Considering that my good designer friend Mdabuko — who shall henceforth be referred to as Design Nduna Dubbzy — finds The Blueprint 3 to be one of Jay-Z’s best commercial albums, the wordplay of twisting Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ to this article’s ‘Empire State of Creativity’, proved to be irresistible. Thank you Dubbzy for the assist; as usual, our insightful conversations/rants on culture have led me down another rabbit hole. I stand on the shoulders of giants such as lords KVCHX III and Dubbzy, in this empire of ours.
Disclaimer: This is not another Jay-Z puff piece; Tidal ain’t cut the check for it yet. This, however, is another attempt at intellectual-cultural commentary on the actual state of creativity in Zimbabwe. My ideas might be biased, having spent my childhood consuming cultural content from not just my own country (more like under-consuming, to be honest). DSTV had me eating up cultures from the US and the UK, whilst YouTube anime clips had me pirating Japanese and South Korean comics during my otaku phase. But from what I gathered, even as a young adult growing up in the Miz, Zimbabwean creativity — with music being the most accessible — has always been ruled by one tide of the wave at a time.
In the beginning (as far back as I can remember), there were urban grooves – the urban movement that was poised to live on indefinitely and defined the modern Zimbabwean sound in the early 2000s. Everyone back then surfed that wave. Some artists have since evolved to remain relevant, while others sadly died with it.
Fast forward to the early 2010s; the era gave us the unpolished but stadium worthy sounds of Zim-Dancehall when Jamaican dancehall was also growing globally with the help of heavyweights such as Mavado, Demarco, Vybz Kartel and so many more. It was a massive wave that produced some artists we still have as stars today. However, a seismic shift occurred as we approached the late 2010s, heading towards the latter part of the decade.
Small but trending waves of afro-centric musical artistry sprout up as Ammara Brown, Tamy Moyo, Simba Tagz, Soul Afrika et al. brought afro-pop to the local mainstream. Coincidentally, Nigeria was also stamping its authority on the world stage with their native Afrobeats. MMT & Few Kings (Tehn Diamond, Jnr Brown and Take Fizzo) if anyone can still remember them, also carried a lot of the weight for hip hop in Zimbabwe then. The Zvidhori or Party Yatanga and Feeling Ain’t Fair seasons felt like events and other rappers were on the guest list.
In hindsight, it becomes easy to see that back then the modus operandi for the entire nation changed. Instead of waiting for the right wave or trying to fit into it, Zimbabwean creatives slowly but surely realised that they could define their own creative spaces. With that realization, came the resolve to build their own tables as Tyler Perry eloquently put it.
Unlike before, when Urban Grooves was the definitive sound of Zimbabwe, possibly only because studio time and equipment were inaccessible to the indie artists of back then. 21 years down the line, in the new Zimbabwe, quality recording equipment and spaces remain inaccessible for the average music recording enthusiast. This is despite the fact that the democratization of the tools of production and distribution has given the African creative with a dream to chase, a way to carve out their own online empire. The internet is your new battleground including the local charts and live events (which took a heavy knock after the advent of COVID-19, but the internet is the gift that keeps on giving).
Now just about anyone with a veritable musical talent is contributing to the overall musical tapestry of Zimbabwe. Although it has probably left us without a distinct sound, I believe it has given courage and opportunities to other fields of creativity to begin flourish.
Take, for instance, in 2016 I took note of an up-and-coming mad lad called Probeatz who was at the time little more than a beatboxer — a fucking beatboxer for God’s sake. Now, remember there’s a time that such a creative outlet was a part-time hobby considered unprofitable in a developing country like ours but because the state of creativity changed, Probeatz is quite the local celebrity with several live performances under his belt (home and abroad) and a burgeoning online presence.
At the moment it may seem like this whole op-ed has been about music, but there’s more to it. Backtracking to 2016 again, I noticed a trend of more and more people starting to curate and care about their visual, meaning people now cared about how they presented themselves out to the world. I would see everyone from girls to even the gents booking photoshoots, making sure they pushed out the best visuals of themselves. Probably some did it for the gram, or some had professional reasons.
Regardless, this gave rise to bootstrap start-up visual studios that offered their services to grow this trend further while offering value affordable photo-shoots that jokingly trended as a Form 4 pastime for a little while. Competition obviously bubbled up and photographs realised the need to find distinctive styles to separate themselves, the result of a domino effect that created a higher quality, more competitive visuals based creative space, giving us the photographers we laud today.
Even videographers were finding and shape their styles; enter the likes of Vusa Blaqs, Andy Cutta and XYZ. For some back at home, the interest in these newly carved out fields of creative expression came with positive benefits. We now know what is possible, we now had our own local heroes to compare and look up to and as younger generations keep coming into the game, the industry is being fed with more new talent coming with different perspectives, tastes, ideas and methods that may need me types of creatives to feed into it; animators, graphic designers, stylists, directors, sound engineers, etc. What we have at the end of the day is an ever-diversifying creative domain that helps creativity spread it’s wings further and further in the Miz.
In closing, my point in all of this was we need to appreciate and see the opportunities that arise from not being stuck on one wave for too long but supporting each new wave of creativity that comes along in time. Taking into consideration that the dots may not connect now for the general masses but given the hindsight of 5 years, we would have built a whole new creative landscape for the kids to come into and build up even further.
We still need to do something about our quality though, but that’s a conversation for another day. We might have opened the floodgates of diverse creativity now all around the Miz, but we still have to work on the quality of our work. The world is now a global village and so is our competition. Let’s work to get to world-class professionalism and be the heroes of this generation that the kids look up to.