The Science of Friend-zone – A Zimbabwean Playlist (Part One)

Hands up if you have ever reached for the forbidden fruit above your range and crashlanded in friendzone! Trust, bro, you may be off-target but you are not out-of-play. Although street philosophers say you should pluck your range, we all know that love is the winged sharpshooter who knows no height. And then there will always be friend-zone, the runway before love takes flight. 

By Onai Mushava

In Zimbabwe, silent diplomacy is frowned on in the wisdom of senior celebrities. Elder socialite Mwendaz weDrip singularly concludes: “Besties do not exist,” while sungura guitarist Senior Lecturer addresses the matter with irreducible simplicity: “Love her who loves you and curve her who curves you.” 

Still, pro-friendzone philosopher Slavoj Zizek insists that no target is out-of-play. After all, what sexualizes desire is not reaching its target but the very process of repeatedly failing to reach the target. Whereas a wild animal moves on from a desired partner, Zizek explains, after repeatedly failing to get her, to a more modest substitute, a human animal pleasurably picks his wounds to the point of being defined by his relationship to the impossible target.

Nobody has ever really concluded what love is but Zimbabwean music comes down to two schools of thought: the street philosophers and the old romantics. The street philosophers are social realists and manipulators of the Gram. As lovers they are players, and as musicians their genres – mostly dancehall and hip hop – are known as the game. Their philosophical gestures come from one Jacques Derrida who says to never treat an artificial situation as though it were natural. 

Old romantics are pro-friendzone. Where street philosophers rush in, old romantics walk like they are stepping on eggshells. Because silence is also love. Time finds meaning in moments and moments find shape in words. But words reason and reduce. Words split and sediment what in silence is wireless, boundless and timeless purity. 

Old romantics are more alchemy than algorithm. Street philosophers are economic realists but old romantics are nerds, monks, weirdos and writer-types who will probably never learn to pair yearn with earn. 

If you killed your teenage study hours signing off letters with Chamhembe dedications, making low-key passes at the sisters in autobooks and collecting the Trends magazine, you will agree that Silver Jubilee was the Golden Age of Friendzone. Our two-part playlist starts with Leonard Dembo’s double entry, picks up Poptain and Jah Prayzah in lockdown, hits the Silver Jubilee peg with Afrika Revenge and Pax Afro and shuffles back to the 1980s for New Tutankhamen and Michael Lannas. I mean friendzone is the only business that is longer than GNU negotiations so yeah.

“Chidhiidhii” by Leonard Dembo (1985)

Love’s opposite is not hate. There is the black and white of love and indifference and then there is the grey of love and hate. Forcing the hand of love rouses hate; ignoring the gestures of love equally rouses hate. Whereas indifference is what remains out-of-play, love and hate are seamlessly one bloodstream. The purpose of friendzone is to displace love and hate to a virtual field safely remote-controlled by flirting and backtracking. 

Leonard Dembo’s songs often demonstrate the unresolvable precarity of love and hate. His love songs and nostalgia songs darkly twist into promises like: “Chenjera ndave mhandu yako” (Beware, I am now your enemy), “Ndichatosiyana newe kuti vafare ava” (I will leave you so they can be happy), “Ndozviziva une utsinye iwe” (I know you are cruel) on “Ruvarashe”, “Nzungu Ndamenya” and “Thulisile”.

Back to Dembo’s first friendzone song: “Zviri mumoyo chidhiidhii kuteta hundi moyo uri kumakoto,” the proverbial bird which modestly pecks chaff while its heart is with the grain impatiently twists into: “Zviri mumoyo, mumwe wangu, rimwe zuva uchandivenga” (It’s hidden in the heart, my friend, one day you will hate me). 

But why this switch from friendzone to hate? Because the only way to graduate from friendzone is to risk disappointment, conflict, even hate and losing it all, whereas friendzone is the safe distance from unknownable and unresolvable Otherness. 

“Conflicts are not destructive; they have a constructive side,” anti-friendzone philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues. “It is only from conflicts that stable relationships and identities ensue. A person grows and matures by working through conflict.” Courage, bro, life begins with an L. 

