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Journalism Studies
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Winston Mano

Online Publication Date: 01 February 2007

To cite this Article Mano, Winston(2007)'POPULAR MUSIC AS JOURNALISM IN ZIMBABWE',Journalism Studies,8:1,61 — 78

To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/14616700601056858


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Winston Mano

The paper argues that popular music can act as a variety of journalism at certain historic
moments and in specific contexts. Where mass media are weak and opposition political parties
are frail, music can serve as the voice of the voiceless by offering subtle avenues of expression.
Popular music can perform the journalistic function of communicating daily issues in ways that
challenge the powerful and give a voice to the disadvantaged. Popular music competes and rivals
mainstream journalism in the ways it addresses political, social and economic realities in
repressive contexts. Whereas newspapers and magazines ridicule and lampoon the powerful
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within opinion columns and cartoons, music radio relies on subtle wordplay to denounce the
mighty and powerful. The paper discusses popular journalism in relation to the way in which
postcolonial popular Zimbabwean musicians have effectively communicated everyday life
problems in their country. The main focus is on how three Zimbabwean musicians, especially
from 1999 to 2005, have had their work ‘‘banned’’ from radio because of the way it was perceived
to be challenging the Zimbabwean state. Music has clearly served as journalism in Zimbabwe. The
music has been popular with the people. The paper argues that this kind of music should be
critically explored as a form of popular journalism.

KEYWORDS music as journalism; popular journalism; Zimbabwean music; Zimbabwean


In preparing this article, which focuses on music as journalism or news through
music,1 I was struck by the lack of a clear definition of ‘‘journalism’’. Journalism is generally
described as a profession or practice that involves collecting, writing, editing and
presenting news in the mass media, primarily for newspapers, radio and television.
Definitions range from a style of writing, training courses that journalist study and to the
very content of the mass media itself. Blood (2004) reports on the difficulty of finding a
canonical or working definition of journalism even after one has checked with leading
schools of the subject: ‘‘Journalism, it seems, is like pornography. The specific definition
varies from person to person, but in general, you know it when you see it’’. The problem
mainly arises from the fact that ‘‘journalism’’ continues to be narrowly limited to the
practice and output of a few ‘‘traditional’’ mass media: television, radio and newspapers.
Adam (1993), now more than two decades old, calls for a much broader approach to the
subject. More importantly for this paper, Adams is concerned to rescue the teaching and
practice of journalism from what he perceived as its narrowness:

I have several goals in mind, but first and foremost I want to lift the study of journalism in
the university out of what I regard as a state of limbo. I want to define journalism in a way

Journalism Studies, Vol. 8, No 1, 2007

ISSN 1461-670X print/1469-9699 online/07/010061-18
– 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14616700601056858

that will enable schools to participate more actively in its reform. I want to inspire a belief
that journalism can be and often is an art form (1993, p. 5).

Therefore for Adams, similar to Blood above, journalism has not gone outside the
box because ‘‘the practical study of journalism at universities has been based on a notion
of journalism that is too narrow’’ (1993, p. 6). A more philosophical and revisionist
definition must view journalism as ‘‘an invention or a form of expression used to report
and comment in the public media on the events and ideas of the here and now’’ (Adams,
1993, p. 11). As will be seen below, my paper is sympathetic to Adams’s view in its attempt
to examine music as journalism within a specific context and at a specific time-period.
More recently, Zelizer (2005, p. 198) has pointed out that ‘‘who is journalist and what
constitutes journalism remain categories to be challenged on craft, professional, moral,
political, economic and technological grounds’’. She advocates seeing journalism through
the lens of culture in order to expand its boundaries. Doing that might include outliers
such as political cartoonists, tabloid hacks, political satirists, photojournalists and bloggers.
I am not saying music can be journalism in terms of journalistic conventions such as
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objectivity, deadlines or ethics. Rather I advocate a view of it as a form of cultural

expression, a way of inscribing the world that is informed by what takes place in society.
I suggest that popular musicians, music performance and lyrics at times compliment and
even more effectively express what journalists fail to communicate. In my view, the case is
stronger in contexts where public communication spaces are constrained, censorship is
high or where political communication is monopolized by a few people. Popular music
communication emerges in spite of its disapproval by officialdom. It is probably such
disapproval together with its ability to raise issues affecting the generality of the people
that makes it popular among the powerless in society. African popular culture in general,
as the work of Barber (1997), Mbembe (1997), Nyamnjoh (2005) and Willems (2005) shows,
fights back by mocking the powerful.
One agrees with Sparks (1992, p. 24) when he writes that issues raised by ‘‘‘the
popular’ are at once easiest and most difficult in terms of cultural analysis’’. In this paper,
not only do I use ‘‘popular’’ to denote, in a ‘‘quantitative’’ sense, the huge popularity of the
music in question, but more importantly in a political sense, I refer to the way such music
speaks against the ‘‘power-blocs’’. Citing Stuart Hall (1981), Fiske (1992) suggests that this
opposition derives from ways in which public communication (news) has traditionally
been produced and dominated by ‘‘power-bloc’’2 whereas popularity is the product of the
‘‘people’’.3 Popular culture is from below and differs and challenges that which the power-
bloc wishes the people to have. The popular culture I am interested in does not merely
arise in response to questions and conditions’’ but also ‘‘asks questions and creates
conditions (Fabian, 1978, p. 19).
Popular music can be considered journalism in the way it expresses social reality in
its themes and content. It is journalism in the way it sets the agenda for society and for
what journalists review in the arts sections of the mass media and above all, in the way its
texts meet with and generate forms of knowledge in the audience. I am particularly
interested in what Fiske (1992, p. 49) regards as popular culture’s ability to produce
‘‘sceptical laughter’’ or ‘‘pleasures of disbelief, the pleasures of not being taken in’’.
However, this study recognises that although music is polysemic, senses which listeners
make of popular music depend at least in part on what musicians have actually ‘‘written in
the first place’’ (Sparks, 1992, p. 37).

