Soul Jah Love: A brief but beautiful dance
Alex T. Magaisa
They did not blink an eye as he lay on his deathbed. They were far away, not just in physical terms but they were in totally different worlds. He was wasting away, staring into the abyss, while they sat comfortably in their palatial mansions. But when news filtered that he was no more, their eyes lit up, sensing an opportunity for some political dividends.
They were quick to latch on to the bandwagon of mourning. Suddenly his body, cold and parked in a morgue, had risen in value in their calculating eyes. Ever the opportunists, they saw a gap for political mileage, a chance to endear themselves with the millions of suffering youths in the ghettoes. But what value is a reward thrust in the cold hands of a man whose facility to accept it has long expired, a man who might have been better served by a functional public health system which lies decrepit because of incompetence and looting?
Forthright in death as he was in his brief but eventful journey on earth, the young wordsmith had a word for every occasion, including his death. “Ndichafa riniko?” (When will I die?) he sang as his sun was setting. It is almost a plea for the end; a desperate cry of a broken young man who could sense that the end was nigh.
But it is more than that. The song is also the lamentation of a young man who felt abandoned and rejected in his final days. It is so powerful you can almost touch his loneliness on that last lap, a reminder to those that are jumping onto the bandwagon that they were not there when he needed them the most. He had the foresight to know that they would be there, having a merry dance of opportunity at his funeral.
Ndichafa riniko vazorore? (When will I die so that they find rest?), he sang in one of the last of his numbers. Here was a talented young man who was in so much pain that he felt he had become a burden to those around him. His situation was so desperate that he wished for his own end to spare those who cared for him the load they were carrying. It is a song whose lyrics might haunt and embarrass the conscience of anyone trying to take advantage of his demise when they ignored him during his most painful moments.
But to be haunted, one must first have a conscience. To be embarrassed, one must have a sense of embarrassment. When ZANU PF mandarins gathered to confer liberation hero status on Soul Musaka, or Soul Jah Love the trade name by which he was popularly known, they were not concerned with his accomplishments as a pioneering artist of incredible talent, no. If they truly cared, they would have extended a hand to the young artiste when he desperately needed help. They would have a proper system of honouring and supporting artists.
For them, the corpse of Soul Jah Love was no more than a passport into the hearts and minds of millions of young fans who adored his musical output. They thought it would be a good idea to confer him with hero status to appease his young fans and endear themselves to that generation. It is shameless opportunism packaged as an honour. The young man was just 31. He deserved to be honoured, but not when he was lying in a morgue after enduring unbearable pain of abandonment and rejection which had dominated his life.
I first took notice of Soul Jah Love sometime in 2013. It is fair to say I was late to the ZimDancehall party, but it was a love of his music at first hearing. I grew up on a diet Sungura music. We made forays into American music via the agency of the old Radio 3. Reggae music from Jamaica made for a balanced musical diet. But it was Sungura music that captured most of my generation’s hearts. I am therefore part of the generation that hangs on precariously to a genre that sometimes looks like it is on its last legs. We are very protective, a protectiveness that borders on jealousy at the idea of newcomers.
ZimDancehall looked like the kid that joins the playground from another school and threatens to take the limelight away from everyone’s favourite. We mocked ZimDancehall and pretended it did not exist, that it was a momentary irritation that would disappear as quickly as it had emerged. We underestimated the revolution that was taking place. And Soul Jah Love was the revolutionary that led the charge, and boy did he do it with swagger and panache!
For me, it was truly a revolution of musical tastes. My musical palate accepted ZimDancehall music thanks to Soul Jah Love. I bought my first CD of that genre, PTK’s No Mercy Riddim because of him. I wrote about it on social media, so that the young ones would know they were appreciated. I learned to appreciate ZimDancehall while holding on to Sungura. I realized I could love them both.
It was impossible not to fall in love with Soul Jah Love’s lyrical genius. There was something about the way he weaved the lyrics, and the intonation of his voice - how he turned and bent it, calm like a swollen river at one point, and ferocious like the river had just hit some rapids at another point. And then, sometimes, a deluge, as if it were a waterfall, before returning to the softness of morning rain falling on a corrugated roof. Where it sounded forced and laboured for others, for Soul Jah Love it was so natural and effortless.
