To understand how music could literally put food on the table, that means music potentially being a concrete tool to earn a living and enhance one’s social condition, it is necessary to understand the reality of a nation in continuous turmoil and economic instability, where access to a proper education -to us the most obvious device to achieve a better social condition- was most of the time not a feasible nor realistic option.

[…] one needs to consider certain phenomena beyond the music scene. […] The meagre options available to boys included becoming a low-paid labourer, living on the streets as a shegue(street child) or kuluna(bandit), becoming a soccer player or a soldier. Females could live on the streets, get married or become a prostitute or concubine of a wealth politician or businessman. Alternatively, music offered greater opportunities for wealth and success.[1]

But how music had actually become a more realistic option than education or a military career, finds its roots in the early discographic industry put in motion during the 1940s and 1950s,

[…] when expatriate entrepreneurs opened the first recording houses, this group of [roving solo musicians who wandered the newly formed labour settlements of the French and Belgian colonies] became the first to make a living from their musical talents, signing contracts as individuals (Wendo Kolosy, Leon Bukasa, Lucie Eyenga) and sometimes being billed as groups (Beguen Band, Le Trio bow, San Salvador). […] In a matter of only a few years, 78 rpm records were recorded in Leopoldville and mass-produced in Belgium to provide relatively inexpensive, decent-quality recordings to large numbers of urban consumers in the Congo.[2]

However, this essential premise alone is not enough to fully comprehend the phenomena here under analysis. The missing piece of the puzzle is represented by the way in which the Mobutu’s regime, after the international crisis that has followed the independence, approached the music industry and its environment for the sake of the construction of an illusory national consensus.

In an economic and political reality characterised by relations of clientelism, endemic corruption and authoritarian ruling, music became a viable tool for the growing population of youths through which navigate and mediate between the forces at play within an environment “not of their making’’.[3]This was possible thanks to the existence of a “[…] state-based class of political elites who rely on music as a mechanism of political legitimacy since, how Mobutu was fond of saying, ‘happy are those who sings and dance’.’’[4]It does not surprise then, that in a following passage, also in the work of Bob White, we find a very similar claim to that made by Kazadi Wa Mukuna in the article previously quoted, and that goes even further in measuring the implications of this phenomena:

Outside of politics and […] education, popular music would become one of the few paths to upward social mobility for young people in Kinshasa,and this proved important as participation in political life became increasingly subject to the whims of those in power. Because of Mobutu’s particular style of political leadership, [attempting] to create an image of him as an homme fort […] but also as an homme du people […] popular musicians(themselves mostly from modest background) were instrumental in shoring up support for the regime.[5]

As it becomes inevitable in similar situations, if support for the ruling regime translates into better economic and social conditions, climbing the ladder of political support cuts both ways, and artistic freedom, as well as political freedom, is the first victim of such a deal with those elites in power. The more wealth you gain thanks to your support for the regime, the more you are morphing into a stepping stone for those political and military elites looking for legitimacy and consensus.

 To conclude this first paragraph then, I find no better way than presenting here a short abstract of an interview reported by Bob White in his work, where the interviewed musician, Wendo Kolosoy, explains to the music critic Banning Eyre the reason why he stopped recording and performing during the 1960s.

BE: Allright, but let me ask you this. Why did you stopped recording and performing during the 1960s?

WK: As I said, before, the fundamental reason for this is politics. The fact that there was a time when I didn’t sing much, politics is at the base of it. Because political men at the time wanted to use musicians to sing their favours. […] So if there was a time when I did not sing it was because politicians wanted to use me. They wanted me to sing their praises. They wanted to use me as a stepping stone[…].[6]

It almost seems inevitable that in a reality that made music a powerful tool for social mobility and political legitimacy, the first option for a musician that repudiates such a corrupted environment and desires to express his dissent, is to be found in the sound of silence. Nonetheless, if silence in music can be interpreted as an active demonstration of resistance, or just the inevitable consequence of a musician that refuses to climb the ladder, it is a whole different matter to be determined.

[1]K.W. Mukuna, “A brief history of popular music in DRC”on the website page 1 February 2019).

[2]White, Rumba Rules,40-42.

[3]White, Rumba Rules, 24.

[4]White, Rumba Rules, 24.

[5]White, Rumba Rules, 24. Emphasis added.

[6]White, Rumba Rules, 246. Emphasis added.