Zimbabwean Self-Understanding as Expressed through Song: An Interview with Mhoze Chikowero – Part II

In the first part of the interview with Professor Mhoze Chikowero (Department of History, UC Santa Barbara), he gestured at the usefulness of an “acoustemological perspective” in the reading of the recent events in Zimbabwe. (If you missed it, you can find Part I of the interview here). Today, we finish the interview by learning more about Professor Chikowero’s work, including his forthcoming book, The Military Entertainment Complex: Music, Media and State Making in Zimbabwe, and his thoughts on the future of Zimbabwe after the November “Revolution.”

Do you mind explaining some of the key ideas you are exploring in your upcoming book, “The Military Entertainment Complex: Music, Media and State Making in Zimbabwe (1980-present)”?

My upcoming book, The Military Entertainment Complex builds on the heritage of African self-liberation, but also engages the significance of the deep, unresolved traumas and legacies of colonial subjugation and animalization in the processes of contemporary self- and state making. It is important to explore the significance of violence in a context where only the military muscle could triumph against some of the historical adversities like settler colonialism. My new book is grappling with this legacy, whereby militant and leisurely self-expression articulates the pent-up sensibilities about cultural transformation, economic independence and resource sovereignty as unfinished business. These are some of the thematics that I am currently exploring. I have just completed the manuscript with the final chapter on the coup, “The Sonic Coup: The Military Touch that Deposed Mugabe,” which will also be published as a journal article soon.

In your view, how do power and governance relate to what we usually think of as the apolitical “cultural” realm of music and sound? How do you see this connection playing out in Zimbabwe (and perhaps other parts of Africa?)

The existing literature on African society tends to separate the political from the cultural, but this way of reading African realities is a heritage of the European Manichean method and a limited ability to engage African history on its terms, and particularly so in light of the postcolonial nature of the problematic. It is actually curious that anthropologists and ethnomusicologists who dominate the scholarship on the cultural realm play down governance since these and other social sciences were incubated in the trenches of colonial knowledge production and knowledge colonialism. The apartheid state in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, for instance, sponsored such ethnomusicologists as Hugh Tracey–the founder of the International Library of African Music (ILAM) at Rhodes University–to study the music of the so-called natives from as early as the 1920s as a strategy to better subjugate them. Their work–the masses of archival documents, sound recordings, songs, collections of musical instruments–produced “native legibility” to the colonial state, together with which they suppressed politically engaged African musical expression and sponsored what they called “tribal” culture, which they supposedly rescued and preserved from the threats of “civilization.” This effort to freeze African cultures in a supposed time warp was a political act to produce difference, first, between Africans and the European colonizers as a weapon for colonization. Second, the “tribal” identities they invented and fostered through the so-called social welfare programs fostered political friction among the colonized. Difference–ritualized through cultural performance, worked as a technology of governance in the same ways that missionary crusades against spiritually significant African cultures helped to sonically re-engineer African subjection to the colonial agenda. This is the deeper context that the Chimurenga resistance ethic addresses, both in the colonial era and in the present. The traumas of colonialism are still super fresh, and the colonial agenda has in fact deepened.

It becomes even more troubling then that contemporary writers read the archive produced by early ethnomusicologists as an “apolitical” source of knowledge, rather than as a confessional archive of violent knowledge and subject production. Even more troubling are Africans who follow these colonial, Eurocentric traditions by calling themselves ethnomusicologists, when all they study is their own music. It means they are studying themselves through the eyes of the white colonist, who founded and defined ethnomusicology as the “study of the music of primitive others.” Unless Africans are studying European or other music other than their own, they cannot seriously call themselves ethnomusicologists. This means departments and programs in ethnomusicology in Africans institutions are misdirected; by are a colonial relic that is still miseducating African children, teaching them that they are primitives.

