By Tanaka Chidora
The second half of my childhood was spent in Mbare. As Mbare citizens, we were at the receiving end of jokes by those who wanted to feel better about their achievements regardless of how small those achievements were. According to them, Mbare was that place where you had to take a bath while trapping your Sabao (or whatever they called it) soap between your thick lips because everyone was a thief, including yourself. Mbare was a place of burst sewage pipes that hung like veins on the walls of the hostels. Sometimes the waterfalls of human excrement would release a foetus, or two, or three. Mbare was that place where human beings jostled for space with rats, stray cats, stray dogs and makeshift structures that pretended to be business premises.
As an A-Level student in one of Harare’s old but relatively leafy suburbs, the reputation of being a Mbare boy gave me a couple of hurdles in my social life. I had to choose my friends carefully, especially those who resided south of Samora. I found them to be more understanding. In any case, many suburbs south of Samora share an affinity with Mbare in many ways: burst sewage pipes, dusty shopping centres with more bottle stores than any other services, supermarkets whose names have a ghetto ring to them (you don’t find Bon Marche or Pick ‘n’ Pay at Huruyadzo, Kuwadzana 2, Machipisa, Makomva etc; you find OK and TM respectively), stray dogs and cats that patronise rubbish dumps seething with all kinds of waste (including used condoms which, in the early days of condoms, we inflated and used to make plastic balls that mimicked Mitre), morning sounds that inevitably include the Cobra seller’s sonorous voice, clandestine spaces where youths get stoned and spend the day with glazed eyes (under the tower light, pamusawu, under the bridge, crumbling walls of dilapidated houses, etc.), hasty graffiti by ghetto artists who want to be famous all over the hood (by writing their names on the walls of public buildings, names like: “Sparta King”, “Mr Wolff”, “Killer Bean”, “Gaza”, “King Fyah”)…
But when one of the greatest cultural revolutions of the post-1980 period happened, and Mbare was at the heart of it, Mbare became not just a place where socially marginalised people lived; it became an aesthetic driving the Zimdancehall Movement. I am not insinuating that Zimdancehall was not there before DJ Fantan and Chillspot. It was there but shrouded in something called Urban Grooves which was a mishmash of genres. I think Zimdancehall became a stand-alone movement post-2010, especially with the commercial success of the Zimbo Flavour and No Mercy riddims, both of which were ridden by Soul Jah Love with enough aplomb to engrave his name in the Zimdancehall Hall of Fame.
Suddenly, it became cool to be from Mbare where Soul Jah Love, Chillspot, DJ Fantan, Levels, Seh Calaz, Killer T, Kinnah, and so on resided. These young artists became the elixir that Mbare needed. And Mwana waStembeni (together with other young Mbare chanters and DJs) carried this movement on his shoulders. While in the first days, a wave of moral panic swept across the country because of what were considered to be vulgar elements of the movement (drugs, vulgar language, and the valorisation of banditry and uninhibited sex), the unstoppable nature of the movement coaxed even the most recalcitrant of cultural conservatives to listen. And before we knew it, Zimdancehall chanters were becoming brand ambassadors.
What set Soul Jah Love apart in this movement was his unique style. Besides being famed for impromptu lyrical compositions, Soul Jah Love’s art was self-referential and highly autobiographical. Like Eminem’s. There was also something Marecherean about him. He was the doppelganger who, until he arrived, Zimdancehall had never seen. He sang, first and foremost, for and about himself. He was, for me, the most vulnerable musician Zimbabwe had ever seen. By vulnerable, I mean being able to unashamedly travel with your listeners to the centre of your being where you would show them your life, putrid entrails and all. In his lyrics, he did not create a life for the cameras far away from the mundanity of his existence. His creativity was his way of unveiling his real self to the world. Whatever happened in his life (infertility, sickness, a house being reduced to rubble by the anger of the city council, tumultuous affair with Bounty Lisa, etc.) made its way into his music. Few artists, whether they be musicians or writers, achieve this level of self-reference and vulnerability.
According to a friend of mine, the field of Zimdancehall is a crowded one. But what made Soul Jah Love stand out was that he was a real poet. I concur. He knew the kinds of tonal variations to use for each aspect of his life. And in all those aspects, we found ourselves. But it was when he was singing about the sad aspects of his life that Soul Jah Love managed to create beautiful pathos. Have you ever really listened to ‘Zvihombe Zviri Pandiri’ or ‘Kana Ndafa?’ I know I am a bit biased here, especially considering that my first solo-authored book is titled Because Sadness is Beautiful? (2020). But the truth (at least about me) is that I actually think that most artistic works are concerned with giving a gentle thrill to the chaos, disorder, sadness, and desolation that characterise the world, and to express man’s attempts to understand the world, attempts that are both futile and irrelevant. Do not ask me how I reached that conclusion. But Soul Jah Love’s transience on earth makes you think deeply about these things. At 31, one is bound to feel robbed. And I feel robbed. There are many others like me who feel the same.
In short, Soul Jah Love came, unveiled himself to us on a very tumultuous stage, and left shortly after, leaving us weighed down by disbelief. How can Soul Jah Love’s life be so short? It is as if the curse that pursues genius, the curse of a short artistically productive and tumultuous life, pursued him as well.
Rest in peace Chibaba. What you gave in your very short life is something that some of us may not be able to give in many lifetimes.
Tanaka Chidora is a poet, literary critic and academic. You can follow the link below to purchase his latest poetry collection, Because Sadness is Beautiful?:
or contact him via this email: [email protected]