Not too long ago, following the passing of Souljah Love, iconic urban grooves duo Xtra Large put out a statement in which they lampooned the post-mortem deification of artists who were virtual charity cases during their lives, as consumers (corporates, laymen etc) insist they don’t owe artists anything.
Worthy of the debate as the sentiments may have been, a jarring trend in the comments section lambasted the trendsetting group as “has-beens” whose music nobody even remembers. I may have just thrown this into the same bin that I throw most misguided Facebook posts and comments, had it not come hot on the heels of a new Valentine’s release (first in more than a decade) by yet another legendary pair, Roy and Royce, “Misodzi.” Again, chants of “boys dzapera idzi” were everywhere on social media, citing particularly how the sound that made them popular belonged to a long-gone era.
Now, from the intro, you would be forgiven for thinking that the “kupera” vitriol is directed only at artists whose heyday was in the yesteryear. Not so. I have heard Jah Prayzah, arguably the biggest Zimbabwean artist of the past decade, come under this criticism routinely, only to come back a few months later with an even more amazing feat. Folks said he was done after the so-so collaboration with Davido in 2017, and again the following year after an even more Lackluster collaboration with Jah Cure, and the much-maligned Ronika video. And in 2020 when songs of his Hokoyo album were blasted for “sounding the same,” and in 2021 when Porov…You get the drift. The point here is not that all these songs were not bad. Or good. After all, art is subjective and, even as a fan, there are songs on there I don’t go back to.The point is that, more than just “that song sucks,” each ill-received song from the tall guy ushered in the apocalypse on his career.
But wait. How many times have we said that “Enzo apera?” We forget that he broke out on the Panomhanya Munhu riddim, released as recently as 2018!! During which time he has dropped a dozen hit songs, and yet each lull or experimental shift in style has been dealt with like the advent of the four horsemen. Heck, Holy Ten broke into the limelight a mere two years ago and, since then, he has been the messiah of Zimbabwean hip-hop, immediately followed by his ‘kupera’ after people felt so-so about the pre-album single ‘Apetite’, before dropping the album of the year and, after his sophomore album received lackluster reviews earlier this year, again the naysayers are tolling the death knell. All in two years!
Which begs the question: why are we so obsessed with the idea of artists being finished? And why do such observations almost always come with a gleeful, almost self-congratulatory tone of “I knew it!” For the rest of the article, I will talk about how our infatuation with the concept of “Kupera” is misguided at best, and actually clouds how we consume—and create—art. Here are a few problems and misconceptions that our seeming celebration of the decline of artists betrays.
The Inevitable Passage of Time
Whether you are a creative or not, the slow march towards our demise is one of life’s absolute certainties. Indeed, the end comes at fundamentally different times, and often driven by different phenomena for each of us and our bodies of work, but it comes. In the sporting world this past year, we’ve seen the retirement of two of the GOATs of tennis, Federer and Serena; their time has come. Cristiano Ronaldo, a mainstay in GOAT debates, is headed to Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen world leaders replaced, prominent figures become less so and, within our own families, influential figures become less so as others grow older and establish themselves in different capacities.
There is nothing to see here
Now, all this is not to say we should shy away from investigating best practices that perpetuate longevity. When artists succumb to drug abuse, a propensity for unnecessary drama, and a lack of artistic and personal integrity, then these factors need to be engaged with— if not for the artists themselves, then as cautionary tales for those following in their footsteps.
As for the mundane “fall-off”, however, the winds of change are forever blowing, and with them come different trends and environments out of and in which artists thrive or otherwise. And this leads us to the next point.
Why Artists do Art?
Getting paid is nice. More than nice even: it is essential. Food on the table, roof over our heads, and head held high in our communities. The desirability of fame is a bit more debatable. Some shun it like the plague, while others would sell their mothers up the river for a taste of it. The desire for fame and prominence, much like the desire for wealth, is not inherently a bad thing: many of humanity’s most important innovations have come by as a result of the pursuit of either or both of these two.
At the heart of the creative’s creation, however, is often something else. An irrefutable muse; an insatiable need to say something via your God-given vision and talent. Ask the thousands who write verses and draw pictures that they never share with the world. And those who share, knowing very well that they won’t break even, but those who may like their works will have access to them. Or those who vocalize unpopular opinions just to move the important conversation along.
“Kupera” is not a function of necessarily declining quality on the part of the artist. Most likely, it is a representation of contemporary trends.
Having taken time to listen to the works of the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube released in the past ten years: the music has been stellar, well thought-out and produced, and they said what they came to say very well. Yet I doubt the casual fan would recognize that they did indeed put out music in the past decade, let alone name the projects. In fact, even some ardent hip hop fans would argue that neither has been particularly relevant musically post 1995. So what is it? Instead of their music declining in quality, their ‘fall-off’ is almost certainly due to shifting sonic and cultural trends. But Snoop and Cube didn’t come here to do Drill or Trap Music.
Bringing it back home, I have a brother who insists that Sanii is a shadow of the artist he was at the height of the Urban Grooves era, and that he hasn’t made a good song since Pasina Iwe. To the contrary, I believe Sani has gotten even better as a writer and producer since then, has showcased his singing range a bit more, diversified his topics, and his production is top notch. Put simply, while his most memorable and popular songs are from 20 years ago, he is arguably a better artist now than he was then. The Urban Grooves went away, and took with it the prominence of 95% of its practitioners, even as many of them sought to establish a continued foothold in an urban space dominated by ZimDancehall during the 2010s.
(In fact, I am apt to believe that my brother hasn’t much paid attention to Sani’s work since then.) Sure, we can point to someone like ExQ, who came up during the era of the groove, and remains one of the top artists in the country today. But not only is he the exception that proves the rule, he has made the artistic choices that allowed him to retain that place, including collaborations with the biggest ZimDancehall artists and others, experimenting with sounds from other parts of the continent, signing on to a label run by the biggest artist in the country, and all but shedding his ‘rapper’ label. And he has done great. Not all artists want to do that though. Some prefer to work with lesser known artists, and continue to forge their identity as the ‘best’ at the genre/pocket in which they came up. Neither way is “the correct way”; it’s down to the artist and what the purpose of their art is.
(for a most apt articulation of how the mandate of the artist often departs from popular expectations, I recommend a listen to Noble Stylez’s Dear Artist)
“Kupera” means “Kutanga”
Finally, let’s get uncomfortable. Indeed, people fall off. Become ‘have-beens.’ Sometimes they just let it slip because they care no more, and some fight against the tide, tooth and nail, to maintain relevance. It may even get cringy.
But here’s the thing: one has to have been to become a ‘has-been.’ And I’d venture that 99% of humanity never has been or will be. I’d go a step further and say 99% of people who have actively chased the limelight have fallen short.
Who among us has made a hit song? Created something known and loved by hundreds and thousands of people?
Conceived in your brain a rhythm and sequence of words that children and adults alike dance to and sing at talent shows? Walked by a Kombi and heard your voice blurring through the speakers? I’ll paraphrase American hip-hop personality Joe Budden here when he said “You ask me when my last hit was, when was your first one?”
Just to be clear, this is not shade: for most people, it is not our lot in life to be heard by the masses or to even make art.
However, when we jeer in glee at the apparent ‘kupera’ of artists, we (consciously or subconsciously) erase their very real contributions to the cultural zeitgeist that make their fall-off even noticeable. In clowning Xtra Large for their decreased prominence more than a decade (now two) after they rose through the ranks, we discredit the fact that two kids from Fiyo innovated a sound unheard of hitherto, and brought much joy to a nation that was going through a wretched time. When we point to JP’s experiments as proof positive of his decline (which, as we have seen, we have been wrong about time and again), we forget that it was those experiments that made us jump with Gochi Gochi and such. Or when we delight at hints of Holy Ten’s demise, we disregard how, during the hellscape of socio-political uncertainty that was the pandemic, we gathered round like students to celebrate and break down his socially conscious messaging at a time when we needed it?
None of us are entitled to be heard by the multitudes. Very few of us ever achieve such, even for a moment. On what hill shall we stand on and ridicule somebody’s descent from the mountaintop? “You ask me when my last hit was, when was your first one?”
As stated earlier, the point of this conversation is not to turn a blind eye to artists’ destructive behavior, nor is it to not seek out and promote best sustainable practices and habits conducive for longevity and growth. I am, rather, lamenting the schadenfreude with which we speak of the fall-off: as if we have been awaiting it and take utter delight therein. It’s toxic at best, and at worst it sheds light on ignorance and insecurity. Kuroya chaiko.
So atop other tacky cultural tenets, can we leave the celebration of ‘kupera’ in 2022?
We probably can’t.
Well, it was worth a shot.