Multi award-winning artist Samm Farai “Cde Fatso” Monro’s (pictured) daring artistry, which taunts authorities more often than not, puzzles many who are aware of the fatal consequences it attracts in the country.
the style interview By Kennedy Nyavaya
With a long history of not taking reproach lightly, the government has in the past been accused of dealing ruthlessly with those who go against its tide, artists included. This is where Cde Fatso prefers to trade.
From co-pioneering poetry slams to producing a banned album titled House of Hunger in 2008 and now creating multiple comic shows, the Sussex University graduate’s personal conviction is highlighting social ills influenced by bad governance.
Bred in Harare, the multi-talented poet/musician-cum-comedian acknowledges that all his work is thought provoking to cause change.
A fortnight ago he was all over the news and social media because Moto Republik — an arts hub he helped put up — was on the brink of demolition by the Harare City Council.
The two parties have since resolved their differences and on Wednesday, The Standard Style’s Kennedy Nyavaya (KN) caught up with Cde Fatso (CF) during the shoot of Zambezi News Season 5 where the artist spoke about his passion, threats to his profession and the future. Below are excerpts of the interview.
KN: You have won many awards and earned respect in the creative industry, what is your strategy since the day you decided that you would major in arts?
CF: I have always been artistic — writing poetry, performing plays but at the same time, I was also quite political and engaged from a young age so even at a young age when I was at high school, I was writing to the independent media about the political situation.
I participated in a demonstration first at the High Court when I was aged 17. That is where I first tested tear gas, but for me the thing I wanted to always do even when I went to university was to be part of the struggle to change Zimbabwe for the better.
When I came back after university, my aim was to come up with spoken word performing arts that was Zimbabwean and African but at the same time that was revolutionary and spoke to young people about social justice.
I think that is something that has defined my view to art since I started out. The aim was to create art that was relevant, that spoke of people’s dreams and aspirations.
I do not do my art just for entertainment although entertainment is a factor; the most important thing about my art is that it needs to be real and it needs to come from the heart.
KN: When you mention that your art is not just art without a purpose and yet you have so much experience and accomplishments, do you think upcoming artists are missing it by not producing critical art?
CF: I think there could be more artists speaking truth to power. I appreciate that there are some artists who just want to do arts for arts’ sake — only to make people enjoy.
There is definitely a space for that because sometimes you just want to go out and enjoy good music, but I think there is also a very important space in society for artists who use their art for social change.
To bring about radical social change and in some cases they bring about revolutions and that’s the space of artists that is occupied by the likes of Thomas Mapfumo, Dambudzo Marechera, Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela.
I think for me it has always been important that my art speaks for something that it communicates with people because I am not producing it to be bubblegum music or bubblegum comedy that does not inspire or incite people.
KN: In 2008 you released your album titled House of Hunger which was banned and you also had a backing group. Is music part of you?
CF: It ended up being a natural progression because when I came back from university in 2004, I wanted to build a style of spoken word and poetry that was revolutionary. I was building that style performing at Book Café and running the open mic sessions. Then we started the House of Hunger poetry slam which I was one of the co-founders.
As my style of poetry developed which I was really kind of “toi-toi”, I wanted to build music around that.
We released the album two weeks before the presidential election and they were blacklisted on state radio and TV, but we performed regularly in Harare and we got a lot of international bookings with my band Chabvondoka.
We have a new album that we have been working on during the past three years which will be released later this year. It’s being produced by a French producer and sound engineer and involves a lot of local artists.
KN: Given that you did that album a fortnight before polls, were you not afraid or scared that something might happen, like what happened to other political critics?
CF: I think it is normal to be scared when you are doing political comedy because you would be aware of the risks that you would be taking.
We had to acquire clearance from the authorities to shoot Zambezi News and we received threats for staging political comedy at Shoko Festival last year.
Those threats actually show that our audience is not just the young, but it is also those in power. This definitely means our arts are having an effect.
KN: I understand your parents were social activists and you joined political protests at the age of 17, did your upbringing influence you in a way?
CF: My father was involved in community development, working with villages on empowerment programmes. He was also involved in environmental and human rights issues. On the other hand, my mother worked with street kids, single mothers’ organisations and she taught children with disabilities. So, I grew up in that environment of social justice and the belief that you do not need to do good for yourself, but for others.
That’s what drives me through my art and activism. I want to be part of a Zimbabwe where there is social and economic justice.
I want a country that is pro-poor, not pro the elite; where all voices count and a country where there is participatory democracy.
KN: Given your skin shade and that you grew up among black people, did you at one point feel that there was a difference between you and your peers?
CF: The way I was brought up was completely non-racial because my parents were against racism and any form of segregation. I grew up mainly with Shona-speaking friends and that is how my nickname “Fatso” came about.
KN: You have worked hard to get Moto Republik where it is as its artistic director. At the point it was under threat of demolition, how did you feel about the whole saga?
CF: It was one of the most emotional and stressful days I have ever had. The city council arrived with their cranes and started demolishing this dream that we collectively built and so it felt to me and all the other comrades that those in power had come to destroy our dreams.
Moto Republik is a space for young people, creatives and dreamers, so when it happened they were not just demolishing a structure, but a space of hope in the city.
There was no way that we were going to let the structures be demolished. They represent a new Zimbabwe and a new space where everyone gets value.
KN: Looking at the success of #SaveMotoRepublic campaign, do you think power lies in the people?
CF: The campaign came out of something stressful, but it became something that inspired us in terms of the huge support from young people on social media platforms. The hashtag trended for a week and over 1 800 people signed the petition to stop the demolition in under a week.
The fact that young people were able to reach out and put pressure on the authorities and the fact that yesterday [Tuesday] we came to an out-of-court settlement with the council, really showed the power that young people can possess if we unite.
KN: What is the current situation pertaining to Moto Republik. Is the demolition threat still there and how are you dealing with the situation?
CF: We took the city council to the High Court for an unlawful demolition attempt and sued them for damages. They asked for an out-of-court settlement and we met with them this week [Tuesday] to find common ground. We agreed to keep the structures standing and that they would advise us on the modification they want according to the by-laws.
We are very happy and relieved by the fact that we have managed to keep this very important space standing.
KN: Looking into the future, what is in store as you have grown with time, are you mentoring other kids in the arts?
CF: Something that is very important is to bring up the new generation of young urban artists who have got a message. So, we do that in different ways here at Magamba through internship programmes. Apart from advising young comedians and creatives in general, we give them opportunities to perform at events. We have plans that we are working on for some new Africa wide comedy and satire productions that we aim to be producing this year so that is one of the key things for me this year.
KN: You have mentioned that this is an ongoing struggle that you are engaging in, if you were to assess the progress that you have made personally, are you winning?
CF: Yes, definitely I think that from the work that I have done relatively. I think that over the years we have managed to inspire young people that they can be part of the struggle for change in Zimbabwe.
Through Zambezi News and The Week, we managed to inspire political satire in the country. When we started in 2011, there was no political satire and now you have more and more online content created speaking of socio-political issues.
We have also done a lot in inspiring poetry and spoken word. I was part of the first poetry slam and in terms of influencing the hip-hop through events like Mashoko and Shoko Festival.
KN: In the end, what is it that you want to achieve?
CF: For me, the most important change is not just political change, new government and so forth and of course having a new democratic Zimbabwe, with a new democratic dispensation that is important, but it does not mean anything if you do not have engaged active citizens on the ground.