In a book of the same name, Professor Mahmood Mamdani has aptly observed that to “define is to rule.” If one looks at the various reports of commissions and committees of inquiry into this or that aspect of “native” life in colonial Africa, the salience of “culture” in regimes of governance becomes clear. Part of what the early ethnomusicologists did was to not only invent various identity categories for Africans, designating “Tribe A” as different from “Tribe B,” etc. They went further to ritualize such supposed “tribal” differences by requiring Africans to perform such difference. One sees this in the so-called “tribal” and “intertribal” dances and competitions, whereby, for instance, the Nyasa tussled against the Ndebele, the Manyika or so-called Shona in dancing, drumming, boxing, or any other regular programs in the colonial cities. The fictional identities were designed to fracture African identities and produce factional and frictional behaviors and hatreds, all of which enabled white colonial domination and governance–divide and rule. The apartheid bantustanization regime in South Africa and the Hutu-Tutsi genocide were not unique technologies of governance or outcomes of such on the continent, and they both utilized “culture.” The traumas such histories produced require more serious research and understanding, because, sadly, they form painful, unstable foundations of the new African nation state. It is a state that’s formed on these cartographies of colonialism, and it thus can hardly subsist as an independent, self-directed entity. As such, when some political commentators write about the failed state in Africa, they are mostly missing this point, and ascribing the horrible but unsurprising violent colonial experiment to Africans. And when the experiment is called successful, it is not clear if we are looking for neo-Europes in Africa.

What are your thoughts on the future of Zimbabwe after the November “Revolution”?

The deposition of Mugabe last November might be regarded as a revolution with a small “r”–in the limited sense of a power grab in the context of intra-party factional politics spawned by Mugabe’s failure to manage succession issues. One wishes to give the new administration goodwill to distinguish itself, but some key policy pronouncements sound more reactionary than revolutionary, particularly if one is interested in what might be regarded as the legacy of the liberation struggle, the platform the new leaders claimed for their act in November. One would expect a reinforcement of the African pride that came with the liberation struggle, the cultural self-confidence, the buttressing of the land reclamation, resource sovereignty, etc, and not reversals. The military action–deliberately buoyed through popular song and a mobilized (some would say manipulated) citizenry–was supposedly undertaken to “restore the legacy” of Zimbabwe’s self-liberation, but pronouncements about reversing the indigenization law, reverse compensating Rhodesian farmers (for loss of land or supposed improvements doesn’t matter) and the premising of national economic policy on DFI do not sound like measures to restore or protect an Afrocentric development agenda. It is the height of reactionary policy to require Africans to pay reverse reparations to their plunderers, and to expect that western money will charitably build an African country for the first time in the history of humanity because the record is expressly clear that it is about plunder and rapine. Mugabe was rightly criticized for his numerous shortcomings, and one hopes the military muscle will not compel a crass neo-colonial order after the SAPs of the 1990s. Hours after the coup, the British and their other western allies were already officially meeting the new president and talking about returning Zimbabwe to the colonial club called the Commonwealth.

What do you think humanitarians and development officers working in Zimbabwe and across the continent need to know about this revolution? Do you have any specific advice for them?

African history tells us that most humanitarian work in Africa actually constitutes what Professor Tafataona Mahoso has aptly called criminal humanitarianism. I explore these histories with the colonial evangelizing mission in the late 1800s-early 1900s, which psychologically damaged the African psyche. The philosophy of western philanthropy is what gave us colonialism in Africa, championed through such mantras as the civilizing mission. The same ideas are no longer hoisted through such languages as “savages,” “heathens,” etc, but the substance and mission are the same, that Africans are children who must be developed by other people. The whole development agenda is dubious, because no people can be developed by somebody else; there is no history of such. This is why countries like Eritrea banned NGOs. Most NGOs have an insidious agenda, covertly or overtly, that undermines African institutions, African cultures and intellectual capital. For instance, while the western world is busy gobbling up African resources and turning the continent into a huge farm and a huge hole to excavate minerals, development workers are busy attacking African food sovereignty through the GMO seed movement, population control and the promotion of male genital mutilation (while simultaneously condemning female genital mutilation). Africans must repossess their own development agenda and cease running with sponsored ideas.

Thank you Professor Chikowero for your time and insights!!


Mhoze Chikowero is Associate Professor of African History at the University of California in Santa Barbara and ACLS Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. He attained his undergraduate education at the University of Zimbabwe and his graduate degrees at Dalhousie University, and a post-doctoral fellowship at Rutgers University (2008). Chikowero is also the Research Consultant at the Mbira Centre, and a Founding Fellow of the Mbira Institute, both based in Harare. He researches African music and politics; and technologies of state making (including broadcasting and energy). He has worked with Zimbabwean and African artists for years. He is the author of African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press, 2015) and The Military Entertainment Complex: Music, Media and State Making in Zimbabwe (forthcoming). His articles on music and politics, nationalism, electrification, and broadcasting have appeared in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Muziki: Journal of Music Research in Africa and in edited volumes.

Featured image source: Innocent Makawa (The Herald).

Caption: Vice-President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa hails Zimbabwean popular singer Jah Prayzah (JP) at the launch of JP’s hit album, “Jerusarema” in 2015.

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