THE current social media hullabaloo surrounding the campaign by Jah Prayzah’s team to get him voted the entertainer of the year and best male artist (east/south/north) in the on-going Africa Entertainment Awards USA serves as an instructive moment for both musicians and music lovers alike.
The animus toward Jah Prayzah in certain quarters is motivated his failure to support the #ZimbabweLivesMatter social media campaign on protests against human rights abuses in the country. It was joined by celebrities far and wide, including South Africa’s AKA and Burna Boy from Nigeria who incidentally happens to be one of the artists vying for top honours alongside Jah Prayzah (born Mukudzei Mukombe) and a couple illustrious others.
The competition is heated and artists are trying to marshal all the support that their fellow country folk can lend him to trump competitors.
Not for Jah Prayzah though – not this time around – as it was in 2016 when he won the MTV listener’s choice award.
For all the beauty of his music – to his legion of fans, especially female ones; and for all the melodic and lyrical genius of his compositions, Jah Prayzah has essentially been the go-to artist for the good times in a nation of ‘crying children and laughing hyenas’ (to borrow a line from one of imbongi Albert Nyathi’s seminal poems).
Maybe that is the gist of the controversy that Jah’s musical content is not reflective enough of the daily struggles of the masses; that is it sometimes doesn’t resonate with the struggles of the majority. There has not been an artist in recent memory that has evoked as much derision as he has devotion. It is evident to say that he appears to be morphing into a polarising figure, altogether a victim and some say a more than willing pawn in Zimbabwe’s political chessboard.
But why are the Zimbabwean social media streets astir with both Jah Prayzah bashing and praising alike with the former being arguably more vehement than the latter now?
Why does an event such as the nomination of a ‘mere’ artist for an international award of excellence elicit so much controversy?
Perhaps ‘mere’ is not the right term when it comes to depicting Jah Prayzah’s music career which really sprung into life around 2013 with the release of songs such as ‘Tsviriyo’ and ‘Gochi gochi’ all perfect party ditties for the elite and monied folk of Harare’s leafy suburbs. The kind that haunt the Merekis or even the Pablos (hangout places and night spots).
Khanyile Mlotshwa, a doctoral student and former arts reporter, offer some insights on the issue.
“I believe, considering the indifference and Jah Prayzah’s silence in the face of the regime’s brutality, one cannot blame those among us who refuse to support him…,” Mlotshwa said. “Zimbabweans understand that and one can see how the state media is campaigning for him; regime just could not resist the temptation to try and use this moment for (cultural) propaganda capital.”
The likes of Information permanent secretary Nick Mangwana have indeed taken to social media to rally Zimbabweans to support Jah’s nominations.
Jah’s corpus of recorded works in itself generally reflects and signals the coming of party man musician with an ear for catchy hooks underpinned by an incessant rhythm that commands feet to the dance floor.
Initially decked in faux military fatigues, Jah and his Third Generation band struck a dashing figure which demanded and commanded attention from music fans female and male alike.
One must remember that Oliver Mutukudzi, the late long-time Zimbabwean music superstar, had at the time just about used up his musical bag of tricks in an illustrious music career spanning several decades.
Thomas Mapfumo, the music guru, was in self-imposed exile in the United States with his music barely filtering through the local airwaves to rock the fans. His anti-regime stance wasn’t getting much airplay.
Zimbabwean audiences were looking and were ready for someone new to follow. Jah came through with a strong raspy voice backed by a musical stew that included Jit and inflections of reggae and mbira.
And he was unstoppable as he churned out hits which demonstrated his canny grasp of his native Zezuru dialect.
With colourful metaphor, symbol and rhyme, the rugged cadence of Jah Prayzah’s music carried him to greater heights. Witting or unwittingly, he became a mascot for the military establishment in the sunset of the Mugabe years; he became their cultural ambassador and his dashing frame wore the uniform with upstanding military pride. For a season, no one could fault him circa 2016/17. Then the military was not directly involved in politics.
Although the military has always been involved in politics since the liberation struggle bdays, dating back to the Mgagao Declaration in 1975, and throughout the war, it was always in the shadows.
But towards the coup which led to the toppling of Mugabe in 2017, the army came to the forefront of Zanu PF succession and internal power struggles.
Jah Prayzah was in the mix with his songs and performances in military fatigues. Insiders in his band said their logistics, the uniforms and some costs were paid for by the military.
For the record, Jah Prayzer was also a brand ambassador of other institutions such as PSI and Chicken Inn – not just the army – all latching onto his bootstraps as his star was on the ascendant.
Jah’s wearing of fatigues did not appear to stand in the way of his fans adoring him nor did his close association with military establishment.
Indeed, the title track of his 2016 album Mudhara Achauya(the old man will come) was played at ruling party dos. In the fog of the succession intrigue within the ruling Zanu PF, the song seemed to trend as an anthem for the Lacoste faction.
Latterly there were moments when the G40 appeared to be appropriating it to insist that its lyric referred to the party leader Robert Mugabe, then president.
Jah found himself in the eye of a political storm and the release of Mudhara Achauyain 2017, months before the coup, appeared to some to have a connotative meaning and reference to a fearsome elder who would come to rule.
Of course, the artist rejected the political innuendo but that did not stop the political factions from ascribing political meaning to his music and given his close army association as cultural ambassador, the link was not tenuous.
Though at the time many did not know it, the army would prove pivotal in the succession politics within Zanu PF; they became the Kingmakers.
In fact, the mass protest march against Mugabe before his resignation was ‘choreographed’ by the army with marchers being guided on how to protest under the cover of military tanks and other heavy equipment.
The theme song then became Kutonga kwaro(it’s rule), which was even sung at the Zanu PF central committee meeting which removed Mugabe as party leader.
The music of Jah blared from car radios in the cacophony of celebration marking Mugabe’s fall around the country.
No doubt, the die had been cast and Jah’s star rose higher than ever before.
For a while, he enjoyed the perch that the likes of Mapfumo had at the dawn of independence. He appeared to have prophesied the rise of the country’s new leader nicknamed Garwe (which coincides with Mnangagwa’s nickname ‘crocodile’ by his legion of party faithfuls, hence Kutonga kwaro.
But the honeymoon for both Jah Prayzah and the army for which he was cultural ambassador was short-lived in the aftermath of the post-election protest marches which ensued and culminated in the killing of eight people by security forces.
That marked a turning point.
The Motlanthe Commission subsequently found that civilians were killed in cold blood. Jah’s career then became entangled with the political fortunes of the ruling Zanu PF and criticism of his music career has as much to do with his perceived political affiliation as it has with his seeming unwillingness to use his platform artivistically.
Refusing to endorse and support #ZimbabweanLivesMatter seems to have confirmed the worst fears of some of his fans who now associate him with Zanu PF and the establishment.
The question that arises in all of this is whether there is a legitimate expectation that an artist of the kind of profile and fame which Jah Prayzer has should side with popular sentiment or social causes that affect his fans.
For the likes of Larry Kwirirayi, a music critic and broadcaster, the support for Jah Prayzer’s nomination should be based on the fact that he is a Zimbabwean artist competing with artists from other countries.
“No one has ever been nominated for that award…but now we got one of our own competing in best artist in Africa,” said Kwirirayi before adding that the award is not an “award for Jah Prayzer but a vote for Zimbabwe”.
The likes of Kwirirayi see the possible win of Jah as the start of a movement which opens doors for Zimbabwean artists such as happened with the film Cook Off.