My claim here is that popular music potentially plays a journalistic role by

communicating messages that are either ignored or underplayed by mainstream mass
media. Popular music texts, just like journalism texts, project multi-faceted versions of
realities that are meaningful to their audiences. Popular music can represent ordinary
people, ridicule the powerful and serve as the voice of the voiceless. Popular music texts
can be widely appropriated by ordinary victims of officialdom. Like street theatre, street
radio and cartoons, popular music is potentially a formidable means by which the ruled
fight back against the rulers. Popular journalism promotes popular music and it is also true
that popular music informs popular journalism. This is because both popular music and
popular journalism are textured in the society and politics of the day. Street (2001, p. 254)
insightfully reminds us that ‘‘music does not exist autonomously of other social, economic
and political institutions’’. Music and journalism are both forms of cultural expression that
are, in my view, integral to Cultural Studies. As Dahlgren notes:

The ‘‘culture’’ in cultural studies points to the sociologically and anthropologically

grounded concerns with the practices and products of human activity. These are seen as
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both expressive and constitutive of subjectivity. Meaning is seen as socially constructed,

and cultural studies is very much directed toward analysing how it is structured,
articulated and circulated in various settings. (1992, p. 5)

Popular music meanings are socially constructed and communicate messages to

publics as do newspaper, radio or television journalism texts.
I do not assume that music meanings are obvious. Neither do I treat music meanings
as the preserve of the musicians. Rather I am aware that:

A record is not just the sum total of the notes which compose it. Because pop cannot be
separated from the industry that produces it, understanding the sound entails under-
standing the system that creates and propagates it. Record executives, lawyers,
accountants, producers, engineers, publicist, sales personnel, radio programmers, disc
jockeys, music journalists and a host of others come between a song’s composition and
its first hearing. A single is not a piece of pure art; it is the result of countless choices and
compromises, using criteria that mix the aesthetic, the political and the economic.
(Street, 1986, p. 6)

Like journalism, popular music is complex both in its production and consumption.
The record is a result of many factors and not necessarily what musicians wish. What
musicians claim is the focus of their music is often contradicted by what the listeners say
about it. Musicians cannot control or tell their listeners how to listen to their music. Many
times musicians have struggled to openly contradict what their listeners say about their
music. However, with popular music, it hardly matters what the musicians actually
intended (Street, 1986).
This paper discusses popular music and journalism in Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2005,
a politically turbulent period in the country’s 25-year-old history. As will be seen below,
popular music broadens the journalism public sphere and discussions in the public sphere
extended to popular music. For example, The Daily News , which was the only
‘‘independent’’ daily newspaper in Zimbabwe devoted ‘‘five pages everyday to the arts,
music being the main subject’’ (Sibanda, 2004, p. 8). I contend that this was because
popular music was, at this time, communicating issues in ways similar to journalism. The
responses of the Zimbabwean government included commissioning pro-government

music, excluding critical music from the airwaves and closing The Daily News . The thrust of
this paper speaks against what Fabian (1978, p. 18) calls ‘‘the effect of specialisation in the
field of African Studies, which has prevented or hindered the study of subjects which, by
their very nature, demand interdisciplinary interests and competences’’. I see both
journalism and music as integral parts of Cultural Studies, and forms of popular culture
that have much in common than disciplinary study would have us believe.

Music as Journalism in Africa

In Africa, popular music has been ‘‘one of the key ways in which political crises *
from colonialism and the demands for independence, to political assassinations, to ethnic
cleansing and so on*have been documented’’ (Nyairo and Ogude, 2005, p. 237). It has
been a thorn in the flesh of the powerful and an inspiration to the powerless. For example,
in Kenya music has been part the challenge that led to the downfall of the undemocratic
regime of Arap Moi through mockery of its authority and borrowed power (Gecau, 1997).
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Music has evidently been part of the struggles for meaning on the continent:

However, it remains possible to investigate not only the ways in which musicians have
used their songs in order to achieve personal and collective identities that are of political
significance, but also the ways in which political power in Africa has responded. The
specific dynamics of the complex relationships between music, musicians and political
power is visibly absent in the literature. (Nyamnjoh, 2005, p. 353)

Nyamnjoh analysed the political role of popular music in Cameroon. He discovered

that the most popular songs criticized the economic crisis, denounced social injustices and
the slow pace of development, and condemned the Cameroonian government’s inaction
and complicity in the face of corruption. The music criticized the President’s inaction in the
face of schools without teachers, hospitals without drugs, and harvests not fetching
money. Musicians, through their music, urged the state to stop the rot.
Music also played a key role in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Michael
Drewett (2003) discussed how many musicians, prior to the 1994 South African democratic
elections, opposed racial discrimination through their music and support of anti-apartheid
political cause. The South African apartheid government attempted to minimize the
impact of musicians by preventing controversial music from being heard and by
repressing the musicians themselves. However, ‘‘no matter what their message was,
censored musicians developed strategies to reach as wide an audience as possible. In
doing so, they articulated and transformed culture, opening spaces in which particular
forms of artistic expression emerged’’ (Drewett, 2003, p. 153). It is this agency in African
music, and musicians, that I take to be the ‘‘journalistic’’ function of popular music. Music
increases communicative options where the public sphere is constrained.
In his overview of music in Africa, Nyamnjoh (2005, p. 353) suggests that except for a
few musicians, such as the late Fela Kuti of Nigeria who became actively involved in
national politics, the majority of African musicians tend to limit their ‘‘overt participation’’
in the political sphere through their music. However, this view unfortunately overlooks the
manner in which the bulk of African music is explicitly political, with musicians functioning
just like journalists in documenting slices of life on the continent. It is important to adopt
John Street’s wider definition of politics as covering ‘‘the clash of ideas, identities and
interests’’ and the very manner in which ‘‘resources and rewards are distributed’’ in society

(1997, p. 26). Most African music is topical and this is the reason why local African
musicians are popular. This ‘‘journalistic’’ quality of popular music is the reason why most
governments want to have musicians on their side, just like they want the most able
journalists and media organisation on their side.

