Is the sound of ZimDancehall slowly fading? Are some artistes slowly sinking into oblivion? Could the genre have reached its peak and now the law of diminishing returns at play?
Can the music-turned-culture mutate and carve a permanent place on Zimbabwe’s entertainment gallery? At its peak in 2014 and 2015 ZimDancehall had created an army of youthful stars who commanded a legion of followers and had effected a de-facto coup d’état on the once dominant Sungura music genre.
The influence cut across age, ethnicity in both rural and urban settings and furthermore filtered through to the diaspora.
Who forgets the historic and unfortunate Sting event of 2015 at City Sports Centre! Most music pundits believe that is when the genre took a turn. And it was not a pretty turn as it were but rather one that led down the road to perdition.
The Chipaz Promotions event, was seen pitting the kings and queens of ZimDancehall in a lyrical combative battle against each other with the Seh Calaz vs Souljah Love beef reaching boiling point. It did not end well as violence ensued leaving scores of people injured and many more souls torn apart.
A few years later we saw the promoter of that catastrophic event, Patson Chimbodza, throwing in the towel. Sad how a music genre effectively ended a promoter’s career. The power of the music genre was too hard to ignore to the extent that three of the nation’s main radio stations had to change their programming and create weekly programmes specifically dedicated to ZimDancehall.
At one time ZimDancehall had 24 hours in total from three stations dedicated to it. Kombis, compounds, communities, offices and dare one say churches could be heard loudly reverberating to the sound and philosophy of ZimDancehall.
Even corporates who for a long time had shunned the genre’s artistes decided to jump onto the bandwagon and made key endorsements and engaged the artistes for their different corporate events.
A new generation of artiste was born. Young, creative and innovative but clueless on what was next and how to keep up the momentum, build a viable and sustainable business model and industry that could last beyond the hype and frenzy. Did they make money? Who really benefited from the music?
Are we witnessing the end of ZimDancehall? How did SA do it with Kwaito music? A quick look into how the South African Kwaito music morphed into a formidable genre with influence cutting across the globe, becoming a multi-million rand industry with a solid industry in place who feed from it whilst oiling its machinery could help us understand where we are with ZimDancehall, the shortcomings and possibilities that lie ahead.
South African House music termed Kwaito was born in the early 90s and like ZimDancehall it borrowed from foreign influences. SA artistes and producers took a lot of inspiration from electronic and House music sounds coming from Chicago, Detroit and mainland Europe’s techno dance scene whilst ZimDancehall is a direct influence of Jamaican Dancehall music. The Kwaito artistes and creators took a lot of influences from the refreshing electro sounds, incorporating some elements and sometimes outright imitating Western sounds. This had an effect of an initial stimulant and inspiration, but its impact did not last, and soon after this initial phase, Kwaito began to mature and found its own sound and footing.
With its roots cemented in townships and Soweto being the epicentre, across Limpopo, ZimDancehall found a home in one of the most populous ghettos; Mbare.
Distinctive traditional South African sounds gave Kwaito music a unique feel and appeal unlike with ZimDancehall whose style of rhythm, melody and singing has remained a close clone of Jamaican Ragga.
Artistes like Arthur Mafokate, Mandoza, Mdu, Oskido led the Kwaito revolution and shaped the sound of what still today remains the biggest music style in Southern Africa. Giant recording labels like Gallo and Universal Music were quick to see the musical tsunami and jumped on the tide by signing artistes and creating marketing, promotion and distribution networks across the globe.
Radio stations like Yfm and Metro FM had their DNA stuck in the youth urban music and Kwaito at times referred to as South African House became their mainstay. The government also embraced the culture through various initiatives and even their tourism packages has traces of Kwaito which even shaped language, dressing and way of life. It became a lifestyle.
TV shows were designed around the elements of the Kwaito culture and it became the face of urban and youth culture and still stands today. In Zimbabwe major traditional recording labels such as Gramma Records, Metro, ZMC did not see the ZimDancehall revolution coming and never embraced or supported it and with the digital age coming in fast they sunk into the abyss of history. Like a flowing river, ZimDancehall defined its own course and the innovative youngsters set up their own recording studios, most of them with no prior training or proper equipment but still produced hits that electrified the nation and filtered through to the homesick diaspora. New promoters and artistes managers popped up and several events became the norm. Street parties known as “Passa — Passas’’ named after Jamaica’s wild street parties took the neighbourhoods by storm.
Synonymous with any youth culture globally, ZimDancehall became notorious for drugs and sex with some of the drug-lords wading into the turf wars and music business. Both Kwaito and ZimDancehall are predominantly sung using local languages creating more local appeal.
GhettoRuff and Kalawa Jazmee just like Chillspot Records and Cashlibs Records Zimbabwe became some of the local key drivers and producers of Kwaito and ZimDancehall respectively. However, a glimpse into these stables you can see striking differences.
Differences that can explain why the two youthful genres despite sharing a common narrative are having a different fate. Kwaito has DJs producing and pushing music on a global level like Black Coffee and DJ Zinhle whilst the Sound System culture that for years propelled the music is fast dying. South African House music created its own unique sound, fused local traditional elements, major corporations embraced the movement, it influenced lifestyle, dress and culture and this filtered down to many enterprises in the chain.
The recording labels became businesses with well-structured management and distribution systems. Kwaito did not remain stagnant in sound and structure and has continuously evolved with subcultures from different eras and areas.
Stars were born and an industry built. Even when some once established stars fell into oblivion, new ones are born and they have kept the music alive.
ZimDancehall has not evolved and kept sounding the same since inception, with the same rhythmic progression, vocal arrangement and at times the message revolving around the same things. Well, someone can argue that Kwaito too has a lot of vain messaging but people still groove to it. There are a lot of parallels and lessons than can be drawn from our brothers and sisters down South. We could debate the whole day on where ZimDancehall is today and its future prospects but what’s certain is that it is not where it used to be.
Yes we still see the likes of Winky D and Killer T on major concert posters but there is too much great talent that has fallen into the drain and a lot that saw its day.
There are too many recording studios that have closed down, promoters who have quit, artistes’ managers who still have no clue about management beyond taking bookings, a distribution channel that celebrates piracy and online content with no monetary gain. The sad reality is that we could wake up one day to a mute sound of ZimDancehall and just like urban grooves we will talk about how huge and unsinkable the music was and appeared to be.
Unless we accept all is not well and something needs to be done by all players as a collective team then we will soon be writing the epitaph. Can the ZimDancehall Summit help salvage and rebuild the movement?
The inaugural summit happening end of this month is set to bring together stakeholders in the sector to discuss among other issues, the current state of the music, how to build an industry and the social impact of ZimDancehall with the hope of creating positive dialogue that could help in formulating structures for growth and sustainability.