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BINARY IS A LIE | Michael Chiunda’s Big Interview On Queer Activism, Critiquing Own Work, 2020 Biggest Cultural Influences & Zimhiphop Awards

Rapper Michael Chiunda (pictured) in a big end of the year interview with #enthuse.

There is something in Michael Chiunda’s work and artistic practice that disrupts tidy and traditional notions of creative expression, more so in the actual conceptual, articulation and in the human craft.

Multi-disciplined in his approach, his practice takes shape in the forms of poetry, rap music, colour and illustrations. From artistic meditations and outspoken human contemplations on his versatile spoken word sessions to considerations of identity, questioning beauty and power, and dismantling stereotypes, the matters explored through his eccentric work are as fluid as his movement and always guided by a finesse of a Deconstructionist.

#enthuse recently exchanged some thoughts and words with the rapper (MC) on his current work, highlights of 2020, among other subject matters. Check out the interview below.

#enthuse: As the year comes to an end, please give us insights into how 2020 has been for you. Any highlights or low points?

MC: 2020 brought with it quite a number of unexpected ventures that propelled me to become better at what I do. Like any experience, it also gave me learning moments that had me questioning my entire existence. From the beginning of the year, I made beautiful successful collaborations working on two of the biggest mainstream hip hop songs I have made to date. Topping the hip hop charts to pioneering to be part of the first hip hop song to be playlisted on global official digital online stores. I performed at one of Zimbabwe’s biggest hip hop festivals. In the same period working with Global Initiatives such as Chalkback in New York and then collaborating with Africalia in Belgium. It is a blessing to be able to say I was able to walk my musical path and stay true to my activism work. Being invited to perform at social events within Harare that represented minority groups while still month-in, month-out performing at other community-based events. 

#enthuse: Do you think that creativity involves putting your heart and soul into your work? Or is it more like letting your mind flow freely to witness the surprising results of your actions?

MC: In my search for truth and purpose, it has come apparent to me that the human experience is understood better when you try to separate its elements from the whole. However, it is also true to me that the same experience is made fuller when you indulge it without separation. For example, when I go out and sit with an audience I am not thinking whether my set should be “heartfelt” or artistry “soulful”. In fact, when I am there delivering my life vulnerably, I am a reflection of how I am feeling at that moment. It is about being open, letting myself “exhale” and be liberated from everything including myself if it is possible.

#enthuse: Do you strive to be unique in your creative endeavours? Please explain.

MC: It is not an aspiration to be unique. It is not a specific goal to try and be different. True leaders are not made in a laboratory or channelled from that way of thinking I believe. I do not strive for it. I let my art and work speak for themselves. I articulate my truth to my best capabilities and trust that if the word needs to be heard it shall be heard. I, however, think my work is indeed unique and fresh. 

Michael wearing an orange flower in his head/ “Sunflower Frequency” set

#enthuse: What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?

MC: I move. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. I am in constant active conversation with myself and others (when I need to be). I am in constant service of the work, the art, the music and I see myself to be a mere vessel. I am humbled to be entrusted with people’s opinions, ears and hearts. 

#enthuse: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?

MC: I may not have been a rapper or poet, but music would always be a part of my life. That I am sure of. Storytelling is my path and that is certain. It is reflected in absolutely every aspect of my life.

#enthuse: How do you deal with creativity blocks?

MC: I face creative blocks like any other challenge in my life, head-on. Find ways to break the cycle. I have amazing routines that look like improving my physical health and mental health. Our bodies and minds are connected, so I always try to make sure that all layers of my humanity are exercised. 

#enthuse: In thinking about the music/poetry that you have created, is there something that you hated but the public may have loved?

MC: When I made “The One” in 2019 I was very shocked by the response that I got from the people who heard it or saw me perform it. It became a part of the series of songs that got some rotation, and a lot of positive feedback. In comparison to when I put out “Hannah” in 2018, the response has been gradual, to say the least. I am an independent artist, every song I put out, I have 100% control over it. It is difficult for me to then hate a song I consciously released. I do have favourites though and do consider that people may reflect differently to a concept. 

I think mainstream music has a huge impact on how some people listen to music. Zimbabwean diversity in the mainstream is limited. Unfortunately so. Most of it sounds like pop to me, systematic selection is what ends up happening.

#enthuse: What is your favourite colour? Does this colour describe you as a person? Please explain.

MC: I was watching something a couple of days ago. One of the persons spoke about how “black and/or white” is easy and boring. The real magic is the gray area in between. I have a range of colours that I like. They do not necessarily describe me as a person, but in a way do facilitate the conversation in understanding me. That is, I am a range of things in one go. If you have the range to like an apple, love basketball, enjoy swimming etc. I am sure you can have the range to be more than one colour. Binary is a lie. 

#enthuse: Do you critique your own work? Explain.