Music in Zimbabwe: The ‘‘Journalism’’ of the Struggle

Without access to mainstream mass media, music is the main means of commu-
nicating matters of people’s struggles *however defined. Music has been part of the
popular struggles for liberation from the pre-colonial to the postcolonial eras in
Zimbabwe. During the country’s first and second wars of liberation Chimurenga music
or rebel music emerged as a formidable force for mobilising and documenting people’s
struggles against colonial domination. Music was created and indeed reached many
ordinary people in forms and languages they understood.
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Zimbabwean music, in the 20th century, only came into being after national
independence in 1980. As Scannell (2001) notes, the category of what is now termed
‘‘Zimbabwean music’’ did not exist under white minority rule in Rhodesia before 1980.
Instead, Zimbabwean music only came to being and its promotion on radio within the
newly established political and social circumstances after the achievement of democratic
rule. This, however, does not mean that there was no indigenous music in the country
prior to independence. The point is that ‘‘there was nothing which was formally
recognised, politically’’, as the music of Zimbabwe before the liberation of the country
from the domination of the Rhodesian white minority (Scannell, 2001, p. 20). Prior to
Zimbabwean independence, indigenous music overwhelmingly produced by the indigen-
ous local population could not be recognised as ‘‘Zimbabwean music’’ within minority-
ruled Rhodesia:

Thus, the moment of independence, which gave birth to the African nation-state of
Zimbabwe, freed up already-existing musical life and practices so that they achieved
public recognition and legitimacy as ‘‘Zimbabwean music’’. (Scannell, 2001, p. 21)

There is not much written about Zimbabwean music.4 The lack of a sustained focus
on Zimbabwean music partly stems from the relative underdevelopment of the country’s
music industry *‘‘presently very much of a cottage industry’’ (Scannell, 2001, p. 15).
Zimbabwe has over 2000 musicians registered with the Zimbabwe Music Rights
Association (ZIMRA), formed in 1983. For most of the post-independence era, ZIMRA was
chaired by musicians (Fred Zindi, Tendai Mupfurutsa, Charles Charamba and Albert Nyathi)
and administered by Gill Atkinson, who retired in 2001. ZIMRA collected revenue earned
by musicians for the copyright and publishing of works played live on jukeboxes, radio
and television at home and abroad. ZIMRA has a pension scheme and funeral benefits for
its members. When a member retires or dies, their dependants can benefit for the next 50
years from local and international organisations worldwide who are policing copyright
laws and publishing rights. ZIMRA did not have a good relationship with the Zimbabwe
Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). In a letter to a local newspaper, a ZIMRA member
expressed his utter disgust with ZBC management: ‘‘The people who are supposed to
collect our money from ZBC and the government ministry tell us it is difficult. We want our
money; our children have a right to food, security and education too’’ (The Daily News ,

23 June, 2003). ZBC, although appearing to support local musicians, has not paid promptly
ZIMRA music royalties. Their relationship is, therefore, acrimonious.
Zimbabwean music is that regularly performed live to local and international
audiences. Fred Zindi, himself a musician, academic and writer, demarcates boundaries for
what can be considered as popular Zimbabwean music:

So what name shall we give to Zimbabwe’s modern pop music? Some prefer to call it
chimurenga , or jit , while others prefer to simply call it ‘‘Zimbabwean music’’. A lot of
controversy has been going on in the last two decades regarding what Zimbabwean
music should be called. One of the great beauties about Zimbabwean music is its variety.
Traces of all different forms of music that Zimbabweans have been exposed to in the past
are found in many compositions from today’s Zimbabwean pop musicians. (Zindi, 1997,
p. 4)

Given the traces of regional and international music in Zimbabwean music, it was
‘‘impossible to give one brand name to Zimbabwean music because it does not come in
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one form’’ (Zindi, 1997, p. 4). This complex blend of local, regional and international music
forms had, however, evolved into unique Zimbabwean popular music:

Most of Zimbabwe’s music expresses the social life and hardships experienced by the
people. It talks about the Liberation War, the social conditions of ordinary people,
poverty and injustices in society. At times it talks about romance. (Zindi, 1997, p. 5)

Claire Jones (1992), an American musician and scholar, provides an historical

account of the development of music in the country from pre-colonial to postcolonial
times. She importantly observed that Zimbabwean music and everyday activities are
closely related. She discovered that songs to do work, hunting, weddings, funerals and
religion probably developed alongside these activities and festivities. The different musical
bowls, flutes, horns, rattles and drum could have been incorporated into musical activities
from a very early period (Jones, 1992, p. 23).
During colonialism, traditional music in pre-Zimbabwe was integrated into the
nationalist struggles from the 1950s and 1960s:

Traditional music acquired a new political significance in perpetuating respect for African,
rather than European, authority figures and writing implicit political messages into lyrics.
Many music associations were formed in the townships and rural areas expressly to
preserve traditional practices such as dancing and drumming. These activities not only
served to revive certain dying institutions, but also to promote a feeling of solidarity
amongst people during their struggle for independence. (Jones, 1992, p. 28)

The colonial period saw a considerable fusion of local and Western musical forms,
particularly within the mushrooming churches. African artists wanting their music to be
broadcast on colonial radio resorted to using ‘‘coded’’ language and traditional musical
formats to resist white minority rule in Rhodesia. However, once the political messages
were realised, such music was often banned.
Kwaramba (1997) illustrates how Thomas Mapfumo, a popular Zimbabwean
musician, deployed ‘‘coded language’’ in his protest music during colonialism. Her
account combines linguistic and historical methods to illustrate the ways in which his
brand of popular Chimurenga 5 (Shona language for ‘‘rebellion’’) music was thematically
linked to the nationalist struggle. She focuses on six Chimurenga songs by Mapfumo at

significant points in the history of the country. Mapfumo’s music career began in the late
1960s but gained prominence in the mid-1970s, at the height of Shona and Ndebele
struggles against settler rule and occupation. Similarly, Maurice Vambe (2004) discussed
how Thomas Mapfumo’s music is textured in the popular struggles in Zimbabwe. Unlike
Kwaramba, Vambe (2004, p. 91) paid attention ‘‘to how ‘history’ and the ‘political’ are
drawn into Mapfumo’s songs to become musical text or narrative discourse’’. By taking
into account the political absences and narrative instabilities in Thomas Mapfumo’s music,
Vambe (2004, p. 91) sought to refute the conventional view that projects popular music as
‘‘straightforward, objective and value-free description of post-independence Zimbabwean
Zimbabwean music is integral to Zimbabwean everyday life and history. The
performance and consumption of music in Zimbabwe not only predates colonialism but
also is linked to Zimbabwean historical and cultural processes (Kwaramba, 1997;
Pongweni, 1982; Vambe, 2004; Zindi, 1985). Music was a central part of Zimbabwean
society, e.g. in times of war and peace, at workplaces, in the home and outdoors, in
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religion and social ceremonies (rain-making, collective labour, religion, marriage, death or
love, for instance).

