The Making of a ZimDancehall Elder Statesman: A Review of David & Goliath

Over the past week, as I gathered my thoughts on the David and Goliath project for this review, I was amused at the realization that Freeman’s breakout single, ‘Joina City’ dropped more than a decade ago now. The song was equal parts Dancehall brilliance and playful (I mean, where in Joina City would you spend a “single night’? What you up to, Dancehall Doctor? haha) Since then, the chanter has cemented his legacy among the most prolific Zimdancehall, nay, overall artists of the past decade.

By Shingirai Mavima

Consistent releases, versatility in sound, collaborations across genres and levels of prominence, as well as extensive writing credits ought to have put his place in the pantheon of his generation beyond doubt.

Despite his prowess, Freeman has always been a “whatabout” guy in ZimDancehall GOAT conversations, at least in my experience. What do I mean? Well, you ask a group of mangoma fans who the great ZimDancehall artists of all time are, chances are Freeman may miss out on many top three lists, for example. Winky D is of course a shoo-in, often followed by the immortal Souljah Love and, until recently, Killer T and Seh Calaz.The conversation is then almost always followed by “what about Freeman?” often leading many to reconsider their lists.

But indeed, what about Freeman? Is it because the Mbare cats have a particularly populist appeal? Is it because fans feel he lacks the mystical or sociopolitical nature of Winky? Has the ‘Gallis’ tag made him more appealing to the ladies than the Ghetto yuts who crown Dancehall kings? Nevertheless, through many a multi-million view video and chart-topper, through many a genre-bending hit and didactic anthem, the Dancehall Doctor has proven himself, against the odds, at each go-around. If only there was a biblical metaphor to encapsulate his giant-slaying acts. Alas!

The David and Goliath album feels like a coronation of sorts. A well-polished entity, the project sees Freeman combining many of the sonic and thematic tropes that we have grown to love over the years with the cool and venerable positionally that come with being a veteran of the game that has nothing left to prove: but still wants to. 

In songs like ‘Chitsike’ and ‘Ndibvunzewo’, you get the painstaking pursuit of self-reflection of yesteryear’s ‘Zvakaipa Dai Ndarega.’ The title track, ‘‘David and Goliath’ falls within the same pocket as other motivational anthems such as ‘Navo’ and ‘Kusanganisa.’ ‘Vakomana veDrip’ can be argued to be reminiscent of other cautionary tales directed at young women, such as ‘Musiye.’  In songs like ‘Yeah Yeah’, you get the doctor’s trademark levity and, indeed, there’s a healthy dose for the ladies as well—as represented by the four collaborations on the album. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Freeman project without football metaphors, would it now? (I’ve counted three thus far on this one; how many have you spotted?)

And yet David and Goliath feels…different. Gone is the youthful masculine ego of ‘Kurambwa Ndaramba’ and ‘Siya’, and in its stead is the more vulnerable family man of ‘Wakadyiswa.” From often being particularly intense in tone, Freeman advocates letting the worries fall by the wayside and even embraces playful tomfoolery when the time is right (‘Mukuru’ and ‘Yeah Yeah.’) Heck, he went from inviting girls to Joina City to, on ‘Vakomana veDrip’, warning them about guys who do the same! Even his banter aimed at notoriously steel-faced business mogul (and seeming personal friend), Tinashe Mutarisi on ‘Mukuru’ doesn’t come across as the mbinga-pandering that is commonplace today: it is well-crafted as to be simultaneously funny and profound.

Chris Martin and Freeman HKD

And therein lies perhaps the biggest holistic departure from previous incarnations of Freeman. Once upon a time, he was the angst-filled young man banging on doors and begging to be granted a platform, as so poignantly articulated in early tunes like ‘Music Yemuno’ and ‘MaGhetto Yuts’, and now he is not only one of the biggest  and most marketable names in the local industry; he can call upon the biggest reggae artists in the world for collaboration, AND even brings them to dine with Sadza eaters in Harare.

Forget seeking a platform; Freeman has become the platform. And the authority with which he speaks throughout David and Goliath suggests he knows this. Mjolo is not worth killing yourself over. Not every situation requires you to be serious. Some folks are gonna call you whipped; do what works for you and your relationship. Show me love while I’m still alive. Such simple yet incisive dictates, wrapped up and delivered to us in rhythmic excellence, populate the album, cementing HKD Boss’s status as a bonafide elder statesman within the larger tradition of Zimbabwean Dancehall music.

All due praise having been given, are there any possible chinks in the armor of this zero-skip project? The first one I have run across on social media points to the arguable absence of any hardcore Dancehall beats, in favor of an Afrobeat-adjacent sound. While the shift is objectively true (and preference either or much more subjective), what it represents is far more ambiguous and worthy of consideration. Since the turn of the decade, there has been a growing chorus proclaiming that ZimDancehall is dead or dying—and a failure to evolve with the times has been its demise. Well, Genre, meet evolution! Is this not what we’ve been calling for? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can the genre evolve to survive, and still retain its essence? Let the pundits come forth.

The second minor qualm is personal (I haven’t seen it shared by others) and may be unpopular, but here goes. The collab with Chris Martin is…decent. Just fine. I believe C Martin to be among the very best Reggae crooners to come to prominence in the past decade or so, and the high regard in which I hold Freeman is palpable by now. So, you know, expectations were through the roof. Interestingly, this seems to be a recurrent trend in ZimDancehall. On one hand, its practitioners have a remarkable job of securing features with gigantic Caribbean artists. Yet, as with the Winky D’s, Beenie Man assisted, ‘My Woman’ as well as Nutty O’s ‘Ndiwe’ featuring Demarco, the songs have hardly been standouts in their catalogs. It is almost as if their contribution to the landscape is that they happened at all. This may very well just be a case of our own unrealistic expectations being inevitably let down. At the risk of triggering the ire of the lynch mob, let me reiterate again that it’s not a bad song. It’s fine. (And while not germane to the actual album itself, bringing Chris Martin into town for the launch was a masterstroke!)

In closing, I heed HKD Boss’s imploration on ‘Maruva’, and hereby give his due flowers. A decade of unrelenting excellence in the game, and with the genre that brought him and his peers to fame either dying out or evolving into something unrecognisable, it is time we lay to rest any ambiguities of where Freeman belongs: he is firmly on the ZimDancehall podium—and perhaps beyond.

(Views expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not represent those of Earground in its entirety.)

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