On Being an Ammartian: Nation Building on Youtube

As a diasporic Zimbabwean, sharing videos on Facebook and subscribing to Ammara’s YouTube channel is the only form of nation-building I might ever know…

Ammara Brown Shoko Festival 2016 (3,036 views)

“Here’s the thing,” Ammara Brown says as she moves the mic stand, making space to kneel down on the stage at Harare’s biggest music festival. The crowd is screaming and Ammara hums to quiet down the noise. It doesn’t work. She tries talking, “They warn you about fame. It’s like somewhere along the line you write an invisible contract. You sign it. But I wrote this song cos I find myself simply trying to be human again.” A man screams that he loves her. Ammara starts singing and there are no drums, there are no guitars, even the less invasive mbira has been abandoned to make it easier for people to listen. After a few seconds, Ammara stops her background singers. It’s not sounding right. Another man yells, “You are sooo fuckinnn sexy.”

I’m trying to listen to Ammara on my computer but I can barely hear her through the background noise of a badly taped video. In an era where fans become temporary filmmakers, YouTube videos are usually the only full recordings of festivals available online. In these videos, the commentary from the audience is clearer than the artist, and in this performance the men are particularly clear. Listening to men yelling over Ammara reminds me of the contradictions of her career, and how the inevitability of her success has also made it questionable. She is one of the best performers in Zimbabwe, but she was already famous as the daughter of the music legend Andy Brown. She is provocatively sexy, but it is easier to be provocative when your father sang about Harare’s popo busting him with weed. Her work ethic has allowed her to rise within Zimbabwe’s male dominated music industry, but she knows that being a coloured girl with a soft fro doesn’t hurt either. She knows that in this social media age it is not just sound but images that make sweet music, and so on her instagram page she has named herself the “Goddess of Afropop” and the “Queen of #Ammartia.”

Ammara’s debut album Ammartia has never arrived, yet I find myself falling into her unfinished world and becoming an Ammartian. Like all online fan cultures, loving and defending Ammara is the only real requirement for citizenship, and there is a refreshing performance of democracy whenever she asks on twitter, “Which video should I make first?” As a diasporic Zimbabwean, sharing videos on Facebook and subscribing to Ammara’s YouTube channel is the only form of nation-building I might ever know. Mugabe’s cold heart and failed promises have made it easier to fight for a goddess that promises to love Zimbabweans if we just watch her videos. While Ammara’s fans know that Ammartia is a marketed dream, we also believe a simpler truth: that we deserve to be loved.

As Ammara tries to sing over her screaming male fans, she is reminded that no one wants to hear her sing about her human problems. There are eternal complications to being a goddess, and every woman knows that there’s a thin line between being heard because you are sexy and being listened to within your sexiness. When Ammara stops trying to sing her ‘vulnerable’ song, she stands up and asks, “Are we ready to party?” The audience has been ready. She begins to dance in her tight grey bodysuit with overwhelming frilly shoulders, her soft fro bouncing with every head turn. “I love you Ammartians,” she says after every song.

Andy Brown 2011 (2, 479 views) / Andy Brown 2011 (10,721 views)

Before there was YouTube, my older sister taught me everything I know about Zimbabwean culture. We left Zimbabwe in 2001 when my sister had just finished grade three as the top student in Shona class and I had just finished grade one somewhere in the middle. My sister internalised her academic achievements and always talked about life in Harare with an air of wisdom and superiority. She especially missed listening to her favourite artist Chiwoniso Maraire on her way to school. Though Chiwoniso was the daughter of mbira master Dumisai Maraire, my sister insisted that Chiwoniso’s choice to play mbira was radical because women did not play the instrument in “ancient times.” Since Chiwoniso’s only albums were titled Rebel Woman and Ancient Voices, I believed her.

Chiwoniso died in July 2013, a year after her former husband Andy Brown had died. I had just finished my second year at a leftist college in New York, but I still felt like a stubborn girl with a heart too small to love anyone who wasn’t a radical black woman. By then, YouTube had replaced my sister’s memories and I could experience Chiwoniso’s concerts and her interviews on my computer. In my room, I played her love songs the loudest but I cried the most when I heard my sister’s favourite song, ‘Mai’, that Chiwoniso had written when her mother had died. “Sometime’s I imagine I hear your voice in the trees whispering,” I sang even in quiet moments when there was no music and it was just Chiwoniso’s voice ringing in my head.

At first Chiwoniso’s death made me sentimental about small things, like how Chiwo and I had matching hoop nose rings. Then it grew into bigger things, like how Chiwo had taught her step-daughter Ammara to play the mbira. I began to love Ammara because I loved Chiwoniso. As time passed, YouTube’s archive grew as more fans uploaded old videos of Andy Brown performing with both Chiwoniso and Ammara. In these performances, Chiwo played the hoshos, Andy played the guitar, and Ammara danced and sang backup next to her father. Ammara’s presence took over the show even as she danced in the background, doing her now signature high kicks to her father’s guitar solos.