The Case of Three Zimbabwean Musicians

Many Zimbabwean musicians have produced work that reflects and affects the
changing social realities in the country. Andy Brown and his group The Storm have, for
example, produced a song entitled A Nation of Thieves that has been banned on state
media. Brown was quoted as saying: ‘‘They [ruling party politicians] have been stealing all
the money, so as a result the whole infrastructure is beginning to fall apart’’ (interviewed
by Farai Sevenzo, 2005).
The quantitative sense of the popular is in the way their music commands relatively
huge sales in the country. A good example is Aleck Macheso, one of whose albums,
Zvakanaka Zvakadaro , sold more than 100,000 copies barely a week after its release in
2001. This is a huge achievement in a country where a sale of 5000 units is considered a
hit.6 Managed and produced by Gramma Records, a local music label, Macheso’s previous
album, Simbaradzo, sold 118,000 copies within two months of its release (The Daily News ,
19 December 2001). Macheso is, therefore, branded the king of ‘‘Sungura music’’ as he ably
combines vocal and dancing skills.
The late Simon Chimbetu, of Sungura 7 music fame, was a good example of the
popular as representing not the commercial interests of the elites but the everyday
concerns of ordinary people. He was a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war who sang
about ordinary everyday life issues that have resonance for poor working-class and
unemployed Zimbabweans. Chimbetu’s top-selling songs were about ordinary everyday
life issues like death, love, relationships and economic struggles of ordinary Zimbabweans.
His hit song ‘‘Ndaremerwa -One Week’’ (‘‘I’m Overburdened’’) was a brotherly lament about
the high cost of living in Zimbabwe:

Uncle I am overburdened . . .
Sunday Monday Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
I am overburdened
Uncle look at my situation
Sunday Monday Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

I am overburdened
Where I work is far from where I live . . .
My field is far from where I sleep . . .8

This song captures poor peoples’ problems in Zimbabwean everyday life. Most of
the musicians live in the same areas as their listeners, making them more able to depict
aspects of their social realities within music. In the song above, a worker (either rural or
urban) laments the problems of having to travel to a remote workplace and having to pay
expensive fares at a time when the cost of living had sharply gone up under the leadership
of Mugabe from 1999 to 2005. Like Chimbetu, post-independence Zimbabwean musicians
generally produce music that communicates or documents conditions of daily life in
Zimbabwe, covering issues ranging from love, romance, politics, religion, corruption,
unemployment, disease, AIDS to moral decadence (such as prostitution). The inclusion of
such popular causes increases the popularity of the music. To illustrate my point I will
focus on three of the top-selling and most controversial artists in the post-independence
era: Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Zhakata and Oliver Mtukudzi. The three have all sung
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about issues affecting ordinary people in Zimbabwe. Another criterion was how they
perceive themselves as ‘‘fighters’’ and ‘‘journalists’’ speaking on behalf of the voiceless.
They are all relatively popular with rural and urban music listeners in Zimbabwe. Some
their music has been taken off the airwaves by the national broadcaster because it is
deemed to be too critical of the government.

Thomas Mapfumo: ‘‘I Am the Voice of the Voiceless’’

If you are a freedom fighter you have to show the people that you are a freedom fighter.
You are fighting with the people, you stand with the poor people; you don’t have to fear
no one. And this is all in music. (Mapfumo, interviewed by Gonda, 2005)

Thomas Mapfumo was jailed in the 1970s because his music was critical of the
Rhodesian white minority government. After independence he sang songs that supported
the government until much later when he released Corruption , a famous 1988 hit that
disappeared ‘‘mysteriously’’ from the airwaves in 1989, a year after its release. The song
openly attacked growing levels of corruption in government. At that time, students,
workers, opposition political parties and civic groups were demonstrating against
corruption. Mapfumo, in English, attacked the culture of ‘‘something for something’’ in
government and the private sector. At issue was the culture of who you know, ‘‘carpet
interviews’’, a ‘‘thigh for a pass’’ and demands for ‘‘sex for a job’’. The trigger was the
scandal involving top Zimbabwean government officials who were profiting from a
government vehicle scheme *in a scandal that was later named Willowgate, after the
Willowvale Motor Assembly, set up by the government to assemble vehicles in Harare.
Public and legal pressures forced top cabinet ministers to resign. Emmanuel Vori
(2005, p. 10), a marketing director of Grammar Records, one of two record companies
(with Zimbabwe Music Corporation) that produce over 90 per cent of the country’s music,
explained how Thomas Mapfumo, during the recording of Corruption , flatly refused the
producers’ suggestions that he tones downs some of the lyrics on his most critical song.
Mapfumo instead opted to go independent and retain total control of his compositions:

He went on to record and release Corruption on a 12-inch. Interestingly, he sang it in

English so that his targeted audience would not be in doubt of the message he was

sending to both the officials and the world at large. He lamented the fact that society was
corrupt specially those in positions of power and this had filtered down to the masses
causing untold suffering to the man in the street. Since then Mapfumo has remained
independent. Because he had exposed many heavyweights, Thomas feared for his life
and went into self-imposed exile in the USA. (Vori, 2005, p. 10)

Zimbabwean music companies interfere with the textual content of songs as they
are worried about what the Zimbabwean government’s reaction would be. The record
companies, which pocket up to 95 per cent of the profits from the music industry, have
played a key role in shaping the production of popular music (Vambe, 2000; Zindi, 1985).
For example, they have changed from a policy of producing music supporting the Mugabe
government in the 1980s to music that was critical of him from the late 1980s onwards.
The non-official media helped promote and publicise such music because it matched with
their newsroom policies.
The popular/‘‘independent’’ newspapers and pirate radio stations were partly
responsible for the revised reading of popular music during the recent problems in
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Zimbabwe, from 1997 to 2005. For example, in the month leading up to the March 2002
presidential elections, Zimbabwe’s now banned The Daily News reported:

