As Nas and Damian demonstrate on their latest album, black musicians of all stripes have long paid tribute to Africa. Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick were just some of those buying houses in Ghana during the seventies; Miriam Makeba lived in Guinea and Nina Simone chose Liberia as the place where she could retreat from the racism she encountered back in America.
Marcus Garvey would have been delighted with them, and yet there’s something not quite right about the news that Sizzla has now relocated to Zimbabwe after performing at President Robert Mugabe’s 86th birthday celebrations in February.
“I am here to stay,” Sizzla told the state-owned Sunday Mail weekly newspaper. “Zimbabwe is home, and I have received a tremendous welcome.” His spokesperson Olimatta Taal confirmed that rather than pay the artist in cash for performing at President Mugabe’s birthday bash, Zanu-PF gave Sizzla land close to the town of Chegutu. “Instead of giving him cash (for his performance) they gave him land. It is very honourable that he would take land instead of cash,” Taal is reported as saying. “He is in Zimbabwe because he loves Africa. He isn’t pro-Mugabe or anti-Mugabe, but he respects Mugabe as a leader.”
State-owned local media was quick to enthuse over Sizzla’s endorsement of Mugabe’s regime, with the Sunday Mail declaring that he “was the latest and most important visitor to be swayed by the infectious Zimbabwean touch”. Olimatta Taal also said that Sizzla’s Zimbabwe move had nothing to do with allegations that he was on the run from Jamaican authorities for gun crimes allegedly committed less than a month before his trip to Africa.
“He (Sizzla) laughed when he heard the allegations,” Olimatta Taal said. “He doesn’t take it to heart.” Reports from Jamaica confirm police arrested the controversial Rastaman on January 29th in connection with a shooting incident. He was picked up on the Wednesday night by August Town police after they received reports that men were firing guns in the vicinity of Judgment Yard, where Sizzla’s community is based. We’re told the incident occurred sometime around 8:15 p.m and that Sizzla was arrested about fifteen minutes later. Reports suggest that a number of persons were drawing water from a river when an armed man approached them and fired several shots in their direction. No one was injured, but the incident was subsequently reported to the police and Sizzla identified as the gunman.
A senior officer at the Half-Way-Tree Police Station told RJR News that the singer’s hands were swabbed and samples sent to the government laboratory to determine whether he had fired a weapon. The senior policeman declined to give any more details except we know that Sizzla was released a day later since no witnesses came forward. A police spokesman said investigations were ongoing and suggested Sizzla “could be detained in the future, if the need arises”.
Asked about possible reasons behind the shooting, the police officer explained that a number of places in the August Town vicinity such as Judgement Yard, Goldsmith Villa and Hermitage have what he referred to as “constant friction.”
Regular Echoes’ readers will appreciate this is not Sizzla’s first run-in with the law. In 2005, he was taken into custody and questioned in relation to thirteen high-powered weapons the police had recovered from Judgement Yard. Sizzla was held and interrogated for three days but was released as he denied having any knowledge of the guns. Just to add spice to the latest escapade, Jay-Z was rumoured to be on the island for a video shoot and whilst he’s a known Sizzla fan, there’s no evidence to suggest he was present when the alleged incident took place.
Shortly afterwards, Sizzla left for Zimbabwe, where he commands a huge following after hits like Black Woman And Child and Thank You Mama. His visit was part of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority’s bid to help change people’s perception of Mugabe’s regime by using celebrities as tourism ambassadors of Zimbabwe.
“He has come under the tried and tested Celebrity Host Programme, the same programme that brought Joe Thomas, Luciano and Kanda Bongo Man,” confirmed Sugar Chagonda, who is a spokesperson for ZTA. “We have been working with several partners including the Ministry of Information, Media and Publicity and Rainbow Tourism Group among others,” Chagonda said.
Sizzla’s first show was the 21st February Movement Gala held at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair grounds in Bulawayo. This event was held to celebrate President Mugabe’s 86th birthday, and Sizzla’s appearance must have been a massive boost to the President’s popularity. He then performed at the Youth Reggae Festival at the Harare International Conference Centre, where he was treated to a rapturous welcome by fans.
Thousands had greeted him at the airport. Sizzla said he was honoured to be in Zimbabwe to grace the birthday celebrations of “a great revolutionary leader and Pan-Africanist who is fighting to uplift the livelihoods of marginalised Africans,” meaning President Mugabe.
“I’m on a back to Africa mission and it is an honour to be in Zimbabwe for myself and the government of Jamaica, since I couldn’t refuse such an honour of being invited to perform at the President’s birthday,” he said.
