The tags ‘classic’ and ‘timeless’ are thrown around with reckless abandon in the arts space. This trend has become even more rampant in the past decade or two, with the proliferation of social media, where everyone has a platform from which to shout. Crowning a ‘classic,’ or simply deciding what constitutes good music, is an unforgiving task. First, art appreciation is inherently subjective.
There are people who believe that there is no such thing as a good country song, and some who view ZImDancehall in its entirety as a blight on the music scene. How do you even begin a conversation there? Secondly, evaluating something as having stood the test of time requires, well, time. Are we willing to wait 30 years to see if our favorite song of the moment is, indeed, timeless? These are the questions that further complicate an already polarizing topic.
It is with full understanding of these complexities that I hereby say, unequivocally, that the song ‘Country Boy’ by Innocent Utsiwegota, alongside Major E and Potato, is a bonafide classic. To appreciate its timeless legacy, we are going to take a look at its impact upon release; its impact on the careers of Innocent and peers; its cultural contributions to the larger Zimbabwean music fraternity, and the peculiar ways it has re-emerged onto our cultural purview in recent times.
Enter Country Boy (1997)
There is no other way of saying it: the song tore through the music scene like a wrecking ball.
To understand the appeal of the song at the time, it is important to understand the sociopolitical and musical moment into which it was released. The advent of Zimbabwe in 1980 had brought with it euphoria as well as the promise of equality and opportunity. This optimism was embodied in the mass migration of young people from the rural areas to give life in the big city a shot. And for that first decade, city life looked like it may just deliver. By the mid 90s though, that optimism was fast evaporating. The implementation of ESAP, combined with corruption and incompetence in the nation’s leadership, had turned what dreams many had into nightmares. So when Innocent croons:
“I lived in the country, all my life (Oh mama)
I came to the city, hoping to find work (Oh mama)
Now I’m so lonely, nobody knows me, (Oh mama)
I gotta go back home, where I belong,:
It is a sentiment that would have resonated with many young people caught up in the increasingly treacherous rat race. At the turn of the century, as the economy collapsed and multitudes of Zimbabweans made the great Diaspora trek, the song adopted a slightly different resonance. Instead of the rural/urban divide, there were now thousands of Zimbabweans looking back at their motherland wistfully, reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ and confronting the daunting task of living away from home. The sentiment was the same as it was in ‘Country Boy’— only the arena had changed.
Musically, the scene in Zimbabwe was going through a transition as well in the 1990s. While Reggae had filtered through the airwaves, especially after Bob Marley’s Independence performance, the 1990s had brought about a shift towards the more Dancehall styles emanating from the Caribbean.
The likes of Shabba Ranks, Terror Fabulous, and the iconic due of Chaka Demus and Plies were all the rage. These foreign-influenced urban youthful genres (RnB, Dancehall, Hip-hop) had also been on the rise in Zimbabwe, as acts such as Peace of Ebony and Fortune Muparutsa laid claim to a landscape hitherto dominated by Sungura and other more traditional genres. Country Boy also comes out a few years before the symbiotic birth of the ‘75% Local” mandate and the Urban Grooves moment. In many ways, then, the song sat perfectly in that transitional gap ushering in the sounds that would define the early years of the 21st century.
The Country Boys
The Enduring Impact
The very moment ZimDancehall began continues to be the source of much debate (although, admittedly, that picture gets clearer each day—these conversations are very important!) DJ Fantan took some heat a few years ago when he made the claim that Chillspot Studios proliferated riddim, and thus ZimDancehall, culture in Zimbabwe. In response, much has been made of the mid-2000s work of Jusa Dementor and Slaggy Yut in popularizing the genre and, somewhere between the two of them, coining the portmanteau that became ZimDancehall. By then, of course, Zimbabwean music inspired by Jamaican Dancehall music had been making its mark on the airwaves for years already: under the umbrella of urban grooves immediately before then, and perhaps just reggae dancehall in the 1990s.
I would want to go out on a limb here and say ‘Country Boy’ was the first dancehall juggernaut tune to tear up the Zimbabwean airwaves. Would want to—because I am not entirely sure. Perhaps the work Fortune Muparutsa did before then could be classified as Dancehall. Perhaps, in the thinly documented history of urban music, I have forgotten (or outright just do not know) a straight banger that fits this criterion: and that’s okay (let us know in the comments!)
In many ways then, it can be argued that the success of Country Boy was not only pivotal in paving the way for the Urban Grooves movement: it foreshadowed the advent of ZimDancehall: a genre that would define urban Zimbabwe throughout the 2010s.
With the latter, the precedence was not only sonic, it was also thematic. In an era when foreign-influenced urban youth genres focused heavily on themes of love and/or aspirational ‘flexing’, Country Boy was a lament born of the difficulties of living in urban Zimbabwe. Again, this theme would grow to be definitive of the ZImDancehall era a whole decade (and beyond) later.
Innocent Utsiwegota went on to open Country Boy Records which was one of the pioneering independent labels that gave the urban sound and new voices an opportunity. The record label would later set up a music store at Copa Cabana in Harare which allowed emerging artists a chance to sell their music. The likes of Langton Deo, Mcdonald Chidavaenzi, Dino Mudondo and many others were examples of success stories from Country Boy records.
The Songs that Won’t Go Away
What inspired this sojourn down memory lane was the coincidental emergence of two fire songs that referenced Country Boy late in 2021. ‘Trouble in the City’, a lesser celebrated (but powerful nevertheless) tune off Nutty O’s award-winning Mustard Seed album samples the gravelly opening line of Potato’s verse on the 90s hit, “chekutanga ini ndapinda MuHarare…” to incredible effect. In December, the Mutare-based duo Diamond Boyz dropped the hometown anthem, ‘Diamond Boy’, whose chorus and sonic rhythms generally pay homage to ‘Country Boy.’
That the song has resurfaced twenty five years is, in itself, astounding. The fact that it has been revived by artists under thirty is even more telling. Nutty would have been five or so when the tune dropped. Sparxx of Diamond Boyz (whose brother and other half of the duo, D-Bwoy, credits for one day mindlessly humming the tune and put in motion the series of events that led to penning and recording the song) would have been even younger then. That they would feel compelled to resurrect this tune which, frankly, they could be excused for not even knowing/remembering speaks to its infectious and timeless nature.
Beyond just ‘Country Boy’ though, the song’s revival in this way makes an important contribution to the nascent but growing culture of sampling and referencing classic Zimbabwean songs by contemporary urban artists.
D-Bwoy of Diamond Boyz explained to me how:
If you look at Nigeria, already vana Wizkid and Burna Boy- they’re keeping that old
sound alive, and we’re still jumping to it today. There’s nothing new under the sun! They’re keeping Fela alive. So I just wish our legends would be more open to granting the rights to these young artists: let them play with the classics and see what good comes of it!
The hope, of course, is that when it is done, it is done well—and these two songs are as beautiful a tribute to the classic tune as there could be.