Comrade Fatso Waves Defiant Musical Flag

“WE go without freedom, in order to fight for it. We go without water, in order to die for it,” the dreadlocked man on stage raps, his backup band slowly trying to draw a reticent crowd onto the dance floor.

Eventually, one man breaks into a toyi-toyi, a South African protest dance made popular during the anti-apartheid fight of the 1980s. It’s the response the band was hoping for.

But few others in the crowd of perhaps 30 people gathered in a Harare jazz club can be coaxed into following him, though the music — a fusion of hip-hop, reggae and African beats — is undeniably alluring. It’s Saturday, the day after Robert Mugabe claimed victory in Zimbabwe’s one-man presidential election, and it seems there’s nothing the band can do to make the people feel like dancing.

That the crowd came at all to see Comrade Fatso, as the dreadlocked 27-year-old is known, is a small gesture of defiance in the current political climate. The rapper’s virulently anti-Mugabe lyrics were banned from state radio as soon as his first album came out this year, and his concerts have already earned the attention of the police. A blue-and-white cruiser sits in the parking lot outside the small nightclub, apparently taking note of who comes and goes from the concert.

It’s all so different from just three months ago, when Comrade Fatso — his real name is Samm Monro — held a packed show in the same venue just before the first round of the hotly disputed presidential election. Then, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whom the musicians and their fans unabashedly support, looked set to win the presidency and bring an end to 28 years of Mugabe’s rule The mood was great; there were maybe 120 people there,” Monro remembered, as he sipped a pre-concert beer. “We were calling it Independence Eve and saying, ‘Tomorrow is Freedom Day.’ “

Now, people were calling before the show and saying, ‘Is it safe? Do you have police permission to hold it?’ “

The mood change between the two concerts mirrored a similar shift in the country. In March, the opposition was holding large rallies and broadcasting its message that it was time for the 84-year-old Mugabe to go. On Friday, as Mugabe went to the run-off poll unchallenged after Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy, citing a long campaign of violence against his supporters, there was almost no dissent on display anywhere. Going to see a Comrade Fatso show was about as large a political statement as any Zimbabweans could safely make.

Monro was born in Britain to dissident parents who had fled to there in the 1970s to avoid his father being drafted into the army that was responsible for upholding the minority white rule that existed in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia, as it was then called. He is something of a rarity in this country, where racial divisions remain very real. Though white, he smoothly mixes Shona-language lyrics in with his English ones. He takes the stage with six black musicians.

Monro, who is actually quite slender, said the Comrade Fatso identity comes from the nickname “Farai” his black friends had given him back when he was in school. Farai means “rejoice” in Shona, and Monro says he earned the moniker because, unlike many white Zimbabweans, he seemed genuinely happy in black company.

He sees his music as part of the evolving multiracial protest movement in Zimbabwe, and said he plans to keep stretching the boundaries even though Mugabe’s grip on power appears to be firming again. “The most crucial thing we’re involved in at the moment, most of the social context in my music, is focused on the struggle in Zimbabwe,” he said earnestly.

His lyrics reflect the struggle of living in a country with an autocratic government and a devastated economy. “Roadblock after roadblock, corrupt cop after corrupt cop — as we pass the homeless on the streets,” he sings in one song about the journey that predominantly black labourers make each day into Harare from the surrounding townships.

While his backing musicians, collectively known as Chabvondoka, or The Explosion, admire Monro’s courage for taking on Mugabe through music, some of them are clearly nervous about drawing too much official attention. Backup singer Nyengeterai Zembe, a diminutive woman with a soaring voice, said she’d be afraid to write the kind of music Monro does. She wondered aloud whether Monro’s white skin still gives him more protection than would be available to a black artist.

“It’s kind of like diplomatic immunity,” she said after the Saturday show. “I think sometimes that if it was me saying these things, or a black man, I’d be shot.”

Monro isn’t so sure such protection exists. He says he’s noticed officers from the Central Intelligence Organisation, who often stand out because of their insistence on wearing black leather jackets, at several recent shows.

“We always go into the show prepared with the knowledge that anything can happen, that we take risks whenever we take to the stage and take the microphone,” he said. “But we don’t let that fear affect our creativity. — Globe and Mail