Letter from Zimbabwe: Kane “Novakane” Smego

I’ve been overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and most of all the incredible energy of the people. I’ve traveled to quite a few places on this planet and met some amazing folks, but I have to say that I’ve never experienced anything quite like “The House of Stone” (translation of Zimbabwe). So here’s a post summing up the journey so far.

We are partnering with a local Hip Hop arts organization called the Magamba Network to run the Next Level Academy, which meets from 2-5 pm almost every day at the Book Cafe, a local restaurant and arts center, and basically place for building community. First of all, my “students” are DOPE MCs and I’m learning as much from them every day as they are from me. A 20-person cypher (circle with MCs rapping, beatboxing, singing) happens EVERY day, and these cats can not only spit hot punchlines and crazy metaphors and wordplay, but their lyrics are also saturated with powerful social commentary, historical references, and vivid storytelling. I’m blown away, seriously. I’m told that education is highly valued in Zimbabwean culture, and a very high percentage of people attend higher education…not to mention almost everyone is bilingual, or trilingual, speaking English with mastery in addition to their local language (most often Shona or Ndebele). This linguistic brilliance blooms into Hip Hop verses that weave in and out of different languages, incorporating idioms, proverbs, and vernacular slang to make the crowd go crazy (and me smile knowing that I have no idea what was said, but I’m sure it was siiiick!). The dancers, beatmakers, and DJs in my teammates groups are equally as talented.

On Friday night, we were invited to visit the home of the Zimbabwean who owns the Book Cafe in order to have a jam session with a local band that plays the Mbira (traditional thumb piano invented in Zimbabwe) and the Djembe drum. We rocked out for the like 3 hours and created a collaboration piece with Jaci Caprice on the drum machine, Juan Gomez cutting in Fela Kuti samples, and me kicking verses. 
We are meeting with them again tonight to rehearse, as the song we created will open the program’s final performance on Feb 28. If you’ve never heard the Mbira, it sounds like raindrops from heaven, or angels’ tears, or some other corny poetry cliche LOL, but for real!

On Saturday night, we had a cypher event on stage with some more established adult MCs from Magamba Network, and I swear we all must have kicked like 10 verses apiece over the course of 2 hours.

Sunday was supposed to be our day of rest, but instead we woke up in the morning and traveled to an old abandoned train yard with Ken Fury and two of the dancers in his class to film some shots with our Next Level videographer, Petna Ndaliko Katondolo (who is a beast with the camera!). The location was crazy, and we are going to try to return in a few days to film a video for my album Soul Train Robbers (stay tuned).

In the afternoon we grabbed some grub at a local restaurant called Gava’s, that serves traditional Zimbabwean food, and it’s bomb. The “Roadrunner” Chicken Stew (their term for free-range chicken) with collard greens and sadza, which is like Zimbabwean grits made from cornmeal, was delicious, and a local Jazz band rocked the outdoor seating area playing everything from Hugh Masekela (originally from Zimbabwe but famous for popularizing South African Jazz) and Miriam Makeba songs, to their own renditions of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”. While we ate, a man came up and handed us a flyer for a dance event happening the next night, and there have been multiple concerts of Reggae and traditional Zimbabwean music at Book Cafe happening every night since we arrived. Harare is saturated with art!

After filling our bellies, we piled into a Combi (a van that acts as a city bus here) full of locals and traveled with our two young dancers to the township of Highfields outside the city to visit the home of their grandmother and see where they grew up. It was an amazing experience walking through the neighborhood with so many people in the street cutting hair at barbershop booths, selling snacks, and hanging out with friends. Here, neighborhoods like Highfields are considered the hood, or as they say here “the ghetto”, but one thing is missing…violent crime.

Harare is extremely safe and has very little violent crime (and very few guns), and one of the dancers told me “I feel so safe here, especially in the ghetto, I walk home at 2 in the morning and there is no fear.” Obviously there isn’t time or space in this post to discuss the complex causes of violent crime in urban neighborhoods throughout the US, but I will just say that I was impressed by the feeling of communal energy and peace in the air in Highfields and throughout the city. The welcoming energy from everyone we meet and pass in the streets, from elders to children, is overwhelming and absolute.

At times, I almost feel unworthy, coming here where people who look like me have a history synonymous with colonialism, violence, and exploitation in places like Zimbabwe, and being welcomed by a city of 2 million as if I were family. In the evening, we went to a “brai”, a community gathering space where you pick out your meat and then go park your car in a huge lot with Zim Dancehall music blasting and the cooks bring the meat once it’s grilled (along with giant mounds of sadza) and set it all up on tables by your car. Everyone digs in under the stars!

As if it couldn’t get any better, yesterday morning we were invited to meet Zimbawean (and global) jazz legend, Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi. Along with Hugh Masekela and Thomas Mapfumo he is one of the most successful and famous musicians from here, touring the world and recording over 60 albums! He’s such a beast, in fact, that his music is often referred to as “Tuku Music”, so he essentially created his own genre fusing African Jazz Sounds with traditional Mbira and other instruments to create something unique. We visited his enormous community arts center about 30 minutes outside of the city where he helps young artists cultivate their craft and, when he’s not on tour, plays a FREE show for all who wish to attend EVERY Saturday…and keep in mind he’s 62. When he arrived, he walked in like a normal person, no bodyguards or fancy introductions, and we all pulled chairs together in the lobby and chatted for almost an hour. He told us of being a young artist whose parents wanted to have another career, and opening the center for disadvantaged youth and artists who, like himself, haven’t always been supported in pursuing careers as creatives. “In Zimbabwe, art is life” he told us, explaining how art is used to celebrate and to heal. When we asked him who his favorite musicians were, he said there are only favorite songs but not favorite musicians, everyone has their own uniqueness and “art is not a competition.”

I later brought his words of wisdom to my students in my afternoon session, telling them the Tuku said “God doesn’t make duplicates, be yourself always, and make your unique music and people will appreciate you for it.” It was an honor to meet Tuku, and an honor to be in a place with so much talent, wisdom, and love.

Before I flew out here, I was chatting with a receptionist at a hotel in Washington State during one of my gigs at a college up there. I told her I was traveling to Zimbabwe in a week and she said, “Oh you aren’t afraid to go there?” I explained that Ebola was occurring in West Africa and that Zimbabwe was thousands of miles away in Southeast Africa. She said she wasn’t talking about Ebola, but about me being afraid of the people and being in danger there. In that moment I told her no, but I wish I could go back now and explain to her what this place is like. Tuku told us that the outside media often portrays the country as a scary, violent place and focuses on a few powerful men in politics, but “nobody talks about the man in the street, he is a very different man.” If nothing else, we hope to bring the story of the Zimbabwean people back with us…and maybe a little music!