As we approach what most Zimbabweans, regardless of education or political

sophistication, believe is the most important election this side of independence, we
need to revisit the music of the liberation war era for inspiration . . . At no other time in
the life of those still living today in this country and that includes the years we live under
economic sanctions following the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence has life
been as hard and unbearable or the pitch of political intolerance as high as it is today. We
simply cannot continue as we are for much longer without risking an unprecedented
high rate of high suicides because of aggravated national depression and stress. The
song that probably was the first to stir feelings of rebellion among Africans in this
country was Thomas Mapfumo’s 1975 hit, Tozvireva Kupiko? [Where Can We Report It?]
Released just in time for the resumption of the liberaration war following a lull caused by
the 1975 assassination of Herbert Chitepo in Lusaka, the song captured the anguish of
the oppressed black population in this country. (The Daily News , 22 February 2002)

Thomas Mapfumo’s old and new protest music, on political intolerance and suffering
under the colonial regime, received a new lease of life between 1997 and 2003.
For the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) Patriotic Front (PF),
Mapfumo’s music was still about anti-colonialism, whereas for government opponents,
such as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mapfumo’s music now represented
the sentiments of those who are against Mugabe’s dictatorship. I argue that these
interpretations reflected the mood of the generality of the population about Mapfumo’s
music. The Daily News made countless news stories about Mapfumo’s music:

After chronicling a whole gamut of trials and tribulations the black people in this country
were being mercilessly subjected to, Mapfumo was compelled to ask through song, on
behalf of his fellow sufferers: To whom shall we appeal? That pointed question was asked
because, as he explains in the song, ‘‘If we complain to the government (the very people
who were responsible for the suffering in the first place, anyway), we get arrested.’’ It is
the same kind of scenario obtaining in Zimbabwe today, but decidedly a lot more crude
than the one in [Ian] Smith’s day. At least in those days if you got beaten up by political

opponents you could report to the police and the thugs would be arrested and made to
face the music. Today, if you are not a member of [ruling party] Zanu PF and you get
roughned up big time by ruling party supporters and then go to report to the police; you
are the one who will get arrested. So Mapfumo’s lament: Tozvireva Kupiko? applies even
more in today’s nominally free Zimbabwe with its officially-sanctioned politics of hate
and institutionalised violence. (The Daily News , 22 February 2002)

The government was both aware and worried about the growing power of popular
music. In January 2002 it had ‘‘indirectly banned’’ Thomas Mapfumo’s Chimurenga Rebel
from the airwaves because of its anti-establishment lyrics. The Daily News fought hard to
have this unofficial ban reversed. The paper reported how Mapfumo’s music ably reports
on the circumstances in Zimbabwe before the 2002 presidential elections. For example, on
6 March 2002, in an article entitled ‘‘Musicians Explore Theme of Violence’’, The Daily News ’
Entertainment Reporters continued to read the 21st century pre-election political situation
in Zimbabwe through Mapfumo’s colonial-era protest music:
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Since musicians generally sing about the environment that surrounds them, Zimbab-
weans surrounded by violence and intimidation, have also dug deep and composed
violence related songs. While some of the songs were composed many years ago, their
message is so relevant to today’s circumstances you think the composer was inspired by
events in Zimbabwe right now. Thomas Mapfumo’s Pfumvu Paruzevha (Upheaval in the
communal lands) was sung during the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe, as it narrated
the suffering of rural masses due to the war. Today, 22 years after independence the song
still sounds so fresh. The lyrics are capturing the rural mood * the violence, intimidation,
murder and torture of the innocent masses. (The Daily News , 6 March 2002)

Official media, particularly Radio Zimbabwe, because of its massive reach in rural
areas, allegedly received a directive from the Mugabe government to restrict the airplay of
Mapfumo’s music in general (music on his April 2001 CDs whose titles described the
political situation in Zimbabwe as a Disaster and Mamvemve (Tatters)) and, in particular
music from his December 2001 CD release entitled Chimurenga Rebel . The songs on the
album attacked bad governance and abuse of human rights amongst other things.
Mapfumo went into self-imposed exile in the United States months before the 2002
election after publicly stating that:

. . . we are saying enough is enough to a government of thieves . . . Probably some of the

songs on Chimurenga Rebel will not be played on national radio because people think
they are controversial and political. (The Herald , 22 January 2002)

ZBC, through Alum Mpofu, the then Director General of national broadcasting, did
not acknowledge the ban: ‘‘It is not our policy. If a directive does not come from me,
where else would it come from?’’ (The Daily News , 19 January 2002). ZBC officials repeated
the claim that Mapfumo’s music was not banned.9 The Herald and other state media
accused Mapfumo of playing politics to ‘‘try and sell his music’’, asking: ‘‘Why doesn’t he
[Mapfumo] make his choice between a political stance and a musical stance’’.10

Leonard Zhakata: ‘‘My Music Is a Recording of Events as They Occur’’

My music is a recording of events as they occur. I sing about my environs and people are
free to interpret my songs the way they feel . . . As a musician I have a duty to serve my

people, to sing about what I see around me, to sing about one man’s injustices to
another, to rebuke those who manipulate others by virtue of being in powerful and
authoritative positions. (Zhakata, 2005, pp. 12  3)

