Music Genre of Zim Dancehall Captures Sound, Spirit of Urban Life in Zimbabwe


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Fans greet Sandra Gazi, a Zim-dancehall artist commonly known by her stage name Lady Squanda, outside of Tyger Records recording studio in Mabvuku, a high-density suburb east of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe

Musicians in the densely populated suburbs around Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, gave birth in the 1980s to the genre of Zim dancehall, an adaptation of Jamaican dancehall and reggae. Today, the music is burgeoning, drawing fans from among the middle classes and portraying the realities of urban life in lyrics often sung in Shona, the language of the country's largest ethnic group.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Blessing Madibu, 12, can hardly stand still.

He shakes his head, then his hands, in sync with the up-tempo rhythm blaring from large speakers in a nearby building.

At 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday in Mbare, a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, hundreds of dancehall music fans wait outside Stodart Hall, a community events center. Soul Jah Love, a popular dancehall artist, is scheduled to perform at midnight.

Madibu and a swarm of others arrived early in hopes of securing seats close to the stage.

“I am a huge fan of Soul Jah Love,” Madibu says.

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Fans at a concert in Mbare, a suburb of Harare, light a torch as they watch Zim-dancehall artists perform. Among Zim-dancehall fans, the act of lighting a torch symbolizes support for artists and indicates that their performances are exciting or "lit," in current slang.

Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe

Blessing Madibu, a Zim-dancehall fan, sits in a large room at Stodart Hall, a community events center in Mbare, a suburb of Harare, where he waits for Zim-dancehall artist Soul Jah Love to perform.

Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe

Maligakini Saizi, a Zim-dancehall artist commonly known by his stage name Kinnah, performs at a Zim-dancehall concert in Mbare, Zimbabwe.

Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe

Kelly Ndlovu, an aspiring Zim-dancehall artist, stands in front of Tyger Records recording studio in Mabvuku, where she sometimes writes and records her music.

Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ Zimbabwe

During the past two decades, Zim dancehall, as the genre of music is called locally, has become popular among Zimbabweans, especially those living in high-density suburbs outside the capital. Fans say the music, which is heavily influenced by the Jamaican dancehall genre, captures the realities of life in their communities.

The local adaptation of the genre dates back to the early 1980s, when renowned Jamaican reggae artists, including Bob Marley, visited Zimbabwe to commemorate the country’s independence. Since then, other popular Jamaican musicians, including Beenie Man and Mr. Vegas, have visited the country to perform.

Zim dancehall uses instruments common to reggae such as drums, bass and electric guitars, while exploring a range of contemporary topics. In the early 1980s, dancehall lyrics reflected political movements and culture. Today, Zim-dancehall artists also fuse together politics, culture and entertainment. Lyrics, often sung in Shona, a local language spoken by the country’s largest tribe, depict life in the country’s lower-income neighborhoods, including Mbare and Warren Park, where families have been hard-hit by the country’s crippled economy.

Throughout Zimbabwe, years of hyperinflation, resulting in cash shortages and high unemployment, have taken a toll on the country’s residents.

For those who have adopted the growing subculture of Zim dancehall, it affords them freedom of expression, friendships and sometimes an income, says Plot Mhako, a member of the production team for the mini-documentary Zim Dancehall: The Voice of Zimbabwe’s Youth.

Zim-dancehall artist Sandra Gazi, who uses the stage name Lady Squanda, says the lyrics are the most important part of the genre.

“I sing about everything that I see, everything that I do, everything that I know about,” she says. “If you listen to my new album, it talks about love, drugs, what the kids are into and gospel.”

Kelly Ndlovu, an aspiring Zim-dancehall artist who lives in Mabvuku, a high-density suburb east of Harare, says her music helps her to escape her reality and imagine a successful future.

“Music will be my way out of poverty, if I become well known,” she says.

Some fans and artists such as Ndlovu belong to various Zim-dancehall groups called clans. These groups are typically formed based on where members live, but others are formed to support local artists. Ndlovu, a member of the Gaza clan from Mabvuku, says that she regularly meets with members to compete in music battles, also called passa passas, with other clans.

Despite its neighborhood roots, in recent years Zim dancehall has begun to transcend location, as young people from middle-income communities flock to the concerts, too.

“Zim dancehall makes me proud of being a Zimbabwean, because you can’t get that type of music anywhere else,” says Corina Chau, 21. “There is something about hearing music in your mother tongue.”

Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.