Jamaican reggae-dancehall artiste Busy Signal once sang, “Martin Luther black/Malcolm X, black/Marcus Garvey, black/Barrack Obama black . . .” in his popular track “Free Up”.
The mentioning of such big names and history makers was not just in vain — it served a purpose.
This was because Busy Signal wanted to recognise several black men who have excelled in their own right.
Coming to Zimbabwean music, particularly Zimdancehall, there is a growing trend where musicians have literally become praise singers.
They intermittently mention names of popular hustlers and dealers also referred to as “mbinga” on the streets.
The “mbinga”, who have been described in some quarters as supercar driving and expensive liquor drinking men and women have money to spare, but they lack in something.
While they may have cash, some of them want to be known, they want their presence felt.
Hence they go out of their way to entice musicians to sing or at least mention their names in songs.
While this is not unique to Zimdancehall, the tragedy is that musicians no longer compose great songs, but just pander to the whims of those with money — the ones who want to be known and also promote their brands at the expense of good compositions.
The “mbinga” wants to ride on the popularity wave of every artist who is trending.
Listening to some of local acts such as Jah Signal, Poptain, the late Soul Jah Love, Enzo Ishall, Jah Master, Terminator, Lady B, Ndunge Yute, Mbida D or Andy Muridzo will tell who are the real big shots in Harare.
It has gone so bad that we now only remember the mentioned “mbinga”, not the artiste or the message in the song.
In fact, it is losing the meaning somehow, as all we hear is “mbinga this, mbinga that” on most of the songs.
But this is not confined to Zimbabwe, in fact, as far afield as the United States and Jamaica, there have been artistes who give props or rather mention people who matter in their lives in songs.
And the trend is at a more elaborate level when you pick any rhumba song.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, rhumba musicians rarely mention names without getting anything out of it.
Pitschou Lumiere of Diamond Musica band thinks there is nothing wrong in mentioning successful people and showering them with praises in songs.
“We do not just mention names in our songs, that is big advertisement for life. So, what we do is that businessmen usually with successful businesses approach us and they pay amounts like US$10 000 upfront.
“If you listen carefully to rhumba songs, the names mentioned are of big people as in the well-heeled, so they are comfortable in paying that amount. However, back in Zimbabwe, I do get at least anything between US$1 000 to US$1 500 for just mentioning the names.”
The cover version of the song “Sina Makosa” by Diamond Musica bears testimony to this as the singer Pitschou mentions names like Ben Shawa, the former Zambian High Commission to Harare, who helped the group market their music in Zambia.
There is also mention of Strive Masiyiwa, who is now a telecoms billionaire, and Mama Nyasha, as well as Mama Nyaradzo, the two biggest fans of the group since its formative years.
Popular music producer and critic, Mono Mukundu, said the issue was debatable since it had become the trend the world over.
“In the Western world its called product placement. One notable artist who did it is Janis Joplin on ‘Mercedes Benz’. Some artistes actually approach companies to pay for the mentions, which is a clever way to advertise whilst pretending not to advertise, but in this case it is products that are mentioned, not people,” said Mukundu.
“But in DRC rhumba music, the system is called ‘Mabanga’, this is when rich individuals approach popular bands and artists and pay for their names to be mentioned. This is done simply for ego stroking. So, the majority of names mentioned by top artistes such as Koffi Olomide would have paid large sums of money to be mentioned on the ‘Mabanga’.
“The system was also copied in Zimbabwe, first by sungura artistes such as Alick Macheso and Tongai Moyo who used chanters from DRC. Then the trend has caught up with Zimdancehall where artistes mention popular rich people in return for financial favours. Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable.”
Mukundu said it was fine if the chants were being done creatively, not sounding too obvious that one was begging for attention from the rich people.
While rhumba musicians get handsomely paid for chanting other people’s names on songs, it is not the case with Zimdancehall artistes. The local artists can get as little as US$100 for chanting someone’s name.
This is why in most cases they ride on the same riddim — to get the US$100 for showering praises on whoever is responsible for the riddim.
Lately, we have had the NashTV riddim sponsored by NashTV, the Passion Java riddim and the recent Hell Commander riddim in honour of a self-styled Zimbabwean hustler based in South Africa also known to social media users as Hell Commander.
The fact that Hell Commander wants to be known led him to come up with the riddim so that he gets as much publicity as possible from those who use it. But the downside of all this is that Zimdancehall artistse are becoming praise singers and not composers per se.
They are killing their own brands at the expense of the “mbinga”.