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Interpretation of lyrics in songs

In the groove with Fred Zindi

The recent release of Jah Prayzah’s single, Sadza Nemuriwo, which is doing well, including on online video-sharing platform YouTube, has set tongues wagging among Zimbabweans. Part of the lyrics which some Zimbabweans found offensive include: Unotadza nei kundipa rese. Sadza nemuriwo, Ini ndakabvisa yese.

Many people I spoke to who had listened to the song think that it is subtly crafted to give a double meaning. They think that the song has sexual connotations.
According to Jah Prayzah: “Whenever you release a video or song, there will be different interpretations especially of the lyrics and it’s part of art. The lyrics on Sadza Nemuriwo are straightforward and relate to marriage as shown in the video.

“The whole idea of an accompanying video is to also give viewers the meaning of the song and that is why we waited for three months to release it. The single was done three months ago, but we waited for the accompanying video.

“It is unfortunate that there are some who believe there are hidden, dirty meanings in what I was singing, but that might be because such people allow dirty minds to influence their judgement. Given the richness in our languages, it is easy to get lost if you allow a dirty mind to influence judgement whereby every word might sound dirty.”

Well said, Jah Prayzah, but is that really so? I ask.

Artistes are becoming more creative in their lyrics formation and sometimes some of them set out to deliberately confuse the public with the subtle lyrics.
I did not comment when Zimdancehall star Jah Signal released Stonyeni last year because I did not want anyone to think that I was trying to pull him down. I also did not want to be blamed for criticising it if his single had flopped. Now that the single has been a huge success, I can freely comment about it now.

Again, although the artiste insists that Stonyeni simply means “Love”. I ask him why he did not use words such as “Rudo” or “Kudanana” in the song. The use of Stonyeni was a deliberate catch-word to confuse the public. The interpretation from the public remains different from what he says its real meaning is.

Say what you will about the simple lyrics to some of these mindless pop songs, but there is definitely an art to sneaking adult themes into hits that everyone from the age of eight to 80 will sing along to. If you can get your granny and your nephew to hit the dance floor and grind it out to Sadza neMuriwo or Stonyeni without them realising what’s going on, then good on you.

In a conversation with Adam Luthuli, the principal of United College of Education (UCE) in Bulawayo, last week, he told me this: “I was playing Sadza NeMuriwo in my car, then my daughter came in and said: ‘Dad, do you listen to Sadza NeMuriwo?’ I pretended that I was just playing something I couldn’t follow the lyrics to and then switched the CD player off. I was embarrassed. It seemed as if my daughter had already made an interpretation of the song,” he said.

The use of confusing, sometimes offensive, creative, vulgar or dirty lyrics did not begin in Shona songs alone. It is a universal phenomenon.

Can you imagine how the whole world responded to the late Gregory Isaac’s Night Nurse thinking that he was singing about a woman who is employed to take care of the sick at night. It was not until I met his close associate, Boyse Woolcock, who told me that Isaac was referring to cocaine which he took every night as his only remedy that would get him to sleep. The lyrics are subtle and confusing. According to Woolcock, Isaac did not want Babylon (the police) to know that he was singing about cocaine. So, he substituted the word cocaine with Night Nurse. Check this:

Tell her try your best just to make it quick
Whom attend to the sick
’Cause there must be something she can do
This heart is broken in two
Tell her it’s a case of emergency
There’s a patient by the name of Gregory
Night nurse
Only you alone can quench this Jah thirst
My night nurse, oh gosh
Oh the pain it’s getting worse
I don’t wanna see no doc
I need attendance from my nurse around the clock
‘Cause there’s no prescription for me
She’s the one, the only remedy
Night nurse
Only you alone can quench this Jah thirst
Night nurse
Only you alone can quench this Jah thirst
My night nurse
Oh the pain it’s getting worse
I hurt my love
And I’m sure no doctor can cure
Night nurse, night nurse

Isaac got away with it. Up to now very few people knew what he meant when he wrote that song.

A year ago, Nigerian singer, Kizz Daniel’s lyrics on his pop single Yeba opened him up to a backlash from a section of Nigerians on Twitter. He was accused of promoting sexual harassment of young girls in Nigeria through his lyrics on the track. Parents who listened to the track thought the song was vulgar and were embarrassed to play it in front of their children.

Consent has been a lightning rod for heated conversations on Twitter in Nigeria. For three years, there has been a continuous (and necessary) discussion about consent and sexual harassment.

Certain Nigerian songs have been pointed out as promoting vulgarity through the use of dirty lyrics. There has also been an outcry from the Nigerian public where they want all songs which promote the culture of sexual harassment to be banned from airplay and other public media in Nigeria.

In Zimdancehall, the use of lyrics which are vulgar and dirty is commonplace among some artistes. However, some of them are so creative and clever that the real meaning behind some songs gets hidden. Up to now I am still struggling to understand the meaning behind some of Enzo Ishall’s songs such as Kanjiwa, Muchiround and Chiita Kwacho. He is so clever and creative to the extent that he has managed to “fool” some of us.

It is disheartening to note how artistes with talent and the potential to strike it big are fast losing their credibility as they direct their energy towards vulgar and dirty lyrics with the hope that they will make hits. Quite a few youngsters seem to believe that in order to become a rising star in Zimdancehall, one only needs to find piercing vulgar words to sing about and that will sell lots of records. It works for some such as in the case of Jah Signal’s Stonyeni, but in most cases, that is an illusion.

And, honestly, it happens way more than you would think. You’re singing along in the car and stop to think, “that’s nice that Jah Prayzah has come up with Sadza Nemuriwo”. All of a sudden you realise as you sing along that what he is saying in the song is offensive. It’s dirty — super, super dirty. Here is a song that you thought was innocent, but is actually filthier than you realised.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see that most of the vulgar tunes are found in the rap genre. The hip-hop community has a long and storied history of writing erotic, explicit songs which are matched with throbbing bass lines that go into graphic detail. These are songs that you don’t want to hear if you’re riding in the car with your mom and certainly don’t want to get caught by your teacher humming in the middle of a mathematics class.

However, songwriters always argue that it is how the public interprets their songs which make them sound dirty or offensive, but the true meaning behind the writing is innocent.

I remember Oliver Mtukudzi being accused as being offensive to former president Robert Mugabe in his 2001 popular hit, Bvuma Wasakara. He argued that he never even thought of Mugabe when he wrote the song. He was referring the song to himself, but the public interpreted it differently. The choice of interpretation is always left with the public.


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