MC: I fall in and out of love with my work every single day. I always try to check myself to make sure I am in the right space to create the best possible product. Something that makes sense to me and that I would want to listen to 10 or 20 years from now. Otherwise, what is the point?

#enthuse: You had two nominations at this year’s 2020 Pogues Zimhiphop awards in the categories of Best Hip-hop Verses (sweet sixteens) and Best Underground Artist (second time getting nominated for this category). How did you feel at the time of the nominations and after the winners were announced?

MC: I felt weird about being considered for the Underground category. I feel like I did a lot this year. It is a love-hate relationship I have with awards. I like competing with my peers also, so I was a bit indifferent and humbled at the same time.

#enthuse: How do you feel about your music being described “underground”? 

MC: That line of thought is lost on me. I have no idea what the criteria for that are. This year alone I was on one of the biggest records (mainstream) that earned one of my friends and emcee a nomination. I worked with one of the celebrated producers in the United Kingdom among so many stages I performed at. I am not saying I am mainstream, but I definitely think calling me an Underground artist in the Hip Hop genre in Zimbabwean is greatly misleading. I make conscious music that you can reflect on, that is however a yard away from being called Underground. It is weird. 

#enthuse: Please take us through the creative process behind the Shelter EP and what was going on in your life when you created it. 

MC: Shelter was written and produced in a week, early 2019. I have to mention that I worked with the incredible and underrated producer Texas who I have known for over 15 years. It is a body of work that is challenging conventional narratives in socio-political spaces. I wanted to create something that people who feel the same way could relate to and be that voice, hence Shelter. It is supposed to be the first series of a 2 piece concept project. When you hear the word shelter I would like to assume things like safety, protection comes to mind. But that is the only first part. What of comfortability, security, love, etc? That is where my mind is at. Shelter allowed me to speak on matters that I felt were important to me and I hoped that they resonated with someone other than me.

#enthuse: Congratulations on dropping your debut music video Sunflower Frequency this year. It is colourful and sparkling. Can you describe the idea behind it and the queer nuances which ooze from it?

MC: The video celebrates queerness, masculinity, femininity, the Goddess and everything in between. A Zimbabwean rap video with the rapper having flowers in their hair? It is unheard of. The whole clip is dismantling stereotypes. Mimi and I directed the creative concept; it was so much fun but very relevant. It was in the middle of COVID-19 and there was lockdown. We created content that depicted someone centred in their element with the things that they need. When you look closely to some of the scenes you will notice how the character is at ‘home’.

Michael with Mimi on the “Sunflower Frequency” set

#enthuse: You have also worked with Internationally-acclaimed brands like the Chalkback. Explain how that relationship came about and what the experience has been like working/collaborating with them. 

MC: The campaign is centred around stopping street sexual harassment globally and making the cases known by using our freedom to express. The collaboration began a couple of months ago when I was introduced to one of the members and we did a number of online workshops. I had already been working and contributing to campaigns and awareness to stop the harassment. I am now an active member and work with Chalkback, together with many other people in different cities around the world. The experience is not easy because of the several cases of womxn and people who live alternative lifestyles that do not fit the traditional gender norms. The initiative has been a pillar and has built solidarity, something that is beautiful to witness and be a part of. 

#enthuse: You are arguably one of the biggest artists from Mutare. What is your relationship with your hometown and do you think they celebrate you enough? 

MC: Mutare is my hometown, however, for a long time I was based in the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare. I feel the city can celebrate my achievements more. It is very difficult to break down the systematic walls that are around the business side of music. I am from a small town and I have shared stages and done work with nationally celebrated artists and brands. I do not feel I am recognized back home as much as I am in the rest of the country. 

#enthuse: Hip-hop/rap music is an industry ruled by machismo. It is a place where reputations are made by shady pasts, the aura of violence and ultra-masculinity. But your explosive works, be it music or poetry, is lifting the lid and championing queerness. Can you talk about that and how the reception has been like? 

MC: It is sad that mainstream music and media has pushed this misogynistic and ultra-masculinity narrative. I am privileged to have access to information, to people who I can speak about issues that affect us as people and to see what is going on around me. I try to listen as much as I can to everything, then find ways to articulate that. I have had to be very poetic and abstract in some of my works to get any kind of mainstream platform to showcase me. I am glad that the people who listen impart other people. The purpose of knowledge is to be shared. A lot of people in the queer community are living in fear of what might happen to them if they live their best lives. What a privilege heteronyms have. I am here to wake everyone up. And when I sleep, wake me up too. We are all learning, but it is important to be comfortable without infringing on anyone else’s freedoms.  

ImChris Charamba

Head Storyteller @ Enthuse Afrika | Progressive Writer | Content Creator | Critic of the Arts and Contemporary Culture | Idealist | Creative | Digital Strategist | Follow him on Twitter @ImChrisCharamba 

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