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Two Different Musical Takes on Politics in Zimbabwe

In 1980, Zimbabwe won its independence after a long guerrilla war. Under a new leader, Robert Mugabe, the southern African nation hoped to avoid the corruption, mismanagement of resources, and ethnic tensions that plagued other post-colonial nations.

A quarter-century later, Zimbabwe is instead one of the world's most troubled states. Through it all, two of its most popular singers, Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, have made music that responds to changing times.

In 1979, Mapfumo was briefly jailed by the white government for his songs supporting the liberation struggle. Starting in 1988, he publicly broke with the country's revolutionary leaders when he criticized them in a song called "Corruption." His work began to focused on the failings of the Mugabe regime, and the government began restricting his music from radio play. Mapfumo eventually went into self-imposed exile in Oregon.

The songs on his new release, Rise Up, continue his open harangue against Zimbabwe's leaders. In "Kuvarira Mukati," which means roughly "Suffering in Silence," the singer urges the people: "Stand up and say something. We must rise up and fight back."

Oliver Mtukudzi has charted a more enigmatic course. In recent years, fans insisted they were hearing political barbs within his songs. One song, they said, was telling Mugabe he was too old, and should retire. Another song seemed to support the white farmers whose land the government was seizing by force. During the recent elections, Mtukudzi faced the opposite criticism when one of his songs was used by government campaigners. Whatever the charge, Mtukudzi has inscrutably avoided any public, political stands.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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