It is evident from the above that Zhakata bases his music on social realities. By
having music that records ‘‘events as they occur’’ in Zimbabwe, Zhakata serves as a
journalist and his music is a form of journalism. It is a sharp satire on social, economic and
political aspects of Zimbabwean everyday life. From love to politics, Zhakata provides
popular lyrics with which many Zimbabweans seem to identify. Most of his albums sold
over 100,000 copies a year. His 1994 debut album, Maruva Enyika (Flowers of the World),
sold 120,000 copies. In 1996, he released Nzombe Huru (The Bull), which sold 130,000
copies, Vagoni Vebasa (The Professional Workers) in 1997, Ndingaitesei (What Can I Do) in
1998, Pakuyambuka (On Crossing) in 1999, and in 2000, an album called Original Rhythms
of Africa , all sold over 100,000 units. In 2002 he released the top-selling Mubikira (The
Silent Victim).
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In the early 1990s, at the height of Zimbabwe’s acute economic problems resulting
from the government’s bad implementation of the World Bank and International Monetary
Fund (IMF)’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme of 1991, Zhakata led other
musicians in communicating the economic plight faced by ordinary people. His hit song,
Mugove (Pay) openly said that workers’ incomes had been eroded by inflation and could
barely sustain them (Vambe, 2000, p. 9). More importantly the song, sung in a local
language, focused attention on the workers, and on their view of social realities. He sang in
Shona: ‘‘Vakuru-we indepeiwo kamukana kekuti ndiyambira vaye vakawana mukana we
kukwira pamusoro . . . zvichemo zveavo vari pasi (elders give me an opportunity to warm
and remind those who chanced to go to the top . . . about the grievances from those
below). The songs carried the lament of workers who were ‘‘being worn out’’ by the rich
and powerful. If the singer was the one in power they would equitably share with all the
rewards of independence. Needless to say it has remained an all-time hit in Zimbabwe
because of its continued relevance in critiquing the endless economic malaise in the
In 2003, Zhakata’s controversial album called Hodho (Shot Gun) was initially banned
from ZBC radio. Following an outcry, a ZBC official explained that the album continues to
be played by ZBC adding that: ‘‘We will promote everything that seeks to build the nation,
but the national broadcaster will not give room to music that seeks to denigrate and
undermine our national identity and aspirations’’.11
The latter was reportedly doing well in sales and the charts. The Zimbabwe Music
Corporation, which manages Zhakata’s music, claimed that Hodho was their ‘‘top selling
album at the moment’’ (The Daily News , 26 June 2003). The Zimbabwean government was
not happy with Zhakata’s music. It came as no surprise when in early in 2004, Zhakata was
quizzed for more than 30 minutes by Harare police over the appearance of his song,
Ngoma Yenharo (Mad Tune) on an album compiled by a shadowy pressure group called
Zvakwana (Enough):
The song, off his [Zhakata’s] album Hodho , features on Zvakwana’s compilation album
entitled Red Hot Riot *Rocking The Regime into Retirement . Zhakata distanced himself
from the compilation of the album by the underground organisation. ‘‘They just included
my song without consulting me. I do not know the organisation’’, said the musician who

in the past has had to cancel live show performances in certain parts of the country after
receiving threats over his songs’ contents. (Sibanda, 2005, p. 5)

The singer has lamented the fact that his music is now forced underground because
of the openly political interpretations of his texts. The official media denounces him as a
‘‘spent force’’ and restricts the airplay of his music. Although independent media have
tried to give him fair coverage, the banning of The Daily News in 2003 meant that even this
was now limited. Zhakata’s (2005, p. 12) position is that: ‘‘I would continue to record music
in the format I have been [using] all along. I will not change my style. I will not tone down
my lyrics and will continue to sing about issues affecting the people of Zimbabwe. Zhakata
approaches music as journalism to ‘‘cover’’ problems of ordinary Zimbabweans as ‘‘they
occur’’ in society. This role is similar to that played by Oliver Mtukudzi, another prominent
Zimbabwe musician, who in 2002 actually described himself as a ‘‘journalist’’.

Oliver Mtukudzi: ‘‘I Am Just Like a Journalist’’

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Lest you forget, I am just like a journalist, I can never speak on behalf of myself but
instead I speak on behalf of the people . . . Why is it that you as journalists do not write
about your political views? . . . I cannot say what I think or feel about politics because
people should be given a chance to speak for themselves’’. (Oliver Mtukudzi, quoted by
Mbiriyamveka, 2002)

My lyrics have always been drawn from people and their day-to-day issues * not just
their difficulties but also their humour, happiness, irony. I may reflect more on those
issues that touch me in some way, but my lyrics tend to highlight people’s values and I
guess I reinforce the more positive ones. I also like to challenge customs and behaviour
that encourage greed and selfishness, and I am conscious of the disparities in our society,
especially where women’s rights are concerned. As far as Zimbabwe is concerned, we are
living in a very divisive society right now, so these days I sing about the need for peace,
unity and tolerance. (Oliver Mtukudzi, interviewed by Michael, 2003)

Mtukudzi clearly states what I believe is the journalistic function of his music in
troubled Zimbabwe. With over 47 music albums to his name, Mtukudzi ranks among the
most known Zimbabwean musicians. His career started in the colonial era, in the late
1970s, when he was part of the resistance to minority white rule in Rhodesia. His liberation
war rallying cry songs included Ndipeiwo Zano (Please Advise Me) sung in 1978. His album
Africa (1980) prided in the new Zimbabwe. He has continued to be the society-‘‘conscious’’
musician he claims to be in the quote above, producing music informed by conditions in
Zimbabwe at different times. The point is not so much about what Mtukudzi says about
his music but about how his multitudes of listeners have read ‘‘Tuku music’’, as his brand
of music is called.
Tuku music has subtly documented the happiness, trials and tribulations faced by
ordinary Zimbabweans, ranging from political violence, poverty, famine to AIDS. Through
vocals accompanied by familiar traditional Zimbabwean mbira (hand-piano) beat fused
with melodious guitar sounds, in a fast repetitive jazz-like beat, Mtukudzi has produced a
unique form of music that speaks of hope, change and resistance. As is noted by Michael
(2003) in an interview with Mtukudzi: ‘‘In addition to creating a unique musical sound, he
has won praise for his power as a lyricist. His precisely worded narratives, with their sense

of humour about daily life, stand as metaphors for the social and economic ills that bedevil
his country’’. What became clear from the interview is also how Mtukudzi’s music openly
challenges Zimbabwean authorities. Its message is ‘‘clear’’ to his listeners, who refer to his
music style, as Michael (2003) discovered, ‘‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’’. A good example
is his 44th album, Vhunze Moto (Burning Embers) released in 2002 at the height of
politically motivated violence, on its cover shows a map of Zimbabwe on fire *the track
Moto Moto (Fire Fire) in Shona goes, Moto moto, sei kumirira kuti untange wave rimi kuti uti
moto? Ndiwe watanga moto kuti uti moto (Embers are fire, why wait until it’s a huge flame
to accept that it’s fire? . . . You have made the fire, making it on your own, to prove that it
is a fire). The song was about political violence that preceded the 2002 national elections
in Zimbabwe. The music also warned about by the disastrous economic implications of the
fast-track land reform programme. At this time, the country’s mainstream media were
failing to criticise the government’s land policies adequately.
By far, the most controversial track by Mtukudzi is Wasakara (Accept That You Are
Worn Out), from his 2001 album Bvuma (Tolerance). Wasakara urges old people to retire:
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Bvuma bvuma iwe
Bvuma bvuma chete
Bvuma wasakara,
Bvuma wawinyana
Kuchembera, Chiiko kuchembera . . .

