As we have clearly seen through the research works presented by our colleagues within the framework of this very peculiar project of ours, trying to achieve an understanding of what the three decades of the Mobutu’s regime has meant not only to Zaire and its people, but also to the rest of the world that stood by, witnessing the always evolving and unresting fate of the Belgian Congo – from its declared independence, through the international crisis that has followed, the instauration of Mobutu’s leadership, up to this very moment – cannot be successfully done, without paying an almost reverential attention on the phenomena that have become known and studied as Zairisation, Authenticité and Mobutisme. A Zairisationof the former Belgian colony, achieved by means of many diverse strategies and government policies all driven by the not-so-much-authentic idea of Authenticité, according to which philosophy, “[…] real progress and economic development could only be achieved by mobilizing a vast repertoire of traditional cultural practices and knowledge.’’Our choice of words when we write ‘not-so-much authentic’ has been suggested to us not by a sudden and uncontrollable surge of arrogance, but more simply by the fact that, as we do know as historians, at least for what concern contemporary history, there is nothing of very much original in and on itself about a leader or a dictator gathering its people under the banner of lost heritage, traditions and strength to be rediscovered. And this is even more true if such a mobilisation is said to be undertaken for the sake of a supposed newfound national unity and common prosperity.
With such a premise, it is not striking nor surprising that to achieve this goal, a clever and strategic use of cultural production and propaganda, has inevitably played a central role for the endurance of the regime itself, and it has developed an intertwined and mutual relation with the phenomenon of Mobutisme– that is in short words to be intended as the personal cult of the leader – that has permeated and characterised virtually every aspect of many Zaireans daily life.
Yet again, as we have seen in other research of this project, within the framework of the propaganda machine of the regime, essential for the success of Zairisation, control over arts and cultural production in general played a central part, but within the many, music has been the one art to play the leading role.
What put Congolese Music rightfully at the centre of this narrative, or should we better say, at the forefront of the stage, is its ambivalent characteristics that allow music to be at the same time, the prime tool of propaganda, cultural production and upward social mobility, and a litmus test of how relations of power are established, and how they are to be understood and analysed in the Zairean reality of the Mobutu’s era. Mobutu Sese Seko did not put music at the forefront of the stage. Music was already occupying that predominant role, for many Congolese, way before the rise to power of the dictator. The consumption of music by the Congolese population was remarkable, and a proper music industry had been in fact set in place already during the Belgian colonial dominion. Whether it was modern or traditional, whether it was for pleasure or for the fulfilment of some sacred, private ritual of any sort, music permeated numerous aspects of the everyday life, and when Mobutu seized power, he demonstrated to be enough clever and long sighted to keep music on the forefront of the stage. What has changed then, is that from that moment onward, he would have been the one pickingthe strings.
Not so strikingly, the ambivalent but peculiar characteristics of Congolese music reality and its environment to which previously I alluded, and which I will not-soon enough proceed to expose, will also help to clarify the reason why it has not been an easy, nor an entirely successful task, to look for and find hints of blatant resistance or unmistakable example of songs speaking truth to power, within the Zairean Musical production of the Mobutu’s era. If that indeed has been our initial task approaching the theme of this research, what we found ourselves whit was instead an analysis of music and its relation toward control of power and distribution of wealth, in which heroic and brave shows of resistance through musical production have been in reality the rare exception, and not the norm.
The first step to be taken to comprehend how music played such a dominant role in the establishment of many diverse relations of power -whether in the microcosm of Kinshasa reality as in the macrocosm of Mobutu’s Zaire and his clever use of propaganda, music related events and displays of power- is achieved by understanding how music itself represented, and in many cases still represents, a concrete means of upward social mobility for Congolese musicians or, to paraphrase Bob W. White, how music could literally put food on your table.
On this note we shall proceed to disclose the first of the five short distinct paragraphs that will help both us and the reader to put in the proper perspective the production of popular music and its use and perception in Mobutu’s Zaire.
Bob W. White, Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance in Mobutu’s Zaire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, 65.
An aspect that had been noted already back then by many Congolese intellectuals and politicians of the period, as it is reminded us by a New York Times Article dated June 23, 1972, titled “Mobutu is building an ‘authentic’ Zaire”. Quoting: “[Mobutu] sees himself as a traditional African chief at the head of one large family, ruling by “dialogue and consultation[, but] Some of the old‐guard politicians and younger intellectuals, particularly university students, feel that General Mobutu is acting more like a European dictator than an African chief.’’
Pulling the strings is the correct expression, but given the topic, ‘picking’, as on the strings of a guitar, sounded way more fitted.
Exact quote as follow: ‘’Technically speaking, popular music in Kinshasa does put food on the table […]’’. White, Rumba Rules, xiii.