Media, Information and Publicity Minister Webster Shamu claimed Sizzla was “walking the same road that the late Bob Marley walked” thirty years earlier, after Marley and the Wailers had performed at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations on April 18th 1980.
“You are coming to perform for a man who stands for all the down-trodden people around the world,” he informed Sizzla. “A man who symbolises the spirit of Pan-Africanism.”
We later learned that Sizzla’s trip was made possible by the efforts of Nhamo Chitimbe, the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity and Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, who claimed Sizzla had to “forego lucrative shows in Europe” to attend, and said his office was on a mission to bring many reggae artists to Zimbabwe. Luciano performed there in 2007. Former Radio 1 DJ Chris Goldfinga and Maxi Priest have also performed there in recent months, whilst Red Rat isa rumoured to be next, after releasing an album called Rise Up Zimbabwe. Such events haven’t always ran smoothly, and Luciano was apparently met with a chorus of boos after praising Mugabe on stage, then comparing him with Emperor Haile Selassie I.
We heard there were crowd disturbances at Sizzla’s show in Bulawayo, after over-enthusistic fans toppled a fence in an effort to get closer to the stage. Riot police responded by vicously beating them, and this resulted in what’s been described as “ugly and escalating violence,” causing Sizzla to halt his performance and appeal for calm.
Previous to this, he’d been quite effusive in his praise for President Mugabe, after urging the veteran leader to “champion the cause of the return of the African people from the gates of hell they are living in Jamaica and the Caribbean.”
“I think he’s a good president, kind to his nation, just and true,” Sizzla declared. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail reported Sizzla had been granted a work permit and was working to consolidate business enterprises he wished to establish locally.
“In Zimbabwe we have already started recording. I am also looking into areas I can invest in for the upliftment of Zimbabwean youths,” he was reported as saying. Apart from announcing plans to set up agro-industries, he also made enquiries about investing in the local textile sector. The singer has since set up a recording studio in the plush northern Harare suburb of Borrowdale where he currently resides, and is working with local reggae group Transit Crew [the same band who backed Luciano on his recent trip to Zimbabwe] as he looks forward to recording his debut album on Zimbabwean soil.
Whether he objects to being called “new Mugabe praise singer” is a moot point. What we do know is that he’s been offered a farm in Mashonaland West province in exchange for his work in promoting Zanu PF public relations worldwide. [This is the same kind of deal as offered by South Africa’s apartheid regime during the sanctions imposed upon it many years ago.] Sources at the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement confirmed that Sizzla was indeed offered a farm.
“We have been instructed by our bosses to locate an appropriate white owned farm, preferably in Chegutu, for compulsory acquisition. Already efforts are being made to mobilise tractors and other equipment for him,” said a government official. Sizzla’s new farm is said to be in a prime agricultural area. A Jamaican spokesperson insists it wasn’t given to him in return for carrying out a public relations campaign for the Zanu-PF party, saying it was acquired in a straight business deal between the artiste’s company Judgement Yard and Zimbabwean authorities.
“The allocation of the farm land does not have any relation to any political party,” she said. “Instead of being paid cash for his performances, they gave him land. Although they [the Western media] want to discredit and criminalise him, it is very honourable that he would take land instead of cash,” she added, noting that the land he received is for the Rastafarian community.
This is contrary to what another government source suggests, which is that Sizzla was indeed given the farm in exchange for promoting Robert Mugabe’s international standing in the eyes of African people around the world, who’ve clearly forgotten the furore surrounding the Zimbabwean elections in March 2008, which were marked by widespread allegations of vote-rigging, and the brutal suppression of Mugabe’s chief rivals, the Movement For Democratic Change.
In the meantime, Internet postings claim he was paid US $150,000 for that first show in Bulawayo.
“Sizzla showed he has a big link with Mugabe and he often stopped the show to heap praise on him,” wrote one source. “The event was very, very ZANU PF, with ministers and other political bigwigs thanked throughout the concert. Sizzla touched on many topics, including land reform, diamonds and political violence and he showed, in his comments during the performance, that he’s aligned himself with our government.” The same person adds that he didn’t attend the Harare show as, “I did not want to see one of my idols being puppeted and spreadin government propoganda…”
Additional note: Mengistu Haile Mariam, formerly the most prominent officer of the Derg, the Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987 after deposing Emperor Haile Selassie I and allegedly murdering members of His Imperial Majesty’s family, fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War. Robert Mugabe granted him asylum and he remains in Zimbabwe to this day – this despite an Ethiopian court verdict finding him guilty in absentia of genocide.