Zimbabwe News

Zimbabwe: Jah Prayzah’s History… As Told Through the Zimbabwean Griot’s Best Albums

A roaring and smoking mbira song, one for the party animals, a Nollywood pity party to confuse the crush outside your league, and a two-season coup soundtrack – Jah Prayzah created the future by commanding the past. We look back to the career-defining moments of one of Zimbabwe’s greatest artists.

Jah Prayzah has been called a spirit medium for his culturally immersive performances. But the cards from which he read Zimbabwe’s political fortunes were blank. “Kutonga Kwaro” and “Mudhara Achauya,” the now controversial songs he wrote as army ambassador, possessed Zimbabweans all the way into a long dry season. Seers and meddlers, no wiser themselves when the generals made history in November 2017, put all the sins of our youth on the singer. However, narrowing down Jah Prayzah’s legacy to politics doesn’t begin to do justice to his range and achievement.

A roaring and smoking mbira song, one for the party animals, a Nollywood pity party to confuse the crush outside your league, and a two-season coup soundtrack – Jah Prayzah created the future by commanding the past, and delivered concepts we had no way of asking for. Last week, the gangly griot from Uzumba interpreted Tairos Tendaupenyu’s classic love song, “Furuwa,” for our time. Daring is a future admirer who will interpret Jah Prayzah for his own generation, not just because the Afropop great is not one artist, but also because nostalgia for Jah Prayzah years will be, at the same time, nostalgia for the older eras which today possess him.

When the spirit medium arrived on the Harare scene, not quite 20 then, to kill off everything, he already had the memo. No young artist has been more committed to cultural memory – the full-moon folk register perfected on “Goto”, the mythic mix of traditional and African church sounds on “Bvumbamira” and “Muchinjiko”, and old-time inspiration for odd songs, Steve Makoni on “Kunobuda Nezuva” or Ngwaru Mapundu on “Emerina” – since then.

After setting the stage with Rudo Runyararo (2007) and dancehall-dabbling singles from those underground years, Jah Prayzah debuted proper with Sungano yeRudo (2010). He took over the conversation with Ngwarira Kuparara (2011) which spawned the Radio Zimbabwe song of 2012 and charted several songs. Tsviriyo (2013) consolidated the Jah Prayzah years, followed by Kumbumura Mhute (2014), Jerusarema (2015), Mudhara Achauya (2016), Kutonga Kwaro (2017), Chitubu (2018), Hokoyo (2020) and Gwara (2021).

In this countdown, we look back to the career-defining moments of a Zimbabwean hegemon who owned our 2010s.

6. Sungano Yerudo (2010)

“Sungano” was Jah Prayzah’s CV song. As a singer, he could make a hit; as a songwriter, he was a poet; as a rookie, he had the ambition. He had spent his schooldays reading, in his own words, “every Shona novel written before 2000,” and somewhat found his way around the language. He also played mbira, hands-on with his sound between two generations of handed-down beats. Instant nostalgia.

Coming hard upon urban grooves’ dubious legacy as a genre of love songs, Jah Prayzah could not be faulted for singing the same theme throughout his first album. “Ruva reRudo” proceeds on questionable patois and “Uri Ngirozi” also finds Jah Prayzah singjaying, something of his early dancehall experiments in Budiriro and Chitungwiza. Things switch up on the sonic level:”Lisa” sweats the young love theme but this time it’s three Jah Prayzahs singing from different sheets at the same time. Much too mellow.

5. Mudhara Achauya (2016)

A synthetic opening with touches of brass. The Oskidy beat feeds into the title video’s military storyline. No one knew that this lightweight love song, punctuated with customary braggadocio, had a secret political life to it. Until it was too late for Cde Mugabe and his hangers-on. “Mudhara Achauya” could even have been a mere love song but when fugitive vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa saw his old master off to the sound of “Kutonga Kwaro” in November 2017, Zimbabweans suddenly sniffed conspiracy out of old Jah Prayzah songs. Even “Emma”, his collabo with frenemy Andy Muridzo, had to have meant Emmerson!

Away from the bloody waters, the collaboration with Tanzania’s Diamond Platinumz was Jah Prayzah’s strongest regional statement yet. “Watora Mari” also changed the business approach from sponsored DVD albums to ambitious YouTube singles that ran into million views. “Goto” finds Jah Prayzah possessed by his ancestors, just showing off why he is untouchable in his time. “Hossana” and “Tsotsi” are relatable, by now conceptually familiar, songs about a persecuted protagonist. Jah Prayzah still wants to remind us that he is self-made.

There are also lazy songs here. It’s not clear whether Jah Prayzah’s slay queen described as “kachocolate, kayellowbone” is the victim of a botched skin job, or the recipient of half-hearted praise. I hated this album when it came out, but now it seems like it doesn’t matter about the synthetic parts. Aside Gafa Futi, Winky D’s monster release later that year, there isn’t a more convincing way to musically reconstruct 2015 Harare and remember permanently unavailable exes. With nostalgia, even bad songs count.

4. Jerusarema (2015)

Don’t let the Watchtower scenery of the title video fool you. “Jerusarema” is not about the New Earth. It is about the old world of mbede, a fertility dance renamed “Jerusarema” by the people of Murehwa to distract Rhodesia’s missionary censors. Once again, the album finds Jah Prayzah in peerless form as a cultural revivalist. But this is a pop album. Whereas old mbira masters hardly made the pop conversation, Jah Prayzah was reportedly grossing US$60 thousand per show off this album.

