Enjoying a brief moment of cultural boredom, I decided to have a look at how popular music artists depict their societies, especially key economic, social and cultural elements. Beer in Zambia occupies a time-honoured place in all our activities. We drink it all the time, the majority of us Zambians who drink alcohol. No celebration is complete without a good and plentiful supply of beer. All kinds of parties, birthdays, weddings, post burial gatherings, all kinds of traditional ceremonies – a common beverage present at all these, is beer.

Nothing particularly unique, in the central role beer occupies in our Zambian cultural life: most other societies do drink too, unless there is a religious prohibition, of alcohol consumption such as happens in Muslim societies and countries. On a bottle by bottle, or glass by glass of beer, per person, I am not sure we Zambians beat the British, for example!

It is how important beer and other alcohols have become, in our current extreme economic, social and cultural crises, especially among our young people whose lives we shred every day, by denying them useful economic activities, which must worry us. A toxic combination of mass hunger, mass unemployment, mass poverty and extreme inequalities between the so called “haves” and “have nots” has made alcohol an absolute necessity for millions of our young people, to sedate themselves from the painful humiliating poverty and numerous personal problems this poverty manufactures, for them.

While ordinarily beer drinking is meant to enhance merrymaking and happiness, and not substitute for it, because we have destroyed the hopes and lives of our young people, beer substitutes for merrymaking and happiness: young people drink to block the daily torments and mental demons we the older generation have so amply manufactured for them. They drink to be “happy”. Meeting in drinking places everyday has become a must, for most young people, to be “alive”. This is how bad we the older generation and politicians have messed up the lives of our youths. Children as young as 10 drink beer, in Zambia today.

A fascinating cultural exercise I find irresistible is scanning our popular music and learning how our musicians express, through their music, the extreme conditions of suffering the majority of our young people go through, every day. Of course, I love Zambian music, almost all genres including Zambian versions of hip-hop. With the internet and Utube, some people have been kind enough to perform a most profound labour of love by digitally remastering and making available on the internet old Zambian music – music going as far back say, 30 to 50 years ago! What cannot be “digitised” can be and is remade so that it can be “stored” on the internet.

This most profound and generous work of love of putting out on the internet Zambian old music makes it possible to compare how different generations of Zambian young musicians expressed the goings on around them, during their time, with the young musicians we have today. I do enjoy listening, simultaneously, to old and current Zambian music, and to listen to how music captures the most dominant economic, social and cultural features of the time. Try it, you will be amazed what will find out!

Vinchenzo M’bale is fast emerging as a particularly unique young Zambian musician with a very sharp musical sense of how alcohol and “smoking” have become “shields” and “solace”, to millions of Zambia’s young people whose lives we the older generation have literally turned into a living hell. Vincenzo’s music does not, and is not to be understood as promoting alcoholism and drug addictions. To the contrary, Vinchenzo is exposing, through music, how our current economic, social and cultural chaos and poverty make it absolutely essential and necessary for the majority of our young people, to drink alcohol and take drugs. The alternatives are insanity or suicide, or both simultaneously.

Chronic mass hunger, widespread national mass unemployment which makes a mockery of education and training, deep and sustained poverty across generations, escalating high cost of fuels, transport, electricity, rent, mealie-meal and other basics of life and work in a national social environment in which extreme individualism, selfishness, greed, corruption and all kinds of crimes and immorality are the order of the day, we sacrifice the majority of Zambia’s young people to alcohol and drugs. Vinchenzo’s music most luridly throws this ugly reality at us. This is who we have become: a country with no present and future for the majority of its young people.

Vinchenzo captures this dilemma of Zambia’s young people most accurately in his song “Chiliko Better”. Alcohol and “smoking” are better alternatives to suicide, sings Vinchenzo in “Chiliko Better”. This is the dilemma confronting the majority of our young people. One has to be particularly socially blind to pretend that this is not true. This is true for the majority of Zambians, not just young people.

Yo Maps on the other hand, usually refuses to give in to the life diminishing challenges most young people suffer from. His is the shrill voice inside every Zambian pressed down by our man-made problems to somehow get up, stand up, and fight. Yes, he too knows the humiliation and suffering, he has grown up with it, but can he be allowed to be happy, please?

Yo Maps perfect anthem to the spirit of rebellion against suffering and oppression is his powerful song “Try Again”. Yo Maps, just like Vinchenzo, throws the world of Zambia at us as it is, with all its contradictions including bad and good luck, the wisdom that no one owns this world, people partying while others are mourning, challenges such as prostitution and pregnancies outside marriage, and generally being regarded as a fool, an idiot, by society. He insists we must get up, we have the power, the fire in us, and we must just go on, and not give up. Yo Maps insists that one must not kill oneself, but simply get up and get on with it, God’s love will see us through.

Of course, Yo Maps, by invoking the spirit of rebellion and resistance deep in us against the many things which press us down, invariably appeals to God and invokes love, the power to heal and ability to associate with other human beings, in search of solutions to our suffering. Arguably, Yo Maps is today Zambia’s most prolific and celebrated musician, and for good reason: his music resonates with our hard lives, every day. He has a powerful musical talent which he puts to great use, making music which “captures” the majority of Zambians because it is about their lives.

These two are just a sample of the many current great Zambian musicians whose ability to “musically” penetrate our current social realities enables them to grow their talent, and to flourish. Twenty, perhaps 40 years from now, Zambians then will have a glimpse of our times today when they will listen to Vinchenzo and Yo Maps music. Of course, we all must hope Zambia then will be a far much better country than it is today, especially for its youth.

“Youth” or being young, is about hope, about faith and belief that things can and will change, for the better, and doing something to bring about this change. To stimulate and bring out this hope, faith and belief in a better world is the job of the musician or any person who goes beyond their profession, and become an “activist” – an “agent” for “change”. An artist need not be an “activist”: he or she may be content with expressing their thoughts and feelings about anything and without the intention to cause either themselves or others to act, in order to change things.

In “Try Again” Yo Maps infuses some degree of positive activism in his song: he is encouraging anyone going through a tough time to keep trying, getting up, to never give up, and above all, not to kill oneself. Yes, the world is tough, but we must never give up, whatever we may be going through.

Which brings me to a great British musician and activist, Peter Gabriel, and his 1986 song “Don’t Give Up”. In this song, Gabriel sings about a man crushed by unemployment which inevitably leads to problems in his domestic relationships and causes him to prefer suicide to life. Tough times such as we are experiencing obviously cause stress, deep feelings of isolation, loneliness, despair and the inevitable resort to alcohol abuse, drugs and suicidal tendencies. And yet it is not supposed to be like this: we should never give in to abuse of alcohol and drugs, nor give in to suicide, because you see, it is true, no one is alone, as Peter Gabriel’s beautiful song says.

(Comment to: [email protected])