Chimurenga Renaissance: riZe vadZimu riZe
Before the 2010s, the biggest rap star Seattle ever produced was Sir Mix-A-Lot. That’s not nothing, but being the mailing address of the auteur behind “Baby Got Back” was never going to make Seattle a hub of West Coast hip hop. In 2011, though, Palaces released Black Up, the album that got me into hip hop. Where Shabazz Palaces is Lazaro’s more Afro-Futurist project, with multi-instrumentalist and rapper Maraire in a supporting role, Chimurenga Renaissance concentrates on Maraire. His father was a famous musician in his native country of Zimbabwe, and Baba’s projects have alternated between traditional Shona mbira music and rap. On riZe, vadZimu riZe, Maire and his collaborators combine the two, building maximalist beats out of mbira, African choral vocals, and an array of electronic instruments. To this is paired Maraire’s nationalist convictions that
Zimbabwean culture and even politics are woven throughout the record so thoroughly they are indispensable to understanding its meaning. “Chimurenga” is the Shona word for an African war of resistance against white colonial rule. “Vadzimu” refers to the vengeful spirits who, according to tradition, rose up after the British killed a charismatic African spiritual leader and killed Cecil Rhodes, whose name was synonymous with the country now known as Zimbabwe for a century. Maraire’s political convictions shine through all of his songs. Though dance music and political activism seem like unlikely partners, the two have been entwined for decades. Reggae alone furnishes a ready demonstration that the gap between celebration and mourning tends to be thin in places with a history of colonial oppression. This apparent contradiction works itself out in songs that shine with beautiful, messy production and poignant lyrics that jump between celebrations of love (“The Taste of Her Lips”), anti-consumerist anthems (“The B.A.D. Is So Good”), to indictments of Western imperialism (“Wow”).
In sharp contrast to Shabazz Palaces, which uses disorientation , Chimurenga Renaissance thrives on fullness. It’s easiest to see this difference when you consider the use of the mbira in each act. For a song like “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” from Black Up, Maraire paired the instrument’s unmistakable chime with the syncopated beat to create a sense of foreboding. In “Go Go Gettem,” the mbira is only one rhythmic element in a wide palette than includes synth blasts, snare-heavy beats, and African drums. In “The B.A.D. Is So Good,” the lead single for the record, it takes a more prominent role but still works within a much larger ensemble of sounds. Maraire here crafts music that is Zimbabwean in spirit and content while innovating within the framework of hip hop.
Though Maraire’s lyrics range over a variety of subjects, a black nationalist tendency emerges. At the beginning of “Nobody Think Nomo,” he issues a statement of purpose:
“I celebrate the freedom of a land you ain’t never seen
You can’t ditch me man, I’m living the dream
In ’80 we ended Rhodes’ regime
Now all of the diamonds belong to me”
While that last line might come across as more of the crass materialism Maraire criticizes elsewhere on the album, diamonds have a rather more weighty significance to Zimbabwe and to Maraire than the average rapper concerned with shiny stones. Every song vibrates with this sort of tension, and Maraire, along with collaborators Lazaro, THEESatisfaction, and others approach each track as a life and death struggle. It’s invigorating and uncomfortable, in its own way every bit as disorienting as Black Up was to me in 2011. Here, though, the music is far more vivid, enlivening even as it tears down opponent after opponent.