The JP album template is defined on Jerusarema. Double-time party vibes, “Eriza” and “Chinamira”, idyllic sounds of the soil, “Jerusarema”, and a territory-growing collabo, sung here with Luciano. Love songs and an odd throwback are also customary. A jazzed-up “Taura” remake (whose obscure original I love more for the nostalgia) shoots both birds.

3. Hokoyo (2020)

A tenth album, a deliberate statement. The title track’s incantatory hook enchants you from three directions, assisted by hosho and a spare trumpet looking for somewhere to land on the scene of the trance. The verses show that Jah Prayzah’s achievement is not just singing deep Shona that would have seamlessly blended into the fireside and moonshine rituals of a golden past but in adapting it to his present feelings. Along with “Kwayedza”, “Hokoyo” is the strongest artistic statement on the album. DJ Tamuka’s last album in charge is his best, and Blaqs’ intense videos, rolled out days apart as JP’s lockdown gift, provide the crowning finish.

Mock-distracted songwriting like, “Kundipa museve usina uta/ ho wandivirimira/ ha mutema wakaoma/ ha mutema wakaoma,” sounds like an after-flourish while, in fact, deliberately sending the memo. The message here, black-on-black hate, contrasts the black pride message of the earlier lyrics. This is a return to Shona rituals where yodeling, deep into the song, shrouds complaining and critiquing, like what the ancestors called “kutukwa kwamambo” in one use case. “Sabhuku usangofundumwara pamuromo, usandiona ndichirara pano” towards the yodel-whelmed end of Andy Brown’s “Mawere Kongonya” is a related throwback to the ancients.

“Mukwasha”, the first video quickly piled numbers and highlighted the artist’s lighter side, driven by the classic JP theme of the henpecked son-in-law. Of the two collaborations on this album, the Zimpraise-assisted “Miteuro” is lyrically wobbly, while “Kana Ndada”, featuring Zahara, continues the tradition of wholesome love songs. 2020 video of the year “Munyaradzi” is the heartbreak song that came to represent more permanent loss after its pretty vixen, Moana, died in a car crash.

2. Kutonga Kwaro (2017)

Mnangagwa had officially launched Jerusarema as new vice president in 2015, The Weevils, his Zanu PF faction had demolished their rival camp, Gamatox, in the race to succeed aging Mugabe. If you were looking to songwriters for prophecy, Leonard Zhakata’s “Damburambabvu” (2000), “Vamwe voramba kushanda semajuru/ vosarudza kuva zvipfukuto” – where Majuru could now be taken to mean Solomon and Joyce Mujuru’s Gamatox faction while Zvipfukuto literally translated to Weevils – would have struck at the heart of Zanu PF’s succession drama in 2014.

But Zhakata’s song had gone on, “Kupesana pamutsvairo/ tichitsvaira nhunzvatunzva” (Fighting over the broom/ as we sweep off trouble causers), suggesting that the Weevils’ newly won equilibrium would be only temporary. True to the prophet’s word, the Weevils split two ways into G40, fronted by first lady Grace Mugabe, and Lacoste, led by vice president Mnangagwa, before the end of 2015. When Lacoste’s succession game-plan was hinted on Jah Prayzah’s Mudhara Achauya in 2016, the memo initially sailed beneath the G40 radar.

Soon enough, though, Grace was slightly offended at the way Mnangagwa danced to the song at Zanu PF rallies, fists indicating towards his chest, as if he was the chosen one promised by the song. She led G40 in appropriating the song for themselves but the optics of it was unconvincing. They were fighting Mnangagwa’s generals, and Jah Prayzah’s brand as “Musoja” did not sit right for their camp. So they settled for another battle song, where Jah Prayzah had only been “police commissioner” Sulumani Chimbetu’s guest artist. Recorded three years earlier, “Sean Timba” had violent lyrics directed at music pirates. Mnangagwa was now Sean Timba, and his troubles at the hands of his enemies made good on the violence of the song.

His victory was to be picture-perfect. Henpecked by Cde Mugabe’s chatterbox wife, isolated in the party structures, survivor of assassination attempts, and overnight fugitive as the game of thrones switched up, Mnangagwa had, by default, shed his reputation as a cold and mean calculator. He would now come back to rule Zimbabwe with the aura of a persecuted messiah. And the film would not have been complete without a Jah Prayzah soundtrack.

This time, Jah Prayzah could no longer keep his cards under the table. Released just days before Mnangagwa’s army-powered takeover, the message of “Kutonga Kwaro” did not fly above anyone’s head. Supposed ruling party thugs stoned the musician away from a funeral, smarting from his new anthem’s devious pronouncements, “Sasikaiwo ngoma/ nyangwe huku dzamaundura/ nda’akuchinja mutemo,” he seemed to be saying that G40 kingpins had prepared the feast that they would not partake in. When Mnangagwa came back to change the rules, everyone knew that this was his song, and Jah Prayzah’s Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) ambassadorship made this interpretation final.

But the head is heavy that chooses to wear a crown. Three years after the coup, Jah Prayzah’s jewels twisted into thorns as some citizens who had equally danced in the streets made him the face of their “New Dispensation” sorrows, even decampaigning him from international awards. In our age of consensus-led conscience, canceling Jah Prayzah is just another episode in a never-ending comedy of errors. He had only been in his 20s, and already self-made, when he stepped into the crossfire. And the motivation for branding himself as army ambassador had been his childhood dream to be a soldier, rather than political calculus. The album Mnangagwa officially launched for him had merely spoken to cultural patriotism, before he found himself in the deep end.