Roma, a Tanzanian composer and singer, has become a household name in Tanzania, albeit controversial, on account of his compositions. His latest song, "Zimbabwe," has just been released to much acclaim, but also reservations. It is a charged piece that is bound to raise sentiments and maybe ruffle a few feathers.
"Zimbabwe," is a music video that brings up seemingly disconnected and random images and references incorporating ideas, sentiments, and pleas. Clad in flowing robes, like a prophet, Roma traverses an expansive landscape proclaiming his message, which sounds like an apocalypse. I think of Yeats's vision--in "The Second Coming"--of a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, but Roma's vision is not entirely dark and ominous.
The plight of prophets is often uncertain and Roma's is no exception. He has experienced rejection, censure and even kidnapping, which is a key theme, if not the impetus, of his "Zimbabwe" song. A prophet can be rejected, becoming a voice crying in the wilderness. In this video, Roma appears in the wilderness much of the time, but he has a sizable following, heading with him towards the distant horizon beyond which, presumably, Zimbabwe lies.
I have stated that this song pulls together seemingly disparate and random ideas, sentiments, and references, but there is method in the madness. Running through the song is a mood, not of celebration or joy, but sadness, which is sustained by the repetitive beat of soulful sounds. The sadness and somber feeling is conveyed by references to kidnappers and their evil deeds, and is reflected in the faces of the people and accentuated by the image of a crying child. The randomness of images and references can also be read as a mirror or an oblique but caustic commentary on, or indictment of, the political system of today's Tanzania, which critics berate for what they consider its erratic and impulsive modus operandi.
Roma's song exemplifies Cleanth Brook's idea that the language of poetry is the language of paradox. The very image of Zimbabwe is paradoxical. Given the global, media-driven image of Zimbabwe as dismal and dysfunctional, Roma's song appears to present Zimbabwe as the Promised Land. We see Roma leading a multitude across the wilderness, in an exodus towards this Promised Land, in the manner of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament.
On the other hand, the image of Zimbabwe in this song can also be interpreted as bitterly ironic, with its suggestion that one is much better off being in Zimbabwe than in Tanzania. Although this might spark contention among Tanzanians, my interpretation shows how Roma turns the negative image of Zimbabwe on its head, essentially signifying upon the media-driven stereotype I have mentioned. Roma is a kind of trickster figure, driven to upsetting conventional perceptions and exposing the ambiguity of things.
The juxtaposition of Zimbabwe and Tanzania in the song can be further deconstructed. We can say that the song implies that Tanzania is deteriorating so fast that we had better escape to Zimbabwe before it is too late. This interpretation, needless to say, is not likely to please many Tanzanians. But I am not claiming that this is what the poem says. My reading of it might, in fact, be contested by other readings, which is the norm in the field of literary interpretation.
If we view the notion of paradox in the broad terms outlined by Brooks, Roma's song is packed with paradoxes. These manifest themselves not only in the image of Zimbabwe but in other ways as well, such as the image of the old African lady playing the piano. I doubt if there is any Tanzanian who associates old African ladies with piano playing. Yet, if we take a historical and broad view, we find that African women, especially old women, have been prime carriers of our artistic heritage--storytelling, music, and song. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for example, portrays a mother who tells stories to her children. In East Africa, there is a long tradition of female poets and singers, such as Mwana Kupona, Siti binti Saad, Bi Kidude and Shakila Said. The image of Roma's old woman playing the piano is not as far-fetched as it appears.
The discourse of Rama's song is propelled as well by both significant hints and direct statements. Among the hints are those relating to kidnapping and the experience of captivity. Among the direct statements is the challenge to the unnamed authority figures to lay down their guns and engage in debate propelled by reasons. In the context of the growing belief that Tanzania's political system is becoming dictatorial, the song's statement is a direct indictment of that reality.
In generic terms, "Zimbabwe" can be read as the continuation of the tradition of African prison poetry which includes poems such as Liongo Fumo's "Wimbo wa Saada," and Abdilatif Abdalla's Sauti ya Dhiki, from the Swahili tradition, as well as Dennis Brutus's Letters to Martha and A Simple Lust.
Following Brooks's warning against what he called "the heresy of paraphrase," I will say that Roma's song, like any work of literature, speaks for itself. No interpretation will adequately capture its complexity, nuances and its capacity to generate meanings, which is limitless. For me, however, this song, unsettling as it is, remains timely, relevant, and indispensable. It is a mix of disturbing sentiments and images made palatable, nevertheless, by melodious and irresistible music that will endure in people's memory for a long time. I feel it has the makings of a classic.