In a dingy apartment in Mbare, Zimbabwe’s oldest commune in the capital Harare, a dozen young musicians nervously rehearse their lyrical songs while waiting to be called into the recording booth.

Many famous musicians in Zimbabwe were born from this old apartment. For those who are here now, this is their only chance to become famous, or at least a future in music.

One by one, they enter singing under the watchful eye of Arnold Kamudyariwa, a popular dancehall producer known as DJ Fantan, which often stops those who sing off-key.

In an ocean of poverty, drugs, unemployment and crime, Fantan ChillSpot Recordings gave a voice to young people eager to tell about their daily struggles. It’s Wednesday at 1 p.m., and the sounds of Zimdancehall echo from his studio in Matapi, Mbare.

Music is a huge source of comfort for Zimbabweans and Zimdancehall, a local adaptation of Jamaican dancehall, grew out of a demand for music that resonates with everyday struggles. The contagious lyrics – often a lament about life’s challenges, losses and social ills, such as the growing drug problem – have become the soundtrack of Zimbabweans.

Graphic of popular Zimdancehall artists in Mbare, Zimbabwe
A mural by popular artists from Zimdancehall in Mbare, Zimbabwe. Photography: Grace Chingono

Instead of singing in the Jamaican patois, local musicians mainly use the shona, and recently Ndebele singers have appeared as well. Produced from backyard studios, Zimdancehall is one of the fastest growing genres in the country.

“I think the reason people love our genre is because it resonates with their daily struggles. If the ghetto is happy, you’ll hear us sing about it, but if people are struggling, we tailor our message, ”Fantan says.

Fantan, who traded decks for the studio, along with his two friends Levelz and Ribbe, found a new passion in raising Zimbabwean singers. From his small studio, the young producer creates stars and hit songs.

DJ Fantan and Ras Caleb at Chillspot Records in Mbare, Zimbabwe
DJ Fantan and Ras Caleb at Chillspot Records in Mbare, Zimbabwe, where new Zimdancehall stars are created. Photography: Grace Chingono

“We started out as a DJ, we were just playing at parties, but one day we realized there was a need to create music. Our first studio was in my room. Many artists made their success from there almost six years ago, ”he says.

As the young musicians take turns recording their best songs, another accomplished musician, Caleb Tareka, popularly known as Ras Caleb, look at son.

“Music has changed my life; I would never be where I am today. Now I can take care of my family through the proceeds of the music, but it took years of determination, ”Caleb says.

“Zimdancehall has taken a lot of young people off the streets. It created jobs for some determined people. I think this studio has been very successful at nurturing talent and changing lives.

Amid economic hardship, made worse by Covid-19, young people in townships have found solace in music. Hundreds of home studios have sprung up across Harare as musicians work overnight, encouraged by the successes of the townships. Without funding to build studios, they use basic recording equipment to create hit songs.

Michael Moso, a young hip-hop producer who works in his brother’s studio in Mbare, says: “This studio is very useful. It is better for the young people of the ghetto to spend their day here than on the streets. They get creative and do something useful with their time, so it makes perfect sense for us to have this studio.

Although dancehall dominates in Mbare, Moso believes his genre will break through. Zimbabwean hip-hop is also growing, driven by demand for local music.

Michael Moso, a music producer in Mbare works with young hip-hop artists in a studio in Mbare
Michael Moso, a hip-hop producer, works with young artists in his brother’s studio in Mbare. Photography: Grace Chingono

While only a few of these artists are becoming mainstream, the Covid pandemic has led to an increase in the number of those marketing their music online through WhatsApp and YouTube.

Dozens of young people visit the ChillSpot studio daily, but most come from disadvantaged homes and cannot afford to spend time in the studio.

One of those young musicians is Tanaka Chivese of Glen View, who has visited ChillSpot Records several times in hopes of getting some studio time.

“I kept coming here because I love the music, until the producer gave me a chance. I recorded my first song in 2020 but it never came out – guess I wasn’t ready. But I am working on something that you will hear soon. I believe I can be successful in this industry. What I need is an opportunity to show what I can do, ”says Chivese.

Outside the studio, giant, colorful murals depict musicians turned heroes.

“We love our artists, and this is our little way of encouraging them for the great work they do. We use this to advertise our paintings, ”explains the artist behind the murals, Abraham Chimweta.

DJ Fantan, dancehall producer, in front of his studio, Chillspot Records, in Mbare, Zimbabwe
Dancehall producer DJ Fantan outside his studio, Chillspot Records, in Mbare. Photography: Grace Chingono

The studio produces hundreds of songs, but only a few make it to the radio.

Guitarist and music producer Trust Samende says: “Musicians do their best to create with the few resources they have, but our system is killing us, the radio stations are killing us. So the product is there, but our DJs prioritize foreign music over us. I don’t know why they think anything from the outside is better. You can never hear our music being played outside. ”

“Broadcasting on the radio is always a problem,” says Tremier Msipa, another producer. “When you start out, you don’t know the ins and outs of radio. But I maintain the philosophy that if I keep making great music, it will eventually play.

At the turn of the century, Zimbabwe imposed a 75% local content policy to support local art. This gave birth to several famous artists in the country. But Zimbabwe’s music scene remains male-dominated, with female musicians facing unequal opportunities.

Eighteen-year-old singer Tanaka Chivese records his latest song, which he hopes will become a success
18-year-old singer Tanaka Chivese is recording his latest song, which he hopes will become a hit. Photography: Grace Chingono

“There are a number of amazing female artists out there, but there are definitely a lot of obstacles that come into play as a woman in the industry. The percentage of successful female artists compared to their male counterparts is an indication of this. There is still work to be done, ”says Gemma griffiths, one of Zimbabwe’s best female musicians.

Until Zimbabwean music spreads to other markets in Nigeria or South Africa, producers will continue to make music inexpensively – but with passion.

“We have already seen a number of self-taught producers win the hearts of international artists and this is a testament to what the future holds,” says music critic Plot Mhako.