The very first song that caught my attention was Handichabatika (They cannot touch me) on PTK’s No Mercy riddim. The irony is that there was a certain arrogance in the lyrics, but the type of arrogance that you cannot help but admire because you know it is part of the art. It is not a genre of music that does humility. Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart that the lizard that jumped from the high Iroko tree said it would praise itself if more one else did, quoting the wisdom of his Igbo ancestors. ZimDancehall artists live true to that wisdom and Soul Jah Love was no exception. “MaGhetto Youth andigadza humambo, saka ndichangoramba ndichingorova musambo; mangoma ndichishandisa tarenta!” (The Ghetto youths have enthroned me as king of ZimDancehall, so I will keep singing, making use of my God-given talent …)
I must admit that it reminded me of a younger version of me when I was in high school. “In the beginning, Assisi had no lawyer, and God said let there be a lawyer and Magaisa was born”, youngsters who were behind me tell me I used to say something like this in my high school days. I cringe a little thinking about it, the arrogance and the haughtiness, but then I also remember I was young and this said for self-motivation and reassurance. I had convinced myself that I would study law and I reaffirmed it in words.
Soul Jah Love knew he had a rare talent, and he was not shy to claim it. To my mind, he was far ahead of the pack. His lyrics were deep and powerful. Pamamonya ipapo was so good that school choirs across the country did their own cover versions. I do not remember others of his generation whose music had a similar appeal or influence. His words and cliches made it into the ghetto and national vocabulary. He was a verbal alchemist who turned ordinary words into something truly special. A simple word like “Chibaba” took on a special meaning. He was truly a cultural phenomenon.
“Mwana waStembeni” (Stembeni’s son) – his lyrics were so clever that he managed to honour and immortalize his mother in a song without being direct about it. It is that gift of subtlety that is given to the truly gifted artistes and separates them from the rest of the class. By making the ordinary look extraordinary, Soul Jah Love gave youngsters in the ghettoes the courage to dream. If Chibaba could do it, why couldn’t they also dream?
Although the genre was dominated by youngsters among artists and fans alike, Soul Jah Love’s music appealed to generations beyond his own. Ndini Uya is the story of a young person who has defied adversity, rejection, and marginalization to make it in life. It was as much a personal commentary as it was the story of millions of young people who have grown up in penurious conditions, badly treated by relatives, only to emerge on the other side through sheer force of resilience.
Having made it out of the gutter, he makes a point of reminding those people of the difficult old times. Lots of people, both old and young can relate to these lyrics. He was not just singing the story of his life, but in those few lyrics, he captured the lives of millions of his fellow citizens. It is the power of those messages that ensure his art will endure long after his death.
I would have loved to have met the young man while he lived. I am sad that it never happened. It would have been an honour because I was truly enamoured by his music. As I wrote on a social media forum after his death was announced, every now and then, a phenomenal talent is born in our society and unleashes its genius upon us. They dazzle us with their gifts. Yet the flame shines so brightly and so ferociously, it is as if it knows it is only around for a short while. It burns a bright and beautiful light and then is blown out by a cruel wind. The early departure leaves us yearning for more as if to punish us for not appreciating it enough while we had it.
Some will say his lifestyle and habits could have been better. But even the most powerful among us have their kryptonite. Soul Jah Love had his kryptonite. Every genius has their Achilles Heel. He had his. But he has lost the facility to respond. He must be allowed to rest in peace. But one thing for sure is that he left us something precious: he made sure his talent was immortalized in song. That will live long after him. Personally, I celebrate him for reminding me, through his lyrical genius, that I could like ZimDancehall music and remain a connoisseur of Dendera music.
The moment was too brief, Soul Jah Love, but you lit our world with your prodigious talent and you made us laugh and forget our pain during very difficult times. Some live for decades longer than you did but leave only a tale of misery and hate. People celebrate their demise. Your work enriched us. It is a mark of your great contribution that they ran around to honour you after you were gone when they ignored your suffering when you needed them the most. Hopefully, those that remain are wise enough to see the opportunism and the ruse for what it is.
Rest in Peace Chibaba chenyuchi … Chibababa, chimudhara chakadya nduru, Full bar, and catering! You were a phenomenon.