Popular musicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), like many of their compatriots, have often been forced to depend on political patronage networks for their livelihoods. It dates back to colonial times, but has lived on through the country’s nearly six decades of independence.
The nature of the networks may not change after the inauguration of Félix Tshisekedi as president. That question depends largely on whether or not Tshisekedi is able to take control of the most strategic appointments in the federal bureaucracy and security services. If he does – and it’s a big if – musicians will be faced with a rare moment in their history: a substantial change in the shape of the DRC’s patronage networks.
There have only been three such changes. The first, from the colonial era under the Belgians to the short period of instability after independence in 1960 marked by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Next was to the long period of Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship from 1965 to 1997. This was followed by the establishment of new networks of patronage by the Kabila family until today.
These latest networks may yet endure if the Kabila family remains in effective control through a cohabitation arrangement with a Tshisekedi presidency. Either way Congolese musicians are likely to be faced with the same invidious choice: accept the patronage of the powers that be, or face the consequences.
Under the Belgians and Mobutu the choice was stark: toe the line if you want to make a living as a professional musician. Conformity determined access to government controlled media and public space. As Congolese soukous musician Kanda Bongo Man told me, in Nigeria Fela Kuti might openly protest and survive, but under Mobutu he and his family would be tortured, murdered and thrown from a helicopter into the Congo river.
That control has loosened under the Kabilas. But it has by no means disappeared.
The colonial period
After the Second World War Greek and Jewish entrepreneurs, who were outsiders to the Belgium political establishment, were the first to invest in music. They imported rudimentary recording facilities, public address systems, guitars, drums and brass instruments.
They also used their family networks of shops across Africa to sell records elsewhere on the continent. This partly explains how the beautiful and popular music of Leopoldville (the capital of the Belgian colony of Congo, before it was renamed Kinshasa in 1966) and Brazzaville across the Congo River, spread through the colony as well as the continent.
Tanzanian musician Remmy Ongala, who has been part of the Congolese soukous scene since the 1980s, told me in a 2002 interview that he first heard the popular music of the Congolese capital performed in the third largest city Kisangani during colonial times.
It was the Belgian government that paid the transport and provided the public space for the Greek owned company Ngoma to promote their young stars Wendo and Bowane.
Mobutu’s way of doing things
Mobutu introduced the cultural policy of authenticité, which was aimed at combating a colonial mentality denigrating African culture and language and casting it as inferior to Europes. In practice, however, it was harnessed to building Mobutu’s personality cult.
The dominance in cultural life of the Mouvement Populaire de La Révolution the political party he founded, was implemented in ways that mimicked the kind of imposition formerly associated with the colonial authorities.
His favoured bands, especially TPOK Jazz, benefited the most, and were given both direct patronage and control of the nationalised record plant as part of “Zaireanisation”. The band’s leader Franco Luambo Makiadi was a member of Mobutu’s party.
But the King of Rumba, as Franco was known, is also famous for composing metaphorically ambiguous songs. One of the most celebrated is Tailleur that’s about an unnamed tailor and an unnamed owner of his needle that captures the nature of patronage networks:
How is the tailor going to operate if the owner of the needle takes it away?
During the Mobutu era Congolese musicians created a musical genre that came to known as Rumba. Very little, if any, “resistance” Rumba was composed. As part of authenticité, Mobutu demanded that popular music turn to indigenous influences and languages for inspiration.
Franco responded enthusiastically deepening his relationship with those sources and composing songs in KiKongo. But Lingala, the language of the capital and of the force publique under the Belgians remained the national language of power, government and the army under Mobutu. Despite the “authenticity” policy Lingala remained the predominant language of popular song even for Franco.
This may help explain why the most outspoken musical critics of the corruption and violence in Congolese politics has still not come from the Lingala speaking capital , with some notable exceptions such as Lexxus Legal, but from the east of the vast country, and is expressed in Swahili rather than Lingala.
DRC protest music , is mainly expressed in East African versions hip-hop, particularly from Goma. Musically it is more derivative than Rumba, being heavily indebted to US hip-hop. The protest is not against the power of the US culture industries but against violence, and the lies that foster violence.
The 1990s was a decade of change. Late in the decade there was a general weakening of state institutions in the post-Mobutu era with no sign of a return to secure government sponsorship for musicians or of regular salaries for public servants.
Another dramatic shift was that musicians became more dependent on live performance and transient commercial and political sponsorship with the advent of cheap cassette tapes and even cheaper digital recording technology.
This intertwining of the market, state and society has continued to see itself expressed through music in the DRC. A well-loved dance of 2005, Kisanola, (literally meaning a comb) is associated with the moment when one of the country’s best-known stars, Werrason, shifted commercial allegiance from one beer brand, Skol, to its popular rival Primus, with lucrative consequences for Werrason.
In the past commercial imperatives and political censoring have not entirely prevented challenging songs slipping through the net. Remmy Ongala told me how even Wendo in the 1950s, under the patronage of the Belgian colonists, sang songs he and his Congolese audience understood as a call for independence and as a challenge to the colonial regime:
one fine day this country will change, you will see it yourselves.
It is a call that remains tragically resonant today.