In an interview with one of Africa’s musical giants at Capital Hotel in Lilongwe, Jessie Kabwila Kapasula talks to Oliver Mtukudzi. Mtukudzi, from Zimbabwe, discusses the rich themes behind his work, as well as broader points of discussion such as the contemporary misuse of cultural practices around the death of a brother, parental responsibilities, and the objectification of women in popular music.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: I requested this interview because music is such an integral part of life in Africa, the message we get from it affects the day to day life of people in Africa…
Oliver Mtukudzi: That is the purpose of singing a song actually, the message that people get. You do not sing if you have nothing to say.
ROLE OF ARTIST
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: What would you say then is the role of the artist in today’s Africa?
Oliver Mtukudzi: An artist is a cultural maintenance person, represents a culture and, the easiest form of the deliverance of messages. That is why in Africa we sing at funerals and weddings. The most important thing is to deliver the message.
TWISTING OF CULTURE
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: In one of your interviews, the one on San Francisco in 2000, whilst talking about ‘Paivepo’, two issues came up that I found very interesting. What I call ‘the bastardization of the word culture’ and ‘Kugarwa nhaka’. You argue that instead of people following the way this practice is supposed to be, they are twisting it. Is this a prevalent problem in Africa now?
Oliver Mtukudzi: Yes. That is why I picked this issue for the song. Many people are taking advantage of the cultural laws, twisting them just to suit themselves. Inheritance does not mean taking over even the wife. It is taking over of the responsibility. If you are in love with your brother’s wife, then you have to propose afresh. It was a rule that was designed to mean well but because are twisting it to suit ourselves, we are taking advantage of women.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: This is a very topical issue to discuss even here in Malawi. I would say one of the problems we are currently facing in various Malawian communities is the abuse of the word/concept ‘culture’ to further personal agendas and/or avoid confronting the problems we are facing.
Oliver Mtukudzi: Culture has nothing to do with your everyday living, tradition has. Our culture is not inferior to other cultures. The problem is the people who are twisting cultural and traditional laws to suit their needs of the day.
MAN AS HEAD OF THE FAMILY?
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: One of the issues you have dealt with in your songs is the ‘head’ of the family issue. Who is the head of the family to you and how do you define family?
Oliver Mtukudzi: I am trying to reassert our culture, the African culture. I hate to see the African culture die off and yet we have such a beautiful culture. The problems come because of the few who take advantage of the culture since there is no fine for those who violate it. In the African cultural sense, the man is the head of the family in the sense that, he takes care of everything.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: Everything?
Oliver Mtukudzi: Yes, everything. But, men run away from that. They become bossy. A good leader is not bossy. He is a good listener, should listen to what the children are saying and come to terms with the conditions.
PARENTS AND AFRICAN PRIDE
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: In your show in Washington, D.C., in 2006 which I was fortunate to attend, you seemed to have come with an agenda for Africans in the diaspora to have pride in their identity; you had a clear cultural identity agenda. You had the poet from South Africa who eloquently attacked xenophobia, racism and sexism, pushing forth a case for Africans to be proud of who they are in America and wherever they are. Today’s media bombards our youth with messages that inscribe that America is the best; Africa stands for failure, backwardness and darkness…
Oliver Mtukudzi: The colour black is demonised.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: Yes. How do you try to combat this problem in your songs? On television, that is all that they watch in America, Africa and globally. This feeling is so inscribed that when an African does something progressive, in Shona, it is common to hear people say, ‘uyu murungu’ (she or he is a white/English person). In Chichewa they will say ‘uyu ndimzungu’. How do you tackle this problem?
Oliver Mtukudzi: This is a problem but I do not blame the children as much. I would blame the parents. I am also a parent but I blame parents. Parents do not have time to know their children. They use a television to bring up their children whilst they are doing their own business. There are no more cultural structures like the ‘Tete’ (paternal aunt) for the girl child and ‘Sekuru’ (paternal uncle) for the boy child. All that is cancelled out. When I have my own PhD, that is what my children are going to be when they grow up, it is already decided. The children are made to feel inferior to me and aspire to be like me. It all comes from home. As parents, we do not realise that we are spoiling ourselves through our children. We believe we are busy and we have to attain our professional goals. But in the process, we forget that who we are is the best. No other person can be a Malawian besides the Malawian. Then we take these children to schools for the wrong reasons. We are sending them so that we have time to do what we want to do. If everyday they do well in their academics, we decide for them what they should be. We do not look at the child and see what she can be, but impose our failures on them. That alone is a challenge to our children. What are we doing for our children? Are we leading by example? Are we showing them who we are? Do they know who they are?
GRABBING PROPERTY FROM WIDOWS
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: In the 2003 interview, you are identified as one of the people who are giving messages of political resistance Zimbabwe. In my area of research, I have been fascinated by what you did in the Neria project, especially when one reads that project in line with other works of [Tsitsi] Dangarembga like Nervous Conditions (1988). What was the main message you were hoping to help send out to women in this project?
