Rocking ‘n rolling with dictators

DICTATORS — from Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Nguema, Dos Santos to Mugabe — have always shown great love for music. Like all of us. After all they are human.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya
dmuleya@zimind.co.zw

So they hire music superstars to perform for them or at their functions, usually for a fortune. And these days with serious economic problems around the world, worse still in developing countries, musicians have been left to take whatever the market is offering, from innovative technologies, extensive touring schedules and gigs to receiving cash from the grubby hands of dictators.

This has always generated storms of controversy between millions of their fans who buy their music and attend shows, and despots who use their money to hire them to perform, regardless of the tyrants’ records of mismanagement, human rights violations and abuse or theft of public resources.

The relationship between musicians and dictators is complex.

In his book, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross writes about this enterprise which involves a number of prominent musicians who have performed for corrupt autocrats, their families, and cronies, often pocketing millions. He talks about Richard Strauss and Hitler, and Dimitri Shostakovic and Stalin.

Hitler was fond of Karajan and Furtwangler, and Stalin had links with Shostakovich and Rimsky-Korsakov. Their relations were dynamic and complex.

Up to this day, critics wonder to what extent was their art compromised by politics — and whether that should influence how people view them now.

They are not alone in this messy adventure. Today’s dictators are no different. Michael Jackson, Manics, Sting, Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Nelly, J-Lo, Kanye West, Russell Simmons, Jon Bon Jovi, John Legend, Erykah Badu, James Brown, Lionel Richie and Seal, among others, have all danced, dined and wined with dictators and their associates.

All this came to mind because of Zimbabwean music star Oliver Mutukudzi who on Wednesday became a spectacle on stage, not for his usual great shows, but for performing at the “million-man march” in Harare in solidarity with Mugabe.

While other musicians have always hidden behind that they performed for dictators without knowing their records, some have tried to justify it saying cultural boycotts and keeping tyrants in isolation does not help anything.

Tuku can’t plead the same. He can’t say he was unaware of the Mugabe regime’s record of incompetence, corruption and human rights abuses. His supporters have offered lame excuses, including that his lyrics were not supportive of Mugabe and his allies; he has freedom of expression and association or he needs to pay his bills. This is just like Western artists who when caught rocking and rolling with dictators cry “I didn’t know; it’s my freedom or leave me out of politics”.

Tuku’s widespread condemnation on social media amid protests by his apologists has echoes of attacks on performers such as Queen, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias, Black Sabbath, Boney M, Rod Stewart, Dionne Warwick and Tina Turner — who all played at Sun City resort during South Africa’s apartheid era.

Tuku has exposed himself; it’s not his lyrics that matter on this issue. No one was really listening to that, but oppressed people were watching with disbelief the spectacle of a great musician they have sustained endorsing dictatorship in broad daylight.

Even though it might pay his bills, Tuku has joined the bandwagon of those who sing for their supper while becoming cheerleaders for tyrants. He seems to have forgotten the Andy Brown and Simon Chimbetu’s experiences. On this he has a lot to learn from Thomas Mapfumo and Lovemore Majaivana — legendary musicians —; that is singing on the side of the people for freedom and justice without entertaining dictators for their dirty money and trinkets. It’s not too late, though, for Tuku to redeem himself.