So why have you discarded with the traditions and culture of Mbuya Nehanda who you celebrated singing Mbuya Nehanda kufa vachitaura shuwa. Today you say she is irrelevant, that is the culture you are losing. People like Chaminuka for him to become a prophet, he did not just become a prophet, he was blessed by God. It was God who made Chaminuka a prophet. You need to find out why he was a prophet. You are throwing away your heritage, the Chinese have Buddha, Muslims have Mohamed, all these people have different names for God, and the Native Americans say their God is Wakatanga. We have different traditions and culture. Christianity has caused a lot of problems on this planet; it has created people like Makandiwa and Magaya. That’s Christianity for you. In the name of Jesus Christ.
Tunga. What do you think about the prosperity gospel?
Thomas Mapfumo. That is one of the biggest disease our country is facing. Those people are taking advantage of their followers because of poverty. They know that most people here want to be rich, they are poor, and they do not have money. So they target people because of the suffering. The concept originated in Nigeria, that’s where their leaders are based. They will approach you claiming a small piece of cloth will bring you good fortune. If you point at a house with the cloth, they claim it will become yours. Do you believe that’s possible when you haven’t worked for it?
(Mapfumo’s younger brother William interjects). We now hear talk of some people saying bring us your problems and we will take them to Israel. How can a sane person believe such stuff?
Thomas Mapfumo. Israel is killing Palestinian people. Is that where God is; In Israel? Where people are being killed; is that where God is? Come on. As an individual you are the bible. You already know what is good and what is bad. You know that killing is bad, stealing is bad, selfishness is bad. If your respect the Ten Commandments that’s your bible as an individual; don’t be misled by someone coming and quoting Isiah (Biblical Prophet Isiah) saying Isiah said such and such. Do you know Isiah? What Isiah was saying is what he believed in, you also need to say stuff of your own that you believe in. You even hear them say father Abraham, is he your father? Why is it that the bible doesn’t even have a single Shona person, even a Shona name, how then is it a bible for all of us?
Tunga. Who’s on your top ten favorite music playlist
Thomas Mapfumo. I listen to our music, especially the older generation of Zimbabwean musicians. When I visit my young brother; we are together in America, I tell him to bring John Chibadura’s music; listening to the old tracks made by people who promoted culture. That’s the music we like listening to. You know what, when you have a ministry like that of culture, if you want to unite the people, you can create a book read by all school children. You have your Ndebele there, all our local languages, to unite the people. When a child goes to Bulawayo they don’t need to speak English they should be able to converse in Ndebele, that is what uniting the people means. In schools’ children must be taught our indigenous languages, the teachers should also be able to talk and teach in all our native languages. That’s how we can unite Zimbabwe. It’s each man for himself because we are not united. If you look at Africa it’s not united. You find someone beating their chest saying I am from Malawi, I am from Zambia but man you are in Africa and we are all Africans. Why should we have borders, what are the borders for here in Africa, what do we need them for. If you feel like going to South Africa you should just board a plane and fly there because you are in Africa. We should have a single African currency. Our economy will be stronger; in terms of corruption the leaders will be afraid if Africa is united. They will be afraid. But if we are divided, corruption will thrive.
Tunga. What was your relationship with Jonah Sithole
Thomas Mapfumo. Jonah Sithole was my real friend, a real brother. Even when I see his children I see them as my own children. When Jonah would visit our family home, my mother would serve him the portion of Sadza she would have reserved for me and say, “Jonah eat my son”. He was family.
Tunga. I read in the press that you are planning on establishing a foundation
Thomas Mapfumo. Yes that’s true. We had some discussions with the Minister of Art and Culture Kazembe Kazembe
Tunga. Are you planning on returning permanently to Zimbabwe?
Thomas Mapfumo. No. Not now. I’m not staying here but I will be coming back, up and down. This is where I come from, but America is also my second home, I am a citizen there, but my roots are here in Zimbabwe.
Tunga. Are there any youngsters you are willing to collaborate with?
Thomas Mapfumo. Yes, a lot. I have done a lot of collaborations. I did one with my brother in law Philemon Dangarembga’s daughter, her name is Rati, she’s a young lady based in America and is an amazing singer. Then there is Natalia Rollins a white American lady, if you have heard Shabeen, I collaborated with her on the song. And then there is Andrew he did a version of Corruption and we collaborated.
Tunga. Talking of Shabeen was the song inspired by real life events
Thomas Mapfumo. No it was just a song. There were a lot of shabeens during that time, it was just a happy song.
Tunga. Sulumani Chimbetu is on record saying he was working on a collaboration with you how far true is that
Thomas Mapfumo. I said to him Sulumani, make the music and send me the file. I told him at Pakare Paye when I paid Oliver Mutukudzi a visit. I was clear on what is required from our end. I told him to make the music and send us the file so that we also work on it from our base in America. I told him I understand that you want my vocals on the song but there are a lot of other things we also need to do on that music.
Tunga. Most musicians’ children are also getting involved with music. Are any of your children interested in music?
Thomas Mapfumo. The future of our young people should be sorted out in this country. When I moved around the streets, young people were selling pirated CDs haphazardly. People are just printing cd’s. Our music industry is being destroyed. If you cannot take care of that industry those aspiring for a career in music will not be interested, they will just say there is nothing in it for us; it’s not worthwhile, because you are not protecting them.
Tunga. Do you think the piracy scourge will end?
Thomas Mapfumo. We talked about it with Minister Kazembe Kazembe; we even took some pirated CDs to show him. I said, look you guys are the government, what do you say about the issue? And he said we are on top of the situation, we are sorting out the issue. I asked him how, and he said they would want to institute investigations to get to the bottom of the problem, finding out who has the equipment used in piracy and so forth. Piracy is not being done by ordinary people, some of the pirates are in government and they are untouchable. No matter how hard you try to stop it, nothing will come out of it.
Tunga. Thank you for your time Mukanya
Thomas Mapfumo. It’s my pleasure my brother
Tunga. Do you have any last words you would like to say?
Thomas Mapfumo. I would like to say to you the young people you have to be heard speaking out, stand up and as you go to the elections, choose a leader who will represent you. Do not be intimidated for instance by people who say we went to war. Choose a leader who will represent you, a person who has love, a person passionate about building this country. That is the leader you should choose.