It’s hard to pick a favourite Oliver Mtukudzi song. After all, for an artist who produced over 60 albums and countless classics, singling out a single one almost feels disrespectful to his craftsmanship. However, Svovi Yangu has a special place in my heart. It was one of the first love songs I listened to when I was mature enough to understand the gravity of the emotion.
Hearing Mtukudzi sing of the depth of his devotion, his sorrow at being away from the love of his life, how her presence filled his life with purpose, struck a chord with me. It was rare for me to hear a man — a Shona man at that — openly declare how much he loved and needed his wife. I made a decision that no matter what, Oliver Mtukudzi would play that song at my wedding during my first dance.
I’m not alone in this: many people on social media and in my circle of friends harboured the hope of having the man himself perform at their weddings. Having Oliver Mtukudzi performing one of his famous ballads at your big day would be unforgettable. Not only that, his music discography is one of the few guaranteed to get everybody up and dancing, from conservative grandmothers and aunts, to 20-somethings and even teenagers. Cutting across generational lines and staying relevant no matter which new artist was topping the charts, Oliver Mtukudzi is nothing short of a cultural icon.
In a career that began in the 1970s during colonial Rhodesia, Mtukudzi’s music electrified black youth in townships. Alongside Thomas Mapfumo, another musical icon from Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi came to symbolise the sound and hope of black liberation. He even sang Zimbabwe’s national anthem at Independence in 1980. His tall, slender frame, topped with a small afro, was an instantly recognisable silhouette in music videos, together with his signature guitar. Out of that great musical period of the 1980s that produced a class of superstar musicians, Oliver Mtukudzi stood out.
It wasn’t just the music. In a conservative society where societal problems are spoken of in hushed tones or written off as non-issues, Mtukudzi used the power of his music to spread a message. He confronted domestic violence and abusive fathers. He spoke of the hardships that many poor Zimbabweans faced in an unstable economy. He sang of how powerless he felt in the face of immense sorrow. He campaigned for awareness on HIV/AIDS and the rights of AIDS orphans as far back as the 1980s. He wrote the original song for Neria, a movie that focused on the treatment of widows in Zimbabwean society. Beyond making songs for happy occasions and good memories, Mtukudzi used his music to speak to issues that were bigger than him. His music sparked conversations. His music made people stop and think. His music brought ugly realities into the spotlight.
But it would be a mistake to think that Mtukudzi was Zimbabwe’s icon alone. Although he was proudly Zimbabwean and one of our most prominent cultural ambassadors, Mtukudzi is an example of the beauty of inter-cultural collaboration and co-operation. He worked with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, DJ Tira, Ringo and Joss Stone. His music was heard in the streets of Harare and in coffee shops in New York. My old roommate from eSwatini always told me how much she wanted to see Mtukudzi perform. Although she didn’t fully understand his lyrics, she loved his music and sang along to the few words she knew.
I never got to see Oliver Mtukudzi in concert, but his music is a big part of my life. It’s a big part of Zimbabwe’s life. In a country of upheaval and instability, Oliver Mtukudzi stood as a constant we could rely on. Even when things were at their worst, he never left his country or his people. Even when he was unwell, he never stopped making music. In a country of social, political and cultural divisions, Mtukudzi was a unifier. For Zimbabweans outside the country, he was a reminder of the home they left behind. He was the sound of our joy, our grief, our weekend get togethers and trips to work. He was the song of my sister’s wedding, a song handpicked by my brother in-law. As soon as he heard Mtukudzi’s music, he fell in love. And even now, thousands of kilometres away from Zimbabwe, he’s playing Mtukudzi’s music in honour of a man he never met and whose nationality he does not share, but whose music added something special to his life
Oliver Mtukudzi’s music has been Zimbabwe’s companion from the dawn of independence. His death has shocked and deeply hurt us as a country. Oliver Mtukudzi, the man who sang our national anthem as Zimbabwe’s flag rose in 1980, is an indelible part of the country’s story. I hope he knew how much he meant to all of us. I hope he knew how much we will miss him. And I hope he knew that we will never forget him.