When Ammara went solo she still evoked Chiwoniso as she performed barefoot with her mbira, but I began to love her beyond my love for her family. She understood that being an outsider didn’t mean you had to live your life quietly and carefully. As a Zimbabwean who had lived in the US and in South Africa, Ammara had returned home with a lot to say about success and sex. She sang about sugar daddies and wrote beautiful twitter essays about the kinds of men she would never marry. She would never marry a man she had never slept with. She would never kiss a man who had eaten pork. She would watch her former lovers vomit after they had eaten pork, begging to sleep with her. And when she was finally tired of being asked if she could ever love a man more than her career she said, “I don’t believe anyone should give up their passions for marriage. Slow down, yes. Quit: no. I’d resent him.”

Chiwoniso Maraire – Music in Zimbabwe (30,371 views) / Hot Box – Ammara Brown (11,023 views)

Chiwoniso’s interviews on YouTube always led me to think that the best place to find radical women was in Zimbabwe’s music scene. In a video where Chiwoniso and the poet Chirikure Chirikure talked about music as a symbol of resistance, Chirikure asked, “If song destroyed colonialism in Africa, why can’t it handle dictators?” He compared music in Zimbabwe to the biblical story of the fall of Jericho. Music literally broke walls, and it was this kind of power that ended colonialism. Chimurenga, the shona word for liberation, had always meant both the fight against colonialism and the music that reminded black folk that they were human. Even though the police had started showing up at Chiwoniso’s concerts, she still felt that it was her responsibility as an artist to remind Zimbabweans that their humanity mattered even if the government thought otherwise.

I’ve always believed that the walls of Jericho fell because of Rahab the prostitute and not just some loud horns, and I’ve always known that women were never given the credit they deserved for the fall of colonialism. I wanted to create my own gospel of radical Zimbabwean women, but Ammara never filled that political gap that Chiwoniso had once occupied. Ammara’s Afropop brought the patriarchy to its knees, not to surrender but to beg for her love. And in her own interview about music in Zimbabwe Ammara said, “It is a beautiful time to be in Zimbabwe. The world is paying attention. They want a different face outside of politics to associate our people. They want to understand who are we really.”

Ammara’s music ideology was never about breaking walls but about creating them to protect the music business. Music was not about fighting governments, but about surviving them by creating alternative economies. Ammara wasn’t wrong for saying that music needs to be institutionalised in Zimbabwe, that we need to build stronger music education, and that music needed corporate investment to survive. In Zimbabwe’s broken economy, there is always something pure and sincere about just wanting to make some money. Though I want Ammara to be more politically active, my own desires to only love black women are not always pure. Sometimes, my own ideas about radical musicians make it hard to hear Ammara on her own terms.

Mukoko (Live Performance at the Volt) (26,531 views)

My favourite live performance of Ammara appears on YouTube a few days after her biggest song “Mukoko” has gone viral. “Mukoko” compares a good woman to a honeycomb, and the easy metaphor makes the pop song immediately feel familiar. “Mukoko” was produced and written by Tytan, but the song was always meant for Ammara. “Have you seen our video? How many times did you watch it?” Ammara asks the audience in the video. The audience cheers back. “I’m sure most of you guys have downloaded it. But when you get back to the office, just play it on YouTube. We are about to reach 500,000 views. That’s a fantastic thing because these are organic views. They can’t be bought,” Tytan says.

As an Ammartian, I have already watched the carefully edited music video, but I prefer the spontaneity of live performances. Though the Volt performance is Tytan’s show, Ammara takes over the stage as she dances in a see-through shirt with a lacy black bra underneath. “Tell you something, something I’ve been searching for a honey / Who will give me something extraordinary baby / I’ve got loving, loving, I’ve got loving for you baby / Sweet loving for you, baby, keep coming for it baby,” she’s singing to Tytan who watches her as she dances next to him. As I watch Ammara stroking Tytan’s face, it feels like I’m watching her perform for the men in the room.

“Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.” Ammara motions to the band. The drums get quieter. The guitar ends. It’s just her talking over a gentle melody. “Do we have any Mukoko’s in the house?” She’s motioning to all the women at the back. Pointing them out, waving to them.

“Come to the front, Come to the front.”

“We need to see you.”

“I want to see you here.”

“I want to see you here.”

Explore more

Our LGBTQ rights weren’t safe before, under the Conservative/DUP coalition they’re practically gone
Where are you really from?: The hidden lives of PoC in rural Britain