“Kukura Hakutane” by Leonard Dembo (1990)

A million musicians have called love a rose but Zimbabwe’s greatest musician calls it a waspflower. A waspflower, known as “gwenyakwenya” in Shona and “buffalo beans” in English-English, blooms harmlessly in full color until a random fool reaches out to smell it.  He goes his way and the prickly pods bloom on indifferently but an Event has intervened inbetween. The fool will never forget the waspflower, burnt senseless by its brute waspish powder.

Both Dembo’s friendzone songs, “Chidhiidhii” (1985) and “Kukura Hakutane” (1990), painfully dance around the waspflower motif. The lament, “Iriyo nhamo yandigunzvisa gwenyakwenya” (It’s poverty that has made me touch the waspflower), in “Kukura Hakutane” is repeated from “Chidhiidhii”: “Zviri mumoyo, gwenyakwenya randagunzva, hama, randivava” (It’s all in the heart, the waspflower I have touched, my kin, has burnt me.” Falling in love, Alain Badiou warns us, is an Event where falling is injurious as such.

The beloved does not ask to be loved, Sandman novelist Neil Gaiman is cited by Zizek admitting his hatred of love. “They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart.”

The waspflower is an accidental encounter with impossible love. Dembo’s complexity is at play in “Kukura Hakutane” as he switches from the childhood crush who got away (“Mwana akakura ndichiona, nhasi ave kushaina nevanomuda”) to hard times in Zimbabwe (“nhamo yedu tiri vaviri… ini neZimbabwe”). In a kombi to Chitungwiza, a conductor emotively explained to us that the childhood crush in the opening verse is the good life Dembo forgot to chase when he was younger. A widespread personification, in fact, from Marshall Munhumumwe to Tocky Vibes.

But it’s not unusual to spend half the term of your natural life with your head buried in books, supposedly chasing the good life, while all the dream girls from back-then-when-it-was-all-so-simple disappear from view. Dembo’s philosophical gesture is to confirm to himself that poverty is not a personal affliction but a human condition. “Ini neZimbabwe” (me and Zimbabwe), “vatema nevachena” (black and white) and “vanhu tose” (all humankind): these ones all live and love in poverty’s radius.

If poverty is a human condition, why is it still reason for not shooting your shot? Tragically, by the time Dembo figures this out, his waspflower is permanently nowhere in sight.

“More” by Poptain ft. Anita Jaxson (2021)

What is a music movement without a power couple – Nicholas Zakaria and Maggie Gweshe, Andy Brown and Chioniso Maraire, Charles and Olivia Charamba, Roki and Pauline, or Soul Jah Love and Bounty Lisa? We live in the highbrow era of new-school Zimdancehall (shoutout to Nutty O). Poptain just had to make this statement by sneaking out of brotherzone to shoot his shot at his impossibly beautiful long-time collaborator, Anita. In the course of trading verses too! 

If cultural products are informed by the economic relations of their generation, as Karl Marx put it, what does the shy-making intensity of Poptain and Anita’s song tell us about our generation? The business partners open their song with jealous verses about the other party possibly seeing someone. Their solution is shutting the social world outside and growing their work relationship to be “more.” “Tikawirirana tinoshanda minana” (If we commit to each other, we will work miracles) the couple realise soon enough to do the right thing. 

In our era of free-range creatives, work-life balance and empire-building means copy-pasting Her back-slanting business signature onto your marriage certificate.

“Ndokuudza Sei?” by Mafriq (2004) 

This 2004 ZBC video of the year evokes friendzone innocence so much so that its pervese undercurrent is mostly ignored. Shy-guy artist-types alternately played by DJ Discord, the painter, and Tunga T, the lyricist, in the video suffer from the rare condition I have called the Orpheus Complex elsewhere in my poetry. “After Orpheus turns around to cast a glance at Euridice and thus loses her, the Divinity consoles him – true, he has lost her as a flesh-and-blood person, but from now on, he will be able to discern her beautiful features everywhere, in the stars in the sky, in the glistening of the morning dew,” Zizek traces the Complex to its source.

