The Beginnings of Zimbabwean Protest Music

Alice Dadirai Kwaramba, M. Phil.

The period between 1965 to 1979 was an important one in the history of colonial Rhodesia. The Rhodesia Front had taken over government in 1962 and quickly replaced Prime Minister Winston Field with the more authoritarian Ian Smith who introduced one repressive law after another. This led to mounting discontent among the blacks and a general movement towards militant action. The black people started making more radical demands which resulted in the formation of nationalist political parties. The National Democratic Party (NDP) in early 1962, Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) subsequently. 1 Smith responded to this by taking more drastic measures, declaring the independence of Rhodesia from Britain in 1965, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Britain and the rest of the world imposed sanctions on Rhodesia which worsened the living conditions of the blacks both in the rural and the urban areas. These developments further strained relationships between blacks and whites, making an armed struggle for independence almost inevitable. In 1966 the first shots marking the beginning of the armed struggle in Rhodesia were fired.

The political developments in the period between 1965 to 1979 saw changes in the form and content of music. Local musicians who, since the mid 1950s had played cover versions of such rock 'n' roll, soul and pop artists such as Wilson Picket, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Otis Redding, and The Rolling Stones, were under pressure from both the worsening situation as well as the nationalists to contribute in the struggle. Nationalists for example, began to question why musicians had the luxury to stage shows while others were taking to the bush to fight. Musicians therefore adopted a more revolutionary stance in their music. Church hymns were changed and the lyrics substituted with revolutionary ones in some cases. In other cases the Christian lyrics assumed new meanings under the new circumstances. The different categories of Shona protest song assumed new interpretations in the new context. For example, songs that had protested about unjust chiefs, assumed new interpretations as social relationships changed. Similarly, 'traditional' war and hunting songs assumed new meanings in the wake of an armed struggle and tightening tensions between the black majority and the white minority government.

The Zimbabwean people's music, which had been marginalised in the rock n' roll, soul and pop frenzy of the 1950s, was thus rejuvenated as a useful tool for mobilisation in the political struggle for justice. In a situation where black people were systematically excluded from the formal means of political representation, music became an alternative means of articulating their experiences. Richard Wagner, cited in Alex Pongweni, had this to say of music: "It is a truth forever that where the speech of men stops short, there, music's reign begins" (Wagner, in Pongweni 1982: 1). This was particularly true of the popular music that emerged in Zimbabwe in the mid 1960s to the late 1970s.


[from Alice Dadirai Kwaramba, Popular Music and Society: The Language of Chiumurenga Music: The Case of Thomas Mapfumo in Zimbabwe. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1997, pages 31-32. Available from Department of Media and Communications [info@media.uio.no].


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