By Kumbie Shoniwa
The Zimbabwean music genre known as Urban Grooves first became popular around the year 2000, when the government made a deliberate policy of promoting local arts by enforcing a 75% threshold for broadcasting local content on national media[i].
Previously unheard of singers and producers immediately became household names as their music was played on the country’s television and radio stations, which were all government-owned. The bulk of these artists were youngsters whose music appealed across generations and social classes, posing an alternative to established local genres like sungura, jit and chimurenga[ii]. The youthful artists embraced various music styles, including internationally recognized forms such as hip-hop, R&B, reggae-dancehall and kwaito.
It was around this time that the term “Urban Grooves” became attached to all types of music produced by upcoming artists across the country. The novelty of Urban Grooves became the artists’ use of local Shona and Ndebele languages, albeit colloquial [iii]. This text provides an overview of the genre.
Leonard “Leo” Mapfumo and Rockford “Roki” Josphats emerged as Urban Grooves’ darlings in 2002 with the hit ‘Seiko’, which earned Roki a National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) for most promising artist in 2003. In 2005 the duo produced an album, titled R & L, with the song ‘Maidei’ reaching the number one spot on ZBC top 10 singles charts and staying in the charts for 42 weeks, a feat that is yet to be achieved ever since by other musicians.
Sweet-voiced songstress Betty Makaya rose to prominence with her soulful ballads including ‘Ndichange Ndiripo’, ‘Usipo’, ‘Ndakusuwa’ and the number one hit ‘Kurwizi’, which she sang with the late Jamal Mataure. Her exploits saw her scoop the Best Urban Grooves Artist and Best Overall Female Musician awards at the 2004 Zimbabwe Music Awards (ZIMA).
Alexio Kawara rose to fame in 2000 with the hit ‘Amai’, which he produced as part of an Urban Grooves outfit called Guess. He left the group to pursue a solo career and has received several awards including Best Male Urban Grooves artist and Song of the Year (at the 2006 ZIMA Awards), outstanding album award (at the 2007 National Arts Merit Awards) and Song of the Year as well as runner-up for Video of the Year for ‘Shaina’ (at the 2008 ZIMA Awards).
Plaxedes Wenyika Joka left lovebirds smouldering with her soulful voice and love-laced lyrics when she launched her debut album, Tisaparadzane (2002), with hits including ‘Wadarirei’ and ‘Ndoita Sei’. In 2003, Plaxedes joined an all-female group with Jackie Madondo, Fortunate “Sister Flame” Matenga and Ivy Kombo called Rukuvhuto Sisters, who released popular tracks like ‘Come to Victoria Falls’ and ‘Malaika’. In 2012, she released a new album, Brighter Day, with the song ‘Love you Better’ receiving airplay on Channel O.[iv]
Daniel “Decibel” Mazhindu rose to prominence with his dancehall-inspired single ‘Nakai’, which topped local charts only two weeks after its release in 2004. This was followed by the successful release of his only album, What Kind of World (2004), with popular songs including the controversial ‘Madhara’, ‘Ndinewe’, ‘Vimbai’ and ‘Chido’.
Groups and duets also contributed to the rise of Urban Grooves with major hit songs, including ‘Handirege’ by Roy and Royce (2002), Mafriq’s ‘Ndichamuudza Chete’ (2006), ‘Came 2 Party’ by Major Playaz (2003), ‘Maroja’ by Extra Large, ‘Chamhembe’ by Double Trouble (2006) and ‘Nguva Yareba’ from 2BG (2005).
A range of other artists also owe their popularity to the rise of the Urban Grooves genre, including David Chifunyise, Alishias “Maskiri” Musimbe, Shingirai “Mau Mau” Sabeta, Ngoni Kambarami, Tererai Mugwadi, Sanii Makhalima, Dino Mudondo, Desmond “Stunner” Tambaoga, Enock “Ex-Q” Munhenga, Portia “Tia” Njazi and Enock “Nox” Guni.
