Leonard Zhakata has been a household name in the Zimbabwean music scene for over 20 years. He is best known for using idioms in his lyrics, making it difficult for many to grasp the exact nature of his message.
According to Zhakata, his songs address social issues affecting the common people. To others, the singer is part of the opposition, using his music to attack the government.
Regardless, he is one of Zimbabwe’s biggest pop stars. But that status didn’t prevent him from paying the highest price an artist can pay: the banning of his art.
“No one would confirm the ban, but at the same time you didn’t hear the music,” he recalls. “At the time, the political situation in the country was a bit like boiling and any song that would seem to be sympathizing with the opposition or maybe attacking the powers that be, would be deemed politically incorrect.”
The first time the singer found out his music could not be heard on the radio was in 2003, when he released his album ‘Hodho’. He tried to engage with the authorities, but to no avail. Of all of the songs on the album, only one was played on the radio: a love song.
Listen to Zhakata talk about how he felt when his music was kept off the air.
Wait for your time
One of the singles on the album was ‘Mirira nguva’, which means ‘Wait for your time’. Zhakata says the track deals with the situation of the underprivileged in Zimbabwean society. By telling them that “their time will come”, Zhakata says he meant to encourage the poor.
“But [the song title] just didn’t go well, and it was interpreted as me telling the opposition to wait for their time,” he says.
After his songs were banned from the airwaves, the singer tried to find other ways to bring his message across, like live shows. But this was made practically impossible, too.
“When you booked a show you were being told that you weren’t welcome and to never set foot in that area [again]. It was very common then that if you were deemed to be [on the other] side of the political divide they would see you as an enemy,” Zhakata explains.
At the time he received many death threats.
To the singer, one of the most difficult things was the fact that, while he did his utmost to be heard, all his efforts fell flat. Often, he blamed himself for the situation, wondering whether he should have seen it coming.
“But no, I could not! I had a particular message that I wanted to send across. Something that wasn’t political!” Zhakata says, adding: “As an artist I have to be neutral. I have to encourage whatever is good for the nation.”
With his songs not given airtime and becoming a persona non grata, he lost all that was dear to him, financially and, more importantly, socially.
“Once you have been given a wrong label, obviously you lose friends. You get more enemies. The painful thing is that you don’t have a platform to explain yourself and you begin to lose a lot of your supporters,” he recalls.
He says he started to notice that the unofficial banning also affected his way of composing. He began to adopt a sort of self-censorship, against his own will.
“That’s when I decided not to release anything for four years, because I could not reach the people,” he says.
For the last couple years, the situation for the musician has slightly changed. Some of his songs are now being played on the radio. Although his latest album, ‘Gotwe’, did get what “improved airplay”, as he calls it, he finds the improvements are too little. But Zakhata is soldiering on.
Referring to his song ‘Mirira nguva’, he says: “My time has come. I have to continue, I have to do it. I’m trying to regain all the confidence that I’ve lost. This whole situation was just a setback, but it never killed anything in me.”