Zimbabwe is a paradox. A country riddled with contradictions. While the often unpalatable and sometimes hair-raising stories are making news, the stories of everyday people of Zimbabwe are less reported, if not altogether the country’s best kept secret. “Generally, Africa seems to be portrayed in a negative light,” says Gerald Mugwenhi, better known as Synik, the four times nominee of the 2012 Zimbabwe Hip-Hop awards. “If people are showcasing the positive side they are usually the exception. Zim is like anywhere else, there are problems, yes, but there are also great things to talk about. However, the focus, when people hear of Zim, is the politics, but the people are a better story.”
Synik is a lyrically talented and much respected Hip-Hop and spoken word artist from Harare. He earned his initial stripes in the Zimbabwean Hip-Hop scene in 2008 when he released an EP which gained him the momentum to make contacts with other local artists. His debut album Syn City has been making some waves as a free download recently.
“The point of the free download was to make the music accessible to everyone. It is available to buy on all major online platforms but I wanted to give people who aren’t familiar with me or my music a chance to hear it as well. It made the album popular as many people got to talk about it, and to share it as well. I believe that sales would never have translated into much had we made it strictly for sale. A number of people got the free download and still bought it to show support, but for many people in Zimbabwe – and maybe some other parts of Africa – buying online is not a possibility.” The buzz that resulted from the album release had a lot to do with its accessibility. “I didn’t have any misgivings about the free download. I think it’s a good strategy for a debut album and the focus is more long term than immediate returns.”
Syn City, produced by Begotten Sun, is a result of a collaboration with many of Zimbabwe’s finest emcees such as Metaphysics, JnrBrown and Karizma to name a few. Out of mutual respect these artists got together with Synik to share their life experiences in Harare, so that the album could give a clearer reflection on their lives, and allowing for different voices to tell their stories. To Synik this album is a tribute to the city which helped shape him as an individual — particularly having left his job as an account assistant to pursue his music. The album offers a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into the capital city of one of the most demonised countries of today through the lenses of articulate young people, giving a broader understanding of what is really going on. One could argue that it gives an account of life in Zimbabwe that is not of the newspaper variety. These artists — cue Chuck D — are the news anchors of the streets of Harare.
“I live in Harare, which I dubbed Syn City playing on my moniker and loosely borrowing the art from the movie,” Synik explains, “but the stories in the album are not unique to Harare. Syn City can be any city.” The film he is speaking of is Sin City, and its visuals are also referred to in the video for the title track which is said to be the first 3D music video from the African continent:
“Syn City was shot on a green screen, the backplates are photos we took around the city. The wide angle of the city is a photo we took which was then built into something resembling a 3D environment. By so doing we were able to control the separate elements and achieve the Sin City feel were going for.”
The video, produced by Nqobizitha Mlilo and Rufaro Dhliwayo, has been released online but is not intended to be limited to the online market only. So far it has not yet enjoyed airplay on Zimbabwean television or regional music channels. However, Synik is determined to have it shared on as many platforms as possible.
The album is a mixture of various sounds including the mbira combined with the occasional use of his mother tongue Shona to give it a Zimbabwean feel.
“I think a true reflection of my communication is the balance between my mother tongue and English. There are ideas one can express easier in one language and not the other, so using both gets the message out truthfully.”
The album is self-explanatory. Synik is being brutally honest in his account of life in general and his life in specific, not even shying away from showing his vulnerable side. The track ‘Muripo’ is the one song he says was made at his most vulnerable, expressing his emotions quite freely. It is a deeply personal album. The original album had 12 tracks, but soon after its release a bonus track ‘Marching as One’, originally just an interlude, was added.
“Marching as One is a rebellious song,” Synik says, “so on the album it was good for transitioning into the AfrICan joint. We later on did the full version of ‘Marching’ for the [urban art] Shoko Festival special edition of the album.”
Apart from music, Shoko Festival seeks to incorporate many other art forms such as photography, comedy and dance. It also has a strong element of skills-sharing through workshops and discussions to bring about social change. One of the themes discussed this year was freedom of expression.
Since the Zimbabwean government introduced tough media laws in 2002, freedom of expression has been under attack, and it is interesting to see what the role of artists has become.
“There is a joke here,” Synik laughs, “you may have freedom of expression but no one guarantees you freedom after expression.” He points out that fear may have been used as a political tool so much that paranoia has become a by-product. “Hip-Hop as a radical and outspoken art form is the perfect tool in cultural activism.” That doesn’t mean, he adds, that one would automatically have to become the ‘voice of the voiceless’. “There are artists, who speak boldly, but personally I am not an outright political individual.” But in the same breath he admits that the line between the personal and the political is thin — especially in a place like Zimbabwe.
“I’ve never really felt motivated to be a voice because of the conditions around me. I just express what I’m feeling at the time. I try to bring about positive change through my music. Whether it’s through introspective music, where I try to deal with myself from the inside, or through asking bigger questions about what’s going on around. I just believe artists have a great opportunity to hold up a mirror to society so it can change if it needs to. It takes a certain amount of bravery to speak against some things.”
Although Synik is gradually getting recognition for being a Hip-Hop artist, he also has performed as a spoken word artist and still supports the poetry events happening in Harare. To him, Hip-Hop and poetry are very much interrelated. Synik continues to grow in his musical expression and has recently incorporated the acoustic guitar to his performances. He considers himself to be one who is still trying to find himself.
There is no denying that Zimbabwe is experiencing tough times. Popular western media have been almost relentless in their reporting about the calamities it is facing. Amid all the chaos, human rights violations and economic turmoil, in meeting Synik, a different kind of story is unearthed. A story of a young and driven individual who is determined to realise his dreams, making it despite all the portrayed doom and gloom. Media is only telling one story, so it’s only right that Synik tells another one. His story is told from his — and possibly many other urban Zimbabweans’ — perspective. Just because not everything is a dream doesn’t mean that everything is a nightmare. Home is home and the place Synik calls home is Harare; Syn City is a shout-out to this place.
* Amkelwa Mbekeni is one half of the Planet Earth Planet Rap International Hip-Hop segment of And You Don’t Stop! radio show on WBAI (New York).