The rise of Urban Grooves also witnessed new players on the music production scene, which had until then been dominated by a few big players like Radio and Tape Productions (RTP), Gramma Records and Metro Studios. Producer Delani Makhalima rose to fame in 2002 when he released a compilation album, The Future, which featured almost every talented youngster on the music scene, including David Chifunyise, Roki, Leonard Mapfumo, Decibel, Extra Large, Betty Makaya and Sanii.
Other notable producers who pioneered the Urban Grooves brand include the late Fortune “MacDaddy” Muparutsa, Gordon Mutekedza (aka “Flash Gordon”), Tatenda “Take 5” Jenami and Sipho-Senkosi “TBA” Mkuhlani. Later on, new producers also emerged, including MacDonald “Mac Dee” Chidavaenzi, Russell “Russo” Chiradza[v] and Clarence “Dr Clarence” Patsika.
The fall of Urban Grooves
Since 2010, a number of Urban Grooves artists - including Decibel, Major Playaz, Betty Makaya, Nox Guni and Mau Mau - have relocated overseas or to neighbouring South Africa, producing music which has received a lukewarm response from their Zimbabwean fans[vi]. Others - like David Chifunyise, Roy and Royce, Tia, Nasty Trix, Double Trouble and Slice - have all but disappeared from the music scene altogether.
Recent live shows have been major flops, including a show in Bulawayo featuring Trevor Dongo and Leonard Mapfumo, which attracted only a handful of fans. Commenting after the show, Mapfumo said: “Music changes, it is like a circle. It also gets boring sometimes. Right now Zim-Dancehall is vibrant, there is no doubt about that. But before, Sungura was leading and it was followed by Urban Grooves”.[vii]
The rise in popularity of Zim-Dancehall has seen artists such as Winky D, Sniper Storm, Extra Large and Shinsoman detach themselves from the all-inclusive Urban Grooves genre and become part of the growing Zim-Dancehall movement. Former Urban Groovers like Roki, Mafriq, Stunner and Nox have struggled to pull in crowds and have therefore begun experimenting with sounds associated with the trending Zim-Dancehall.[viii]
Music promoters have also seen where the wind is blowing and recent tendencies have seen them preferring to use Zim-Dancehall artists as curtain-raisers for big international acts instead of their waning Urban Grooves counterparts, as seen when Sean Paul and Akon visited Zimbabwe in 2010 and Winky D performed shortly before the main act.[ix]
Some critics attribute the fall of Urban Grooves to it being composed of multiple musical styles, which were too numerous to sensibly be grouped under one genre. Thus, they argue, it was inevitable that the genres like Zim-Dancehall, Afro-pop, hip-hop and R&B would become separate entities.
Others contend that Urban Grooves lost the plot, particularly during the hard economic times between 2008 and 2010, by continuing to focus on ethereal themes such as love and romance, whereas Zim-Dancehall gained ascendancy by raising more pertinent issues such as poverty, crime and sexuality within such a tough environment.[x]
The future of Urban Grooves
A handful of pioneer Urban Grooves artists have managed to cling onto the music bandwagon over the years, including Roki, Mafriq, Stunner, Sanii Makhalima, Leonard Mapfumo, Nox, Tererai Mugwadi and Maskiri. Despite dropping new releases during this period, these musicians have failed to revisit the dizzy heights they enjoyed shortly after the turn of the century.
The mixture of hip-hop, Afro-pop and R&B flavours sung in Shona or Ndebele continues to attract loyal followers, with newer acts like Jah Prayzah, Cynthia Mare, Junior Brown, Cindy Munyavi, Goodchild, Trae Young and Mzimba helping to keep the Urban Grooves flame alive. However, it remains to be seen whether the term Urban Grooves will continue to refer to a mixture of genres sung by Zimbabwean youths, or if it will be discarded altogether as the individual genres of hip-hop, R&B, Afro-pop and Zim-dancehall take their own places alongside other, more established Zimbabwean musical genres such as sungura and chimurenga.