Let's begin with the meaning of the word chimurenga. In Shona, the main language spoken in Zimbabwe, it means insurrection. In the history of Zimbabwe, there have been two chimurengas. The first happened between 1896 and 1897, the second between 1966 and 1979. Both were against the British colonizers. Both were bloody. And both involved an interaction between the real world and the spirit world.
These insurrections inspire Tendai Maraire's Seattle-based hiphop group Chimurenga Renaissance—but before we get into that, let's examine an example drawn from popular culture of the spiritual/real connection that chimurenga describes. Recall the gripping sequence near the end of the movie Star Wars. The hero, a young Luke Skywalker, is flying a T-65 X-wing starfighter in a trench of the Death Star, which is preparing to blast a whole planet into nothingness. Skywalker's mission is to fire two "proton bombs" into a small hole that leads down to the Death Star's reactor. This is its only vulnerable spot. This is the only way the rebels can stop the empire's dream of total galactic power. To make matters more difficult, Skywalker is being chased by three of the empire's twin ion engines (TIE) fighters. As he approaches the small hole, he gets his target computer ready. As he looks in its little screen, which has a digital representation of the trench (it looks a little like the geometric world of the old-school Atari game Battlezone), he suddenly hears the voice of dead Obi-Wan Kanobi, the father of the rebellion. The ghost tells Luke to use "the force." Luke thinks for a moment, turns off the computer, and uses the force when firing the torpedoes into the very small hole. The spiritual advice turns out to be good as gold. The Death Star explodes.
The moment of chimurenga is when the living Luke hears the voice of the dead Obi-Wan—chimurenga opens the world of the living to that of the dead. And it's not just the dead appearing to the living, but also the living turning to the dead to ask for assistance. The dead can see things that the living can't. The dead can scan the future horizons above the confines of time. If the spirits do not call you, then you must call them. This is why the title of Chimurenga Renaissance's debut album, which was released in March of this year, is riZe vadZimu riZe, which means: Rise, spirits, rise. It is a call to the ancestors, a call to awaken them from eternity, a call for their help during a time of trouble (or what the Zulus call mfecane). But why is Tendai Maraire, who is both a master of traditional Zimbabwean music and an accomplished American rapper, asking the spirits to rise and guide him? What war is he fighting? And didn't the second chimurenga end in victory in 1979 (the first ended in defeat in 1897)? This is where things get interesting.
What is expressed in track after gorgeously polyphonic track on riZe vadZimu riZe, which features raps from Tendai's partner in Shabazz Palaces, Palaceer Lazaro (Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler), is not just a full commitment to the inspiration, the ideals, and the songs of freedom of the second chimurenga, but a call to struggle against the forces of imperialism, racism, and Western cultural domination. Indeed, the people who oppressed blacks in the 1890s and the late 1960s through 1970s are the same who are oppressing blacks today. They have not changed. The war is not over just because Zimbabwe attained black rule. What's missing from Tendai's work in general is the moment of postcolonialism. It never happened. Listen to the raps on riZe vadZimu riZe closely. What are they saying? Colonialism never died. It is not even a zombie. It is alive and well.
This is indeed a radical concept of black liberation in the 21st century—the struggles of the past are nowhere near over. We still need guidance from the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda (the first chimurenga's Obi-Wan Kenobi), we still need to defeat Cecil Rhodes (Zimbabwe's Darth Vader) and the empire, which has not lost a bit of its grip on power. And as the chimurenga involves the world of life and the world of the dead, riZe vadZimu riZe involves the music of Tendai's ancestors (imbira music) and the music of his time (hiphop). Forward with the revolution.