“Orpheus is quick to accept the narcissistic profit of this reversal: he becomes enraptured with the poetic glorification of Euridice that lies ahead of him; to put it succinctly, he no longer loves HER, what he loves is the vision of HIMSELF displaying his love for her,” adds the philosopher of unhappy love.

To put it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-speak, DJ Discord and Tunga lose the Woman because they are diverted by the concept. Discord can no longer see past the paint to the flesh and blood. Y’all just don’t pay patient attention to Tunga’s rap: “My only motivation is this music” and his stuttering ad libs, “Ndoda kungoti Chamhembe,” after running half the planet Hallmark-style to recover his lost inspiration (for that’s what Woman is to artist: an unsuspecting extension of his ego, a masterpiece-motive.)

“Boi Boi” by Jah Prayzah (2021)

Self-sabotage shelters fantasy’s empire from the moment of truth. The shy guy needs a rich weave of excuses to stop himself from acting, hence stay immersed in his lucid dreams forever. But we only tell ourselves excuses in order to believe them . When the liar can no longer lie to himself, he switches from lame self-deception: “Kabhasikoro kandikanyira kandikanyira kakadambuka carrier” – as if a broken carrier ever stopped a bicycle journey – to dangerous self-sabotage: “Ndakafumira kwenyu kuchinaya ndikarasika pamharadzano” (I visited you in the morning rain and lost my way at the crossroads). Jah Prayzah’s heart tells him that the torn carrier is a cock-and-bull story so he sets himself up for self-defeating real-life situations just to stay free from acting. 

“Chechete” by Tongai Moyo (1996)

Tongai Moyo’s first classic, in some way allusive to Dembo’s “Chitekete”, disapprovingly anticipates Mwendamberi weDrip’s pluck-your-range ethic. Dhewa’s beloved is not just the fruit at the top of the tree but this tree is on top of the mountain, and, as if matters are not already impossible enough, this mountaintop is slippery and unattainable. “Chechete, mwana akanaka, ndasvikako ndaneta, wondipawo mvura yekunwa,”

Is Dhewa fantasizing about friendship as a bridge over class difference?

“Pahombe, pahombe, pahombe pauri; vane mari vanokuona ndinonzwa hana yangu kurova” (Your position is unattainable, the moneyed see you and my heart is unsettled),” Dhewa laments. But having admitted to economic intimidation, he turns around in another early classic, “Dhiya Ndimirire”, to conclude that if Lady Independence intimidates him, the same intimidation eliminates wolf-men, after all: “Ndinofara, mumwe wangu, zvaunoda iwe, vamwe varume havangazvigone.” (I am happy, my own, for what you demand; other men are not man enough for you). To shoot your shot at the Queen, you got to be the man in the room, in fact, the only man in a crowded room.

*“Ndoda” by Rocqui (2005)* 

When Her “current” grows in favor, you deform into the ghost in the room. That’s because the friend-in-the-wings is the opposition party who is only ever defined in contrast to the incumbent. When the “current” drives the beloved to desperation, the friend, as in Ronnie Huni’s “Mazuva Ose” (2004), sneaks shoulder-first into view. 

It’s not enough to have a personal agenda to push: “Mudiwa, ndogarokufunga kuti ndokuda zvakanyanya” (Love, I always think of you, how I love you some much). You must pick your moment by carefully diarizing the mis/adventures of the power couple: “Iwe une mumwe asingakoshese rudo rwako iwe; zvandibata” (You have someone else but he doesn’t value your love; I am touched.”

If you consider that Ba Sky’s friendzone song scored him first wedding kiss, maybe what counts, after all, is not the formula but the endgame.

“Ndinonyara” by Nox (2012)

In the 2012 documentary, Marley, Bunny Wailer explains the man of mankind’s loverboy secret. Bob was successful with women because he was shy, Bunny strangely explains. Friendzone is a backtracking game. Its shy trivialities, the likes of which Nox makes up on “Ndinonyara”, are not tactless innocence. To hear Zizek tell it, you only increase your depth of field by withdrawing into a strategic distance. “This holds not only for politics, but also for sex, not only for thinking about sex but for sex itself, which always relies on a minimal withdrawal, a withdrawal which is not a retreat into passivity but perhaps the most radical act of them all.” (Shy-ape emoji. Winky-winky emoji).

