Oliver Mtukudzi is dead but the world has hardly begun to skim the surface of his greatness.
In this tribute, Stan Mushava flips through the African superstar’s catalogue, looking at how conscientiousness, attachment to heritage and artistic integrity were not only central to the making of the legend but are also the universal mainstays of art.
It helps to start with a studio fee, a six-digit Instagram following, industry connections, an arts degree and, perhaps, a rock-star wardrobe, then adding a friendly business and political environment, if you are going to be your country’s foremost global icon.
But you can also be a downtown upstart, coming up from the dark side of the Rhodesian colour bar, and still become Oliver Mtukudzi. To be a ridiculously dope artist, in other words, is not so much a question of context as it is a question of spirit.
To be Zimbabwe’s most commercially successful poet, the most positive story out of your country and simply one of the greatest Africans of all time, you do not just lean into history but you bend it around with heritage, conscience, integrity and extra work.
Talent makes an artist, but humanity makes a hero. You might have the husky voice tailor-made for the charts, and your fingers might be intimate with guitar strings more than your tongue is with the roof of your mouth, but how far do your eyes see? If your conscience is not awake to the condition of the weakest in your society, well, you have already missed the first thing about becoming Oliver Mtukudzi.
To be Oliver Mtukudzi, when your country’s soldiers beat and rape women, you record “Zivai neMwoyo” to remind them that they are human before they are soldiers. “Zivai nemwoyo, varume, ndimi munoshinha… Midzimu yedu yaikudza Mwari, vakomana… Ndisu tave kurova Mai, pafungei, apa pafungei…” Remind them that their unusual methods of “protecting” the citizens affront God and torment the spirit of Africa.
When your people are destitute at home, let your very first album voice the desperation. “Ndatadza kushiringinya, ndiri pamakumbo paAmai” (I’m not at home in my mother’s lap). Sing the pain of a lost generation that is at home anywhere but home in “Ndipeiwo Zano”, “Ndiri Bofu” and “Gunguwo”.
And when the comrades have sung your songs in the bush, and returned home to lead, remind them occasionally of their promises and responsibilities to the least of their people in “Mukuru”, “Kumirira” and “Hunhapwa”.
Let your music be a cultural catechism, mindful of the privileged who weaponise culture to oppress women and desecrate children. Take them to dare (traditional fireside court) with “Dai Ndine Mukoma”, “Neria” and “Sandi Bonde”, and let children be allowed to be children with “Street Kids” and “Tapindwa Nei?”
To be Oliver Mtukudzi is to be what Zimbabwe has that the world does not have. Your originality is not rootlessness but the individual expression of your roots in response to the challenges of your time. You are the cultural revivalist, and “Dada Nerudzi Rwako” do not simply form part of but also inform the path of your international breakthrough.
To be Oliver Mtukudzi is a life-long search for identity, not just in the fireside orature, music traditions and right-living codes of your country but also in Pan-African engagements. The trumpeters, drummers and crooners of the continent share endearing collaborations with you because the spirit of Africa was never really imprisoned by Berlin Conference borders.
When the Black Spirits’ guitars have spoken all the languages of Dande griots under the new moon, hang them for marimba, as the Blacks Unlimited once hung theirs for mbira. When the Zimbabwe Renaissance is already four decades along since Ndipeiwo Zano, play Dairai because your heart is still alive where old paths intersect with new challenges.
English you could have sung all right but there is more to be said in the beauty, richness and wisdom of your mother’s tongue. This you readily do, with one-liners that can be mistaken for ancient proverbs.
When there is no more space for accolades on your cabinet, from Afropop Hall of Fame to Kora, and you have been voted one of the 100 Greatest Africans of All Time, alongside Tshaka, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Thomas Sankara, remind the young that to be great is simply to be yourself.
Be the voice and soul that you want to be and the world will listen to you on your own terms whenever it catches up with you. You do not become Oliver Mtukudzi if money or trends are uppermost in your mind when you hit the studio. Writing to corporate considerations, streaming algorithms and Internet trends will get you charting, but what good is it when you are just going to be another seasonal puppet?
When you are making music for all time, no time is too much of a cost. When you plant your feet where you want them, obscurity is a small price to pay. To be Oliver Mtukudzi, compose to your own feelings and values because trends are written to be revised.
Do not despise obscurity; it is where you become the voice and soul you want to be. Carry your personal struggles into the studio because that is where the soul is at its most intense. You may even have to record Sugar Pie and Ndega Zvangu without your band, and Wawona with a different band, but when the artist in you finally arrives, the businessperson in you will not be far behind.
Nothing from your forgettable years will actually be forgotten. When you have become international, you will feed the market eight compilation albums from the material that sailed beneath its radar during your obscure years, from The Tuku Years to Wonai. And everyone will just have to dance because you were already The Superstar before they recognised you.
Whichever Oliver Mtukudzi you want to be – the matchless musician, the cultural revivalist, the mentor, the human rights defender, the philanthropist or just the hero – never forget the words “hatina nguva yatinofunga kuti tinayo” because time really is never yours.
Recover the years you spend in the wrong vineyard with an album for each year of your life. When you depart, the nation will only be starting to discover how much gold is in your estate.
To be Oliver Mtukudzi, be yourself without compromise. The labour of your love and the power of your voice will never be forgotten.