That Zim Dancehall has captured the hearts and souls of many a Zimbabwean is no secret; naturally the growth of the genre has divided opinion. While some quarters dismiss it with contempt as a passing fad, others applaud and gladly embrace it is as a serious creative force to reckon with. In contemporary Zimbabwe, the ghetto subculture and the struggles of the young generation of Zimbabweans has attained its deepest expression through dancehall.

A lot has been said about the genre – both positive and negative – and I have been a keen observer following its somewhat meteoric rise and the debates surrounding it with interest. One of the first reviews of the genre I remember coming across was done by Chapwanya in his undergraduate thesis, The socio-cultural implications of urban grooves lyrics on the Zimbabwean youth. The case of Maskiri, Winky D and Extra Large.

Even though I disagree with Chapwanya on his categorisation of urban grooves as a genre in itself, I found his findings with regards to the dancehall aspect of urban grooves which was centred on Winky D’s violent lyrics – at the time – quite insightful. In 2009 when his study was conducted, Zim Dancehall had not become mainstream nor had its artists attained cult like following like in the ensuing years.

Unlike its counterpart Zimbabwean hip hop – which has its roots steeped in American hip hop which originated in the ghettos of the US but appropriated by elitist suburban kids here in Zimbabwe –  Zim Dancehall remained true to its ghetto roots, reflecting the lived realities of the urban youth; in some instances economically transforming lives in fairy-tale rags to riches fashion.

Critics like Fred Zindi and cultural puritans like Thomas Mapfumo have on numerous occasions dismissed Zim Dancehall as being monotonous and lacking originality; at the same time criticising it for eroding cultural values. While their concerns might hold true in some instances, it is not a true reflection of the genre in its entirety. Music is a reflection of its society, much as there have been deplorable songs glorifying moral decadence, there has also been an equal number of socially conscious and morally uplifting Zim Dancehall songs.

In a conversation I had with him, digital media strategist Tavonga Musingarabwi dismissed the critics arguing that they have missed the plot with regards to Zim Dancehall. He drew my attention to the fact that Thomas Mapfumo would still be singing gospel or Rock ‘N Roll copyrights were it not for Jonah Sithole’s insistence on incorporating the guitar mbira and traditional elements in his music.  “Remember it had to take a split with Jonah Sithole before Thomas realised his approach to music was wrong, he should give the youngsters a chance instead of condemning their music,” Musingarabwi said.

Much like Chimurenga music – which spurred the liberation struggle era youth in their fight to dismantle colonialism – it is not far-fetched to draw parallels with Zim Dancehall as an expression of the socio – economic struggles faced by contemporary Zimbabwean youth. Songs like Kuponda Nhamo by Soul Jah Love or Killer T’s Takuda Kumbofarawo can be counted among the soundtracks to this economic struggle, urging on the youth in their quest for economic emancipation and the search for a better life.

It is not surprising nor is it by accident that some Zim Dancehall songs became household anthems like Tocky Vibes Mhai, some even having a crossover appeal across race like Winky D’s Musarova Big Man – which Gemma Griffths did a rendition of; some songs even spilled over to religious turf for instance Soul Jah Love’s Pamamonya Ipapo which was appropriated by Christians as a hymn and which many Christian leaders used to exhort their faithful not to give in in the face of adversity. Even gospel artists like Fungisai Zvakavapano could not resist the urge to dabble in dancehall on Vandondibatirana featuring Killer T.

For anyone with a keen interest on understanding the psyche of the Zimbabwean youth – who constitute sixty per cent of the total population – Zim Dancehall is the go to music.  The aspirations, trials, tribulations, joy and sorrows of the young generation have found expression in the genre. Hate it or love it, one thing is certain, Zim Dancehall is a force that cannot be ignored or wished away. Whether it will evolve, fade or remain in its current form only time will tell.

By Tungamirai Zimonte

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