Soul Jah Love: The voice of a generation

HARARE - The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded, for the first time ever, to a singer-songwriter, the American Bob Dylan.

The award-winning singer was honoured “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

A professor of literature commented on Dylan’s “many examples of his brilliant way of rhyming and putting together refrains and his pictorial thinking.”

While there is no significant discernible difference between poetry in the written form, and good music lyrics, the award to a singer-songwriter still came as something of a shock and was widely derided in some high-brow quarters.

But in truth, anyone who loves poetry will not struggle to appreciate good music lyrics, and vice-versa. Ultimately, they are all words and words, beautifully arranged, have power and immense effect.

And so it is that I stumbled upon the music of Soul Jah Love, the young Zimdancehall artiste who is riding high in the charts.

I listened to his song Pamamonya ipapo because it was ubiquitous on all social media platforms and I did so, initially out of a curiosity of wanting to find out what all the fuss is about.

I confess his is not at all my type of music. But then I did something. I hit replay. Then again. And then I went one step further. I googled for the song lyrics.

I was pleasantly surprised. The lyrics are sublime. And after subjecting them to hermeneutical scrutiny, here is why I think the song has had such an impact.

First, let us consider the lyrics. Soul Jah plays with words and uses rhyme and rhythm with the casual aplomb of an old master. Even better, while his lyrics may be adulterated with “Shonglish,” when he sings in Shona, he employs rich and exotic language, unusual for a wee child of his generation.

At one point he confirms that “tinoshandisa tsumo”, the loftier and more high-brow language form. In other words, he deliberately eschews the asinine and unimaginative repetitiveness of his peers.

Secondly, let us look at the subject which he addresses. It is the subject of struggle. The title of the song literally means “a skinny person is standing among muscular people.”

It is used figuratively in the song to mean fighting against the odds and winning. He is saying “I may not have had the best of starts in life but I will position myself amongst the best” — “pamamonya ipapo”. Here is a scrapper.

Here is someone who is aspirational and inspires as he locates himself squarely in the camp of the masses caught up in an existential struggle.

He deploys the language of the street and of the dispossessed. He is “Sauro mwana waSthembeni haasi mwana waCharmaine.” Here, he says he is not the progeny of a soft sophisticate but of a single mother of a decidedly more rustic and humble pedigree. He prefers “codeine” to “champagne”, to delineate his class loyalties —although inadvertently underlining the seedy sub-culture of drugs of the inner-city music scene.

Thirdly, let us consider the lyricist himself. He is endearing because of who he is; “chidya mafuta kasingakore” meaning a battle hardened scrapper, “chigunduru” meaning a rolling stone, a nomad. He is looked down upon.

“Vamwe vachiti ichi chirema”, a cripple, a reject faced with obstacles and haters “vanoda kundiwisa”.

We are told that he was homeless for most of his youth. He is the son of Sthembeni who died when the lyricist was just one. He is therefore the gutsy, lonesome orphan in the great tradition of modern literature.

He is Oliver Twist. He is Mowgli. He is Tom Sawyer. He is Harry Potter. He is Frodo. He is Pip in Great Expectations. He is Karikoga Gumireseve. He is Tambaoga Mwanangu. He is Dambudzo Marechera.

He is a poor little boy set upon the great big wide world, to make up his own rules on the hoof, attracting luck and trouble galore as he goes.

We love orphans because they embody the hope that whatever the present situation, it can change. When orphans succeed against all odds, their success is ours too. We can look to orphans and say, “You see, there is hope for all of us if even this orphan child can overcome obstacles and succeed.”

It is also important to place the song in its proper context. It is an anthem of the times. It is the soundtrack for a generation.

Zimbabwe is going through terribly testing times and music is as important now, in this land of no-jobs, this house of hunger, as it was during the liberation struggle. This song is a morale-booster in the struggle. It is in that sense cathartic. This orphan lyricist has therefore captured the moment.

Finally, let us zero in on the genre. Soul Jah Love sings in the Zimdancehall music genre. This is an emergent genre on the Zimbabwe music landscape which is not yet as established in the national psyche as sungura, jit, mbira or chimurenga — all of which are uniquely Zimbabwean.

Zimdancehall is of course not indigenous. It is a variant of the Jamaican dancehall music . But the important aspect of dancehall music remains intact in our context; it is “inner-city” music and is the expressive mode of the poor, the excluded sub-class.

We should also look at the song’s catchy tune. It is a brainworm. I think Bob Dylan won the Nobel Liertaife Prize ahead of Leonard Cohen for one reason. While Leonard Cohen was as supreme as a lyricist, Dylan could entertain.

A good message travels better if it is carried in a catchy tune. And this is what the lyricist has done here. He can croon. He can rhyme. He can tease and be downright playful, a bit like a cocky Muhammad Ali showboating in the ring.

Listen to the third stanza when he chants and rhymes thus: “kudhuma-dhuma, vanojuma-juma, patinopfuma-pfuma, mombe dzichingokuma-kuma, huma huma.”

It is at once clever and witty. And it is accompanied by a mean instrument. Listen again to the opening riff on “pamamonya ipapo”and then to the high-tempo refrain and I dare you to not hit “replay”.

Soul Jah Love is a young man at the top of his game. The real test, however, will be whether he can have the staying power of Thomas “Hurricane Hugo” Mapfumo, or Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi or the late Simon “Chopper” Chimbetu.

If he can do that, he could establish himself as the voice of his generation.

*Nyawanza is a Harare-based social commentator.

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