Just accept it
You must accept it
Accept you are now worn out
Accept you are now wrinkled
What does getting old mean to you?

The song criticises those who do not accept the fact that they are old and need to
retire from certain ‘‘jobs’’. To most Zimbabweans, this was a reference to the country’s 81-
year-old President Robert Mugabe, who has been the country’s ruler since 1980. At the
time, in 2000, Mugabe had disappointed other presidential hopefuls by refusing to step
down. The succession issue was virtually absent in government, ruling party meetings and
in the official news media. Mtukudzi’s song, through metaphors and innuendo successfully
focused people’s attention on the issue. In their discussion of popular music and politics in
Cameroon, Nyamnjoh and Fokwang (2005), p. 263) similarly discovered that for musicians
‘‘any criticism had to be very subtle and deep in metaphor to avoid the risk of repression
for the artist concerned’’. Mtukudzi also sang against violence when there was widespread
violence, particularly against farm workers, urban workers, white farmers and opposition
party supporters. Needless to say, he was obviously inspired by conditions in Zimbabwean
society. As observed by Farai Sevenzo (2005), conditions that prompted people to write
songs during the time of the independence war in the 1960/70s were almost identical to
the conditions that people were finding themselves in, especially from 1999 to 2005.
In 2005 Mtukudzi released the album Nhava , which, although supposedly devoted
to the growing millions of Zimbabweans in the diaspora, contained tracks full of political
satire for the situation in Zimbabwe. For example, the chart-topping Ninipa (Be Modest)

openly criticised boastful and arrogant elites in Zimbabwean society. It says that those
who stubbornly refuse to join hands with others will not achieve anything positive. It was
interpreted by his fans to be referring to their ‘‘boastful President’’, who is refusing to heed
local and international advice that he should retire. However, the song’s sophisticated
messaging allowed it to be played on national public service radio. Also Handiro
Dambudziko (Wrong Diagnosis) from the same album (Nhava ) implied that wrong
solutions were being prescribed to (Zimbabwean) problems. This had put the country in
an economic and political quagmire. Tiri Mubindu (We Are All Waiting to Be Plucked), also
from the 2005 album Nhava , revisited the theme of the AIDS pandemic, which is wreaking
havoc in Zimbabwean society. Mtukudzi has been as hard hit by the disease as most other
Zimbabweans, having lost some of his band members, family members and fellow
musicians to AIDS in much of the 1990s and at the start of the new millennium. His music
advocates responsible sexual behaviour, in ways that mainstream media have not fully
done. It is, however, the perceived anti-government political messages in his music that
have made Mtukudzi a popular artist in the country: Oliver Mtukudzi’s Friday shows have
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attracted ‘‘Tuku groupies’’, who wave candles to the music and raise their open palms, a
symbol of the MDC opposition party. It was reported that his fans connected every song
Mtukudzi played to the country’s deepening political and economic problems.

Music as Journalism in Zimbabwe

Popular music is journalism because it represents aspects of social realities in
Zimbabwe at specific times. It denotes social realities but it is not reality itself but reality as
represented by music and musicians. Like journalism, it imagines and captures time-slices
of social reality for educational, information and entertainment purposes. It covers ‘‘events
as they occur’’ in ways that are immediately recognisable by listeners, regardless of their
status and social position. The issue that arises is what reality does Zimbabwean popular
music represent or describe. The case of Mapfumo, Zhakata and Mtukudzi showed that the
music acted as journalism in ‘‘covering events’’ in Zimbabwean life. I state this fully aware
that under normal circumstances music is produced as entertainment, to be consumed in
the sphere of leisure, on a voluntary basis.
The issues that are depicted in popular music as journalism are linked to what
listeners want, make and circulate among themselves and crucially that is in most cases
different from the information that the Zimbabwean government wishes the people to
have. Both the government and musicians lack control over how such music is heard or
where it is heard. Musicians can tell the audience what they intended but they cannot tell
them how to listen. The production and consumption of popular music is tied to a world
of politics shared by others. The private feelings tapped by popular songs are linked to the
public world which shapes music listeners’ experiences: ‘‘Bringing together the public and
the private, the individual and the collective, is precisely the way in which pop seems to
work’’ (Street, 1986, p. 7). In Zimbabwe popular music is played in homes, cars, buses,
shops, at work amongst other places. It is consumed at live concerts and is sold formally
and informally. In 2005, the country-wide destruction of flea markets under the Zimbabwe
government’s ill-conceived Operation Murambatsvina /Restore Order seriously reduced the
marketing of popular music in the country. As Sibanda notes:

The flea markets were popular for selling music products, CDs, music and video
cassettes . . . On entering flea market one is greeted with loud music from the new ‘‘hot’’

releases. Most of the songs ‘‘blacklisted and ‘‘banned’’ by government from state radio
were publicised through these flea markets. (2005, p. 2)

