Thomas Mapfumo has been making music for more than 50 years. A popular and influential Zimbabwean protest musician, Mapfumo is known as the “Lion of Zimbabwe” and has been a persistent opponent of dictatorship since the days of white-minority rule. Days before Zimbabwe’s second election since the fall of longtime dictator Robert Mugabe, Mapfumo remains cynical about the prospects for political progress.
“These guys are used to rigging the election,” he tells New Lines magazine’s Kwangu Liwewe. “There’s no change in Zimbabwe until these guys are removed from power.”
At the beginning of his career, Mapfumo mostly played covers of popular American songs by artists like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. But soon his music began to take on a much more political — and unapologetically African — shape. “I started thinking, if these people don’t want us to play their music, don’t we have our own music, our own cultural music?”
He began to experiment by blending conventional rock and blues with the sounds of traditional Shona music, creating something new and vibrant and uniquely Zimbabwean.
“We were just playing guitars, imitating the mbira sound,” he says. “But eventually we thought it was right if we could bring the mbira itself, actually mix it up with the guitars, and that came out very well.”
“There’s no change in Zimbabwe until these guys are removed from power.”
That might be an understatement. With his new innovative style, which he dubbed “Chimurenga” — meaning “liberation” in the Shona language — Mapfumo became the voice of a generation of Zimbabweans crying out for change.
It was in 1980 that that change seemed to have finally arrived. Ian Smith’s white minority Rhodesian regime had collapsed, and Mugabe’s revolutionary movement took control of the government. But Mugabe’s autocratic leadership and personal corruption quickly left Mapfumo disillusioned.
“Mugabe was not the kind of person that I thought he was,” he reflects. “He was an oppressor and he wasn’t there for the people.”
Mapfumo’s music began to take aim at the post-independence government. With the release of his 1989 hit “Corruption,” the regime decided to act. His songs were banned from the radio, and Mapfumo was forced into exile in the United States in the late ’90s, where he has lived ever since.
Mugabe remained in power for two more decades, until he was finally overthrown by his former ally Emmerson Mnangagwa following widespread protests in 2017. But while many Zimbabweans celebrated the dictator’s fall, Mapfumo was under no illusions that the ouster of the man at the top would change the nature of the regime.
“There was no new dawn in Zimbabwe,” he says. “The situation was still the same.”
Produced by Joshua Martin