“Facebook” by Winky D (2011)

The temptation is to direct the friendzone outward, by turning your entire friendlist into a friendzone, rather than inward, by maturing through the disappointments and conflicts of one friendzone. “With online dating,” a columnist laments, “the odds are good but the goods are odd.” The pleasures of Facebook are enumerated on Winky D’s 2011 song of the same title: “Twakanyora kuti single ndichigetta, vakanyora kuti marriage ndodeleta, vari mumarelationship ndongogreeta, asi kakandidaira zvangu zvaita, ndotoziva pane zvinogona kuitika.” The internet is an endless field of choice. But endlessness of choice cuts both ways and boy does it burn! With the endlessness comes the surplus toxicity. Roki eventually gets to empty his chest at vimbai51@gmail.com: “Your profile, girl, got so many boys, I bet uri kukwara nechoice.”

“Shamwari” by Leonard Mapfumo (2006)

Leonard Mapfumo introduces another dynamic to friendzone with regrets repeated over the bridge: “Chimoko ichi pandakachiona, ha shaa, dai ndakangochitaurira unoketa, takanatsogara pasi takanatso… tisina kunyepera ushamwari.” I will give up my friendzone for anyone who proves to me that this confession is the first time NaMapfumo opens up to someone about his love interest. When love touches you, it demands to be confessed. Friendzone practitioners get past this difficult requirement by talking about their love to everyone else except the beloved. But this manner of talking about love substitutes talk of love for work of love.

“Wanga” by Afrika Revenge (2004)

Willis Wataffi has styled Wanga, the culture-shifting term he has since patented, as the abbreviation of: Without Assets Not Going Anywhere. Have you ever been unemployed long enough to finally figure out that the idea is not starting a romance but sustaining it? A man must show himself to be a man at various stations of the cross before there can be any dream of love as love.

The love song which dwells on the singer’s unhappy consciousness rather the beloved arises from the economic field in which love must be validated. In Lovemore Majaivana’s “Ngivulele” (1979), “amathamsanqa awemsebenzi” must come first before “ukuthath’ khiwa” registers. In Simon Chimbetu’s “Magobo” (1997), the lovelorn jobless graduate must similarly validate himself with plans and excuses. 

Byung-Chul Han dreams of love as the gift of the Other rather than the achievement of the Seeker or the One. “Finding success validates the One through the Other,” Han thinks through the blindside.“The Other is robbed of otherness and degrades into a mirror of the One – a mirror affirming the latter’s image… 

“Eros, in contrast, makes possible experience of the Other’s otherness, which leads the One out of a narcissistic inferno… A singular process of weakening lays hold of the subject of love—which, however, is accompanied by a feeling of  strength. This feeling is not the achievement of the One, but the gift of the Other.”

“Moyo Wangu Uri Kuchema” by Talking Drum (1989)

Michael Lannas’s album is full of thoughtful ungrammaticalities and the opening refrain, “Moyo wangu uri kuchema,” is not exception. Love is a bird to be charmed from the distance – tactless steps put it to flight. When you score a place in her friendzone, you speak to the beloved with your eyes only (“I have been looking you for a very, very long time”) and cry with the heart if you must because the mouth is the bird cage that you must keep locked at all costs. 

The telepathy theory is expanded on in “In Your Eyes”, a Talking Drum classic from the same album. If “your eyes touch the heart of me… move the soul of me… look into me me… see right through me,” what need do we still have for words? Friendzone is the place.

“Yeukai” by Leonard Zhakata (1995)

Leonard Zhakata’s “Yeukai” is a dream from heaven. The beloved’s slight frame, light skin, slim face are random features that gain sudden significance in the heavely light of the dream. The dream vanishes time and introduces the illusion of a beginning.  Love retrospectively contaminates the frame for naming reasons to love. “I do not fall in love for precise reasons (her lips, her smile  …) – it is because I already love her that her lips, etc. attract me,” Zizek imagines. A dream Event is a totalizing frame by which life has to be newly organized around the beloved.

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