In his first three albums, Mwapindulanji (1997), Alibe Mawu (1999) and Muyime Kaye (2000), Malawi musician Billy Kaunda was a musician who completely had nothing to do with politics. He was a soft spoken young man who simply went into the studio and came from it tackling sticky social issues. But going into his fourth album, Dandaulo Limveke (2001), he started sounding political.
In one of the songs he called on politicians to stop politicizing everything because people do not feed on politics. He criticized them for being childish and not people oriented in their political activities. This was unlike him. But he was just starting. A year later he came with another album which was full of political songs, a project many people related with.
In 2001 the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party was at the height of its wrong politics. President Muluzi was secretly gunning for a third term in office and everything in Malawi got complicated. This was the same Muluzi who eight years earlier came as the right man to lead Malawi as a democrat. But power had trapped him and he wanted to stay on. To make sure this was possible he went to all available lengths, even using violence, to force people and fellow politicians to support this move.
It did not go out well with Billy Kaunda. The once quiet musician was forced into the scene and had songs which were directly aimed at President Muluzi and his political machinery. He did it in the following tracks: First, Mundiuze, a song in which he criticized the ruling elite for abandoning the rule of law and doing everything to their pleasure. He also called out against the practice of letting people with petty crimes go to prison while shielding the real criminals because they are politically connected.
During that time, the UDF party used to have a youth wing called the Young Democrats which went about hitting on political opponents of the president. This was what Billy was singing against. Knowing that such a song would probably result in him being attacked or killed, he had to say it before the political authorities had his fate discussed and sealed; Do not scare me with your weapons, first tell me the wrong I did, he sung.
In the second song, Mtundu Wanga, Billy no longer thought he will survive the confrontation with the politicians. He looked at himself as a walking dead man. He was singing from his grave, asking his fellow countrymen why they had to kill him as if there was no other punishment for him. He raised several questions, from the grave. Was I the first one to be wrong, that you killed me like a Snake, before I appeared in the court of law to defend myself? Then the dead Billy continued to tell the countrymen that the reason he did not run away when he was being sought after was because he knew they would amicably discuss the matter. He trusted them with his life even though they were not in good terms. But in the end they had him tied, dragged through the streets, beating him until he later died.
If in the other tracks Billy was not clear enough on who he was singing against, in Sitidya Lero he was direct about it. He was singing against President Muluzi and called him Boss. In 2001 – 2002 there was an acute food shortage across the country, as usual. But instead of solving the problem as quickly as possible, like how they rebuilt Television Malawi after it had caught fire, politicians used the situation to cash in on the hungry people.
Maize, the staple crop, went missing on the market because it was being exported to other countries while people in the country were dying. Due to its scarcity, its price went up and most people could not afford it. It was a sad situation. Billy grabbed the bull by its horns, and he posed some tough questions to the authorities: If really you say you want to end our poverty, with these policies, exactly whose poverty are you trying to end?
He was indirectly telling them that they were running the government to their own advantage and they did not have the people’s welfare in their plans. The elites were after everyone who opposed them to the point of grabbing their businesses, consequently causing unemployment which resulted in high crime rates. Malawi had gone wrong.
He then moved the focus from his fate and mourned those that had already gone through political deaths in Ophedwa. He called on them, from their graves, that they had given it a good fight. He was proud of their dedication. But he quickly reminded them that often it is those who choose not to get involved in political fights that get to enjoy the fruits.
As a believer he reminded them about the death of Jesus Christ, the son of God, that if the Father had not wanted him dead it could not have happened. He allowed the son to die for a reason. He extended this to them as well. Their death was for a reason despite them leaving behind their children and families suffering.
He finished by assuring the dead that one day the killers will meet their own deaths as well. Billy looked at the big picture and saw mortals killing each other. That gave him the authority to tell the departed fighters to take heart. Their killers will not live forever.
It may be that Billy was indeed talking to the departed souls. But looking at the context he too had placed himself into the land of the dead. He assumed his existence in both the world of the dead and the living; a living man talking to his own dead soul. He had transcended life and his mind had already made peace with his own dead state.
But the song that got on the way of President Muluzi to the point that he talked about it in one of his political rallies was the album’s title track, Mwataya Chipangano (Agalatiya). Mr. President, you have not kept your promise. That was Billy’s simple message to the boss. President Muluzi was attempting to overstay his political welcome, selling himself as the only person able to run this country.
This prompted Billy to ask one of the most difficult questions President Muluzi had to answer during his presidency: Are you sure you are the only one, in this whole country, wise and intelligent enough to lead this country? After looking at how President Muluzi had ruined the economy, politics and society, people got to wonder where he was getting the audacity to ask for another term in office.
Billy took the swipe on the boss from the word go. He literally made sure every word in the song carried his emotions and what he exactly meant. He first asked the president why after giving the nation democratic freedom, he was demanding it back. Then he went on to attack President Muluzi’s famous claim that his government was not cruel like that of Kamuzu Banda.
But then a few months before the song one of the country’s prominent reggae musicians, Evison Matafale, had died while in police custody after he had written a letter that criticized the president. Billy further attacked the corruption in the system and bluntly told the rulers that had God been a police officer they all could have been languishing in prison.
He cautioned the president that things do turn around in the world. As he is inflicting pain on others, one day, it will be him facing it and the pill will be bitter than the one he is administering to others. After such courageous words he finished it all with a daring challenge on the chorus: Let anything befall me, and I am ready to follow Matafale. Your time is up. Why are you trying to stay around and pretend that you want to further develop this country? It is not development that you want. All you want is money.
Then, Billy had literally signed his own death warrant. The notorious Young Democrats were not a group to start a war with. They had the license to kill and their bosses were ready to protect their actions. Billy knew exactly what he was getting himself into. But the once quiet musician had enough of it and was ready to face the political forces head on. Looking from his other songs he knew it that death was minutes away and was even strong enough to sing his own tribute.
Luckily, he survived the moment. He went on to release other successful albums later in his career. But this album should be rated as one that stood for a moment. He spoke for the people. In the future, when we will take stock of our democracy, as we rush to shower praises to politicians and activists, we should not forget about this man and his album. It is one of the important parts of our democracy. It raised the conscious of the nation and led to the downfall of one of Malawi’s strongest men, President Muluzi.
*Wonderful Mkhutche is a speech writer, a political scientist and a manuscript developer and editor