Oliver Mtukudzi: Neria had done very well throughout Africa and globally. I am humbled by how many times it is quoted in various discussions.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: In fact, it is part of the course I will be teaching this fall in Binghamton University, New York, this semester.
Oliver Mtukudzi: That is very good. What I was interested in bringing out is the way we take advantage of being head of the family but we do not take the responsibility that comes with being head of the family. We are choosing what we will do and will not do. We say this is okay, I can do that but I do not want to do that. The idea of ‘Neria’ was about inheritance and how this should be done properly. What needs to be done by a responsible in a family? Having a good family makes a good community; a good community makes a good country. It is from that little space that things can be set right, if you are fair to the family. The plot of Neria is that the husband dies and the family turns against the widow. She is not loved but taken advantage of by the family. Whatever she and her husband had worked for is taken away. She and her husband worked so hard but now it is all taken away. That is very unfair.
OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN IN POPULAR SONGS
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: Recently, we have seen an increase of African music that objectifies women. We have always had music that portrays the dutiful wife, the long-suffering mother and subservient and obedient wife. Recently, music by artists like ‘Mr Nice’ of Tanzania, Maji Maji Rising of Kenya and the ‘Chimwendo Kulemera’ hit here in Malawi, just to name a few, have portrayed women as sex objects. Such songs go on to blame rape and the spread of hiv and aids on women, giving them the task of curbing this disease. This trend is also prevalent in America amongst black American music. DSTV Channel O has a prevalence of near-naked women versus adequately dressed men. I have seen that your music videos do not show women in such disempowered and compromised positions. Is this intentional?
Oliver Mtukudzi: Yes. This is an issue that is very dear to me. This is the kind of media that is worrying not only your circles, that of academia, but everyone, the human circles too. We know that people are making money out of it. The spread of hiv/aids is should not be blamed on women. No. Culturally, it is men who go for women, not women going for men. So who do you think spreads the aids? It is them, not the women.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: So what do you think when you hear songs that warn men ‘Chenjera akupatsa edzi!’ (Be careful she will give you aids)?
Oliver Mtukudzi: I would say: ‘Be careful there is aids’ not she will give you aids. After all, men will never be careful because of that warning.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: Motherhood is one of the themes that is persistent in your music. You have shown how important your own mother is to you in several tracks. I know you have dedicated a good number to her. The issue of motherhood is important and has been taken on by many artists. However, there is often a tendency to venerate one’s biological mother and not see the mother in one’s own wife or daughter.
Oliver Mtukudzi: Yes. That is true. For example, there is mother’s day. I have observed that if your mother is dead, you [an African man] do not seem to have other mothers. Your own daughter is a mother. The word mother translates to women. If people can understand that, they will understand that that day was created for us to understand the importance of a woman in our lives. Culturally, my wife is my mother. That is why we say, ‘Eehe! Maita Amai. Dai pasina imimi ndaiita sei? Ndinoyamwa pamuri Eehee!’ (I am grateful to you mother. If you were not there, what would I do? I suckle from you). I am saying this to my wife, not my biological mother. My son will also say that to her, who is also saying the same thing to his wife. That is how it should be.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: Listening to you, it seems you are convinced that a good part of the problems African men and women are having are because of a manipulation of a culture that had it right all along?
Oliver Mtukudzi: Yes. Yes. The problem is people who are misusing it. You see, just misusing it and only when it will [be] of advantage to them.
Jessie Kabwila Kapasula: Thank you for talking to me, especially because you have been one of my role models from a young age. I started watching you from the age of 10. I even attended your wedding at Gwanzura stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe. It is a pleasure to meet you in person and help bring the valuable message that your music has. All the best with the show you are having tonight.
Oliver Mtukudzi: Thank you for talking to me.
* Oliver Mtukudzi is a famous musician and cultural icon of Zimbabwean origin who was a leading figure in the production of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Neria’.
* Jessie Kabwila Kapasula is a Comparative Literature PhD student at Binghamton State University of New York.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.
 Part of a Shona cultural practice around inheritance, where a brother takes over the family of a brother who has passed away. He takes over the looking after of the family, including the assets. Mtukudzi argues that the taking over of the widow is a manipulation of this practice. This practice is not limited to the Shona of Zimbabwe, it is also present in Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter.
 This text does not capitalise the names of HIV and AIDS in a bid to emphasise that while hiv and aids is real in Africa, they do not define the people of Africa, who are living their lives heroically in the face of such a chronic disease. Life is going on and Africa is not the story of squalor, victimhood and dependency the Western media would have us believe. It is an attempt to combat the ‘worlding’ problem that Spivak (1997) ably argues discourses on Africa and other third world countries fall victim to when adopted in Western discourse.