Needless to say that popular music is difficult to ban because it is circulated in

several ways. Banned music continues to be heard in Zimbabwean everyday life.
The account of the journalistic functions of popular music would be incomplete
without focusing on how, especially from 1997 to 2005, the Zimbabwean government
responded to the growing power of ‘‘music as journalism’’. It ‘‘banned’’ such music and
restricted its play on national public service radio. Critical music by Mapfumo, Zhakata and
Mtukudzi was excluded from the national airwaves. Official media attacked and under-
mined the reputation of these musicians.
However, apart from implementing the above forms of ‘‘censorship’’, the Zimbab-
wean government actually produced its own music in order to communicate issues about
land, anti-imperialism and to encourage national unity. For example, Zimbabwean cabinet
ministers, Elliot Manyika and Jonathan Moyo produced catchy songs that communicated
the government’s point of view. Maxwell Sibanda (2004) has documented how from 2001,
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Jonathan Moyo*then Zimbabwe’s newly appointed information minister *and a host of

other musicians, among them independence liberation war veterans Dick Chingaira and
Marko Sibanda backed by the police band secretly recorded an 18-track album, Hondo
Yeminda *3rd Chimurenga (War for Land *3rd Struggle). The album’s songs promoted
the government’s controversial land redistribution exercise. In 2001 Elliot Manyika, then
Minister of Youth and Employment Creation co-ordinated the recording of the album
Mwana wevhu (Son of the Soil). He sang lead vocals on the hit song Nora , a praise song for
Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe. Again, in 2003 Moyo co-ordinated the recording of the
album, Come to Victoria Falls Down in Zimbabwe , sung by the Ruvhuvhuto Sisters. The
album was aimed at marketing the mighty Victoria Falls at a time when Zimbabwe’s
tourism sector was struggling. In 2004, Moyo also composed and arranged 26 songs for
the double album PaxFro whose themes revolves around Africanism. The Zimbabwean
government commissioned musicians to record music that promoted its policies and such
music received excessive airplay on national radio and television. From 2001 the
Zimbabwean government also recorded and released a series of Chave Chimurenga (It’s
Now War) music campaign jingles that sought to promote the government’s programmes
on farming, rural electrification and land redistribution. The point is that official music
communication clashed with non-official ‘‘music journalism’’ championed by the likes of
Mapfumo, Zhakata and Mtukudzi. The government wanted but could not establish
complete control over all cultural processes, particularly music. Popular music continued
to reverberate in the commuter omnibuses, in private cars and in the high-density areas as
ordinary people identified with the sidelined but hard-hitting songs (Sibanda, 2004).

Concluding Reflections
The paper has attempted to demonstrate that popular music can function as
journalism. It is a potent form of expression that assumes some of the functions of
journalism at particular historic moments. Popular music takes the form of ‘‘journalism’’ in
contexts where the mass media sphere is constrained or under-represents views from
below. It is not so much about what the songs say, as lyrics are not the only characteristic
of songs, but more about how these are interpreted and textured into particular political
and economic contexts. The musicians’ accounts rivalled and offered alternative readings

of the events from those in the official media. Popular music promotes ordinary people’s
views on key issues and openly criticises official corruption, human rights abuses and
governments’ poor record in governance. Popular music promoted, debated and
provoked talk about what mattered at specific moments in daily life. Popular music is
reviewed by popular media because it is a resource for people’s resistance to domination
and struggles for change. Through popular songs, popular journalism links up with issues
that matter to people below. The music is the means by which popular media can connect
to such audiences. Finally, this paper has argued and demonstrated a case in which
popular music can be seen as a form of journalism. The popular cultural processes is
discussed, i.e. music and journalism, provided a vantage point to key illuminate aspects of
the contested, contradictory and differentiated ways of life in troubled Zimbabwe.

1. The topic of ‘‘music as journalism’’ or ‘‘news through music’’ resonates in new and old
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contexts in both developing and developed countries. For example, Chris Horrie and
Kienda Hoji, my University of Westminster colleagues teaching Journalism and Music
Studies respectively, have been advocating a conference to discuss the relation between
music and journalism, especially after the French Suburbs Riots of 2006. Also in
November 2006, Brian Martin Murphy who is an Associate Professor of Communication
Studies/African Studies at Niagara University who met at the 2006 African Studies
Association meeting in San Francisco, informed me that the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation Radio network has a weekly programme called ‘‘Global Village’’ (
global village) with regular series titled ‘‘news through music’’ where they profile
musicians from around the world who play the same role in their societies as what
musicians in Zimbabwe have done. The most recent report was an ironic profile on a
Kurdish pop star who has been arrested many times for his songs in Turkey where, on
November 25 and 26, the World Conference on Music and Censorship will be held.
2. John Fiske (1992, p. 45) describes the ‘‘power-bloc’’ as an alliance of the forces of
domination, expressed in state and other public institutions.
3. The crucial point here is that: ‘‘The people, like the power-bloc, should be thought of as
alliances of interests rather than class. The people, then are shifting sets of allegiances,
formed and reformed according to historical exigencies and specific material conditions,
which may cut across social categories of class, race, gender, age and so on, but which
cannot be disconnected from them’’ (Fiske, 1992, p. 46).
4. Researchers from outside the country have conducted most of the available research on
Zimbabwean music.
5. ‘‘Chimurenga’’ is a Shona word coined after Sororenzou Murenga * the name of a
distinguished legendary warrior of Zimbabwe’s first Shona and Ndebele Uprisings of
1893 and 1896 rebellions against white rule in the 1890s (see the work of Terrence
Ranger, 1967). An act of rebellion became a Chi-Murenga because great fighters after him
were believed to be possessed by Murenga’s spirit (Kwaramba, 1997, p. 4).
6. Zimbabwe has a population of 11.6 million people and a relatively small music market.
Sales are affected by the prevalence of piracy.
7. Sungura refers to a genre of local popular music, with Shona lyrics accompanied by a
distinct Zimbabwean dance.
8. Translated from Shona to English.

9. Munyaradzi Hwengwere, the then chief executive officer of the ZBC, a state-run
broadcaster said: ‘‘I am not aware of the protest music which you say is not played on
radio’’, in The Daily News , 25 February 2003.
10. Interview with Munyaradzi Hwengwere, The Herald , 8 January 2002. The Herald ran a long
and critical article entitled ‘‘Fame Creeps into Mukanya’s Head Again’’ (22 February 2002).
They accused Mapfumo of deliberately creating controversy through the mass media so
as to sell his music.
11. Loveness Chikozho, ZBC Public Relations Officer, cited in The Daily News , June 26 2003.

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Winston Mano, Communication and Media Research Institute, Department of Journalism

and Mass Communication, School of Media, Arts and Design, Bloc J, University of
Westminster, Northwick Park Campus, Watford Road, Harrow HA1 3TP, UK. E-mail: