On 5 January 2019, a 34-year old citizen was forced to flee Zambia after members of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) threatened to kill him. His crime? He composed and released a song with references to a rat that enters a home, eats all the food in the pot and steals everything else including what it did not need, thinking that no one would question its actions. The track met popular reception but infuriated the PF who interpreted it as a direct attack on President Edgar Lungu, whose administration has been plagued by accusations of endemic corruption and mismanagement.
The ‘supporters of the rat’ gave the artist a 48-hour ultimatum in which to ‘withdraw the song’, failure to which they would ‘withdraw’ his life, instead. Unprepared to occupy a cemetery plot, the citizen turned to the police for protection. In a country with a militia-like police that is largely serving as a sword for the ruling elite and their supporters rather than a shield for the weak and ordinary citizen, his call for help fell on deaf ears.
With his life on the line, the artist fled into exile in South Africa. That young man is Chama Fumba, artistically known as Pilato, an acronym for People in Lyrical Arena Taking Over.
Pilato has emerged as Zambia’s most famous dissident in the tradition of protest music since he first burst on the national scene in 2009. His latest album, Here I Live, confirms his reputation. It is a tribute to the courage of his convictions and willingness to risk his life selflessly that he has continued to sing after his near-death experience. If those who issued death threats against the musician thought they would intimidate and slow him down, or silence his silky voice, they were wrong. Pilato is back in Zambia and with more ‘dangerous’ songs that preserve his status as a towering artist with a deep-seated consciousness who deploys music to educate people and to causes that promote the public good. The music in this 15-track album, you will soon discover, is not like any other that you have previously listened to from other Zambian singers.
Where the lyrics of most musicians draw inspiration from ephemeral concerns and instant consumer pleasures, those of Pilato draw inspiration from wider public debates and the struggles of the social classes and communities around him. Where other artists offer platitudes of a high order to those in power, Pilato delivers songs that promote accountability and proclaim virtue. Where the voice of many singers identifies itself with the few powerful elites who abuse public trust, rob the poor, manufacture inequality, serve as the midwifery of injustice, and erode Zambia’s democracy, Pilato raises his voice to pour scorn on the actions of such elites, to attend to the pain of those who suffer, and to serve the silent and oppressed.
Musicians are part of the broader forces of social movements. Music is simply the platform on which they seek to carve out a wider progressive agenda, to create larger narratives of nationhood and to participate in building a new script for the country, one that resonates on a very phenomenological level with the masses. Like other activists, artists wield enormous influence and have the capacity to bring down autocrats, encourage self-introspection in a manner that has the potential to alter relations of power, cultural attitudes and established psyches, and to transform whole societies through song.
The earlier cited response of the ruling party to Pilato’s song, Koswe Mumpoto, illustrates, more than anything else, the disruptive power of music. Ordinarily, the term Koswe Mumpoto, the Bemba language equivalent for ‘a rat in the pot’, should trouble no one. However, the creative power of music is such that it empowers its consumers to comprehend or interpret it in ways that reflect their own experiences and which its composers or architects may not have envisaged. This is especially the case in instances where a singer uses metaphors.
By demanding the ‘arrest’ of the Koswe Mumpoto song, arising from the interpretation that the reference to ‘a rat in the pot’ meant those in positions of authority who are looting public resources, the ruling party officials understood that music has the capacity to spread beyond the reach of formal institutions and of other mediums such as newspapers, radio and television stations. If the wider public were to extract similar meanings from the song, they would likely question the actions of the ‘thieving rats’ and call for the removal of the said koswes from State House. In the wisdom of the authorities, the solution was not only to ban the song and curtail its circulation, but also to kill its composer and halt the production of similar tracks in future.
This response constitutes an acknowledgement that the track resonated enough with the wider audience and had huge potential to mobilise public sentiment to the point that it became dangerous to the State. Here, we see the subversive capacity of music and its ability to be mobile and widespread, to effectively defy the constraints of a shrinking democratic space – to disrupt the status quo. A focus on the meaning rather than literal translation of music enables it to mobilise multiple sets of sentiments and to bring out its affective dimension – capturing people’s imagination, making them feel, and be outraged by the result (s).
In this sense, music, exemplified by Koswe Mumpoto, enables the public to understand where actual real power resides – not in the ‘rats in the pot’, but in the people. It grows this awareness of power among the citizens, mobilises solidarity among their lot, and challenges them to cast away the fear of the repressive and abusive minority in form of the pilfering rats that have invaded their home! When these three conditions are met – knowledge of where real power lies, mobilisation of solidarity, and casting away the false veil of fear of the oppressors, then the liberation of the oppressed, of those whose resources are being looted, can take place. At this point, the oppressed and abused are ready to reclaim their power from the villains! This is the kind of empowerment that Pilato’s music brings. This is what this album is all about.
Here I Live challenges us to lose our vanity; to rediscover the power of political organisation around our struggles to reclaim our basic sense of humanity; to protect the environment; to be moved by the plight of others; to be riled by injustice; to find ways of cutting down the outrageous levels of inequality and degrading conditions of poverty that afflict most around us; to rebel against our sub-human existence and reject the mediocrity of our lives and public leadership; to strive to defeat all things which retard our full expression and full lives, and work towards the greater fulfilment of the human person. In short, the album calls us to reject what we have become.
Above all, Here I Live challenges us to active solidarity. ‘The poverty we talk about in hotels, at political rallies, on radio and many other elitist platforms’, Pilato told me when I asked him to explain the album’s name, ‘is reality for many of our fellow citizens. In this reality, they LIVE. When we talk about inequality at any level, the people at the frontline live in that reality.’ In this response alone, we see many qualities that speak to Pilato’s character and serve as the nectar of his music – an incredible awareness, a penetrating mind whose produce is capable of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, a deep sense of responsibility, a conscience that is restless in the face of the misery that surrounds its host, a generous spirit of giving oneself to a cause and struggling for others, and an extraordinary concern for humanity’s moral values and the humanity of the future. None of the words I use about him involve the slightest exaggeration.
Musicians are thinkers. They are public intellectuals who manage within a few words to express what an academic will say in a book. Easily accessible and cheaper, their intellectual output serves society better and more effectively. They are the closest to God. In fact, if God has left people on Earth to carry out His work, it is musicians and poets. In this album, Pilato fulfils that mandate.
▪ This comment appears as the foreword to Pilato’s latest album, Here I Live, which is set to be released on 4 July 2020.