Zimdancehall stars hustle their way to the top – using their phones
WhatsApp music marketing is creating huge stars in Zimbabwe. Allanah, Freeman HKD and Winky D break down how pirating your own music can reap rewards
Inside a poorly lit makeshift studio in Kuwadzana, a township 15km west of central Harare, young chanters belt out infectious melodies.
They take turns to spit out their best dancehall bars under the watchful eye of the producer. The infectious harmonies, characterised by enchanting drum lines and instrumentation, make a typical Zimdancehall track.
As soon as the song is done, it is loaded into a phone and the journey to stardom begins. It is that simple.
Inside the studio are young boys who call themselves ‘WhatsApp Warriors’. They are the modern-day music distribution agents reaching millions with a click of a button. This way, things are faster, cheaper and more efficient. In no time the entire country will be singing along to new Zimdancehall tracks.
WhatsApp Warriors are credited for popularising one of Zimbabwe’s biggest genres, Zimdancehall. Its marketing is unique as it is done by unofficial distributors. They run the Zimdancehall streets.
With few radio stations interested in playing the mimicked local version of Jamaican dancehall, youths in high density suburbs devised a plan to get themselves heard. The largely informal musical industry has been struggling, with record labels collapsing due to economic collapse and investor fatigue. This has led to a shift in the music industry, giving young producers with a microphone and computer to produce new music for Zimbabwe. But the musicians did not have formal distribution channels. This gave rise to WhatsApp music marketing.
WhatsApp is one of the most used online communication platforms in Zimbabwe for both urban and rural dwellers, with mobile phone companies offering affordable data packages for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
This is how it works: requests on social media are turned into a database of thousands of music-lovers who follow a particular artist. The contacts are then grouped to create a broadcast list, and music is sent out, making songs go viral in a day or two. Dozens of songs are churned out every day – with artists happy to pirate their own music.
Zimbabwe does not run a conventional music industry. Instead, WhatsApp Warriors have become the buffer of new music, providing the latest songs to DJs and the public. These music promoters spend their day glued on mobile phones, administering thousands of groups around the country. They have become a powerful force, pushing and promoting music, videos, and shows.
Whatsapp Warriors are deeply rooted in the emergence of Zimdancehall in 2013, an adaptation of the Jamaican dancehall, sung in local languages, mainly the Shona dialect, grew to become one of the most listened to genres in the country.
Hundreds of artists have released thousands of songs since and they had to devise a way to reach the market. With record shops hounded out of business by the emergence of technology, local artists had to devise a plan. Pirating their own music – with lyrics of ghetto struggles and social commentary – was the only way to success.
To get the song faster to millions of Zimbabweans, the Whatsapp Warriors have created a network to flood the market with new Zimdancehall songs. When an artist announces the release of a song the Whatsapp Warriors send the songs to different WhatsApp groups as broadcast messages, and in no time a song would have gone viral.
While older Zimdancehall artists relied on radio to market music, focus has now shifted to online distribution of music, free of charge. WhatsApp marketing has become a critical tool, boosting the genre and attracting more fans.
The emergence of social media platforms came as bane to some but boon to others. Known by his fans as Freeman HKD, Sylvester Chizanga attests to how WhatsApp has boosted his music career, which began a decade ago in Bindura, a mining town near Harare.
“As a musician, the pandemic has affected me negatively. To make money to finance and support band members, we need cash and most of our cash we get from live shows and appearances. Covid-19 has forced us to cancel shows, and we had to make uncomfortable adjustments to things that we were used to,” Freeman said.
“We have been managing by hosting paid live streams performances on social media platforms like Facebook. But WhatsApp has been our major distribution platform. It has helped us reach more fans, who get the music out faster,” he added.
Freeman is one of the most established Zimdancehall Artists in Zimbabwe. The former butcher boy and truck driver retraced his career path back to the time when music sharing was restricted to Bluetooth.
“My introduction to music fame was with the hit ‘Joina City’, which was well Introduced to the public by the usage of the platform Bluetooth – and that birthed the real ‘Dancehall Doctor’ that you have now. So I totally understand the power of these sharing streams. In lockdown, we had to rely on the videos sent by our fans and family all over the world just to stay relevant and consistent. WhatsApp was very pivotal in the distribution of our fresh songs,” Freeman added.
Wallace Chirimuko, popularly known as Winky D, agrees that social media platforms have helped increase the artist’s visibility.
Although Winky D has grown to become an international artist, with several awards to his credit, WhatsApp has remained one of his major distribution platforms. His manager, Jonathan Banda said while the Covid-19 pandemic had affected incomes, social media platforms continue to be beneficial to their brand. “There was no income. The pandemic negatively impacted us, but social networks brought a huge benefit and visibility,” he said.
Zimdancehall vocalist Tiny Machivenyika, affectionately monikered Allanah, has found WhatsApp to be a useful tool in promoting her music. She rose to fame after her cover of the popular song ‘Mebo’ went viral.
“WhatsApp has been very helpful because there are times when you don’t have a YouTube channel. You use your WhatsApp to send your music to your fans. We also create broadcast lists and WhatsApp groups consisting of your die-hard fans who always appreciate your music. It has been very good for music,” Allanah, real name Tiny Machivenyika, said. “Now that I have a YouTube channel, I use the WhatsApp platform to promote my YouTube content.”
Plot Mhako is a music, critic and distributor on Whatsapp who has helped dancehall artists market their music.
He is driven by a desire to be part of a positive narrative about Zimbabwe that will inspire generations to come. “It’s a practice in Zimdancehall for artists to use WhatsApp as a distribution mechanism as it helps to spread the music so artists would make money from live shows,” he said. “But this is not viable and hurts the industry the most, especially in the face of Covid-19, in a time of a very limited number of shows.”
Although there are no figures to show how much artists make from online sales, a UNESCO report shows that 34% of Zimbabweans today consume music primarily through streaming, and another 23% primarily through WhatsApp transfers. The report shows the importance of sharing platforms such as WhatsApp in the growth of online listenership which is also growing as the network coverage in Zimbabwe continues to increase.
With WhatsApp sharing continuing to boost the popularity of music among Zimdancehall artists, it can make overnight music stars. Until the whole world listens to their music, the Zimbabwean Zimdancehall artists will continue the hustle.
What’s so good about this?
Creating stars daily, the WhatsApp-driven music has given hope to many youths and is fast becoming pop culture in Zimbabwe, with some of the musicians declared national heroes.
Meet the writer
Nyasha Chingono is an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist and writer whose work has been published in The Guardian and CNN Africa Digital. He has been widely referenced in academic journals and writings, making him one of the fastest rising journalists in Zimbabwe. Chingono has written extensively on the country’s growing drug problem, which led to a massive crackdown on dealers. An authoritative voice on the media landscape, and passionate about helping the next generation of writers in Zimbabwe, he provides commentary for BBC Newsday (BBC World Service) and various newspapers in South Africa. Follow him on @NyashChingono.