Will Tanzania's Rapping Politician-Turned-Prisoner Stay on Beat?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Joseph Mbilinyi’s stage name translates as “stubborn,” and he’s not letting a prison stint deter his message.
By Kizito Makoye
Dressed in a slim-fit V-shaped sweater with matching trousers, he storms the stage like a superhero. The audience erupts as he spits politically charged rhymes into the microphone. His soulful melodies and lyrical style keep the crowd swinging as the disco lights filter through puffs of smoke during a performance at music venue Dar Live.
Joseph Mbilinyi — aka Sugu (stubborn), II Proud or simply Mr. II — is a legendary Tanzanian musician and businessman. A pioneer of “Bongo Flava,” a music genre heavily influenced by U.S. hip-hop, he has released more than 20 albums and clinched numerous awards. His songs not only get the crowd moving, but they provoke political discussion on human-rights issues and social justice. “Sugu was a politician with no official title,” says Mike Mhagama, a friend and former host on Radio One.
Until he became a real politician that is. As a member of parliament, Sugu, 46, is one of the most prominent dissidents challenging the regime of President John Magufuli — authorities even tossed him in jail in February for insulting the president. Sugu was released after 73 days and seemed to relish the moment: “I have entered in history books as a political prisoner,” he says.
I never chose to be a politician; politics chose me.
Joseph “Sugu” Mbilinyi
Born in the southern township of Mtwara, Sugu, the oldest of four siblings, has always faced an uphill struggle in life. He was nicknamed “May,” ostensibly to symbolize hard work, as he was born on Tanzania’s workers’ day, according to Mhagama. Battling poverty, Sugu learned to be a hustler growing up in Mbeya, a city he describes as “the garden of Eden.”
His musical talent started to evolve in his early teens, as Sugu spent a lot of time composing lyrics. He never went to high school, instead moving to Dar es Salaam when he was barely 17 to study how to clear cargo from the port — a course he never completed.
After his father died when Sugu was 20, he had to earn for the family, so he worked as a security guard for two years. He put some of his earnings aside to record a single titled “Siku Yangu” (“My Day”) and his first album, Ni Mimi (“It’s Me”), came three years later. Influenced by Tupac Shakur, Sugu has tackled tough subjects in the manner of the legendary American rapper — just in Swahili. Sugu spits rhymes on police brutality, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and the plight of street children.
But many radio DJs were “careful not to cross the line” by playing his politically charged songs, Mhagama says. Still, Sugu found success with hits such as “Ndani ya Bongo” and “Coming of Age.” He is among the most famous artists in Tanzania, and his international tours have taken him to the United States and Europe.
His songs also chart his own life’s arc, such as the 2016 song “Freedom,” in which Sugu says: “I never chose to be a politician; politics chose me.” Disillusioned by selfish political elites, Sugu joined the opposition party Chadema in June 2010 and was made its parliamentary candidate for the Mbeya constituency. On the backs of his legions of fans, he won the election.
But he hasn’t governed as a swaggering rapper. Instead, it’s Sugu’s self-effacing modesty that has earned him an unusual measure of respect. He won re-election in 2015 with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Armed with oratory power, Sugu has always advocated for economic freedom and social justice. In the parliament he often uses street slang to make his point, prompting laughter from other legislators. For example, he would use the Swahili word “Mwanangu” — used by street peers as a gesture of goodwill, but literally meaning “my son/daughter” — to beg the parliamentary chairperson to grant him the opportunity to ask a question.
Sugu’s critics say he hasn’t effectively used his political influence to promote the interests of his fellow artists. “I supported him and had a lot of expectations because I knew he would be our mouthpiece; he has disappointed us,” says Selemani Msindi, aka Afande Sele, a veteran hip-hop artist. Msindi accuses Sugu of betraying artists and the people who elected him by amassing his own wealth. “If you go to Mbeya, you will realize that he hasn’t done anything to his people,” Msindi says.
Sugu responds, “I was not elected to represent artists per se; I was elected to serve Tanzanians, especially my fellow Mbeya constituency.” He declined to reveal financial details, but he has no doubt made plenty of money. Sugu owns various businesses, including a three-star luxury hotel located in Mbeya. And he wrote an autobiography “to put my record straight” and describe how his survival skills from the street have brought him this far in music and politics.
It hasn’t been an easy road. The politician-rapper has found himself repeatedly charged with crimes. In June 2010 he was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill an opponent. He was later set free. Early this year he was sentenced to five months in prison for insulting the president at a December 2017 political rally, when he was accused of saying Magufuli “ought to confess to God for stagnating the country’s economy and rendering Tanzanians a hard life.” Amid accusations of “hate” speech against the head of state, Sugu maintains it was a political talk like any other. “I did nothing wrong,” he says. “It was a failed attempt to silence me.”
Sugu says he was treated with respect in prison, despite enduring horrid conditions and sharing a small mattress with four inmates. But it took a toll on his family. Sugu’s mother, Desderia, died in August. Delivering her eulogy, Sugu blamed the high blood pressure that led to his mother’s death on her belief that “I was unjustly imprisoned.”
He turned once again to his art. Sugu planned to release his new song, “#219,” narrating his prison time, but it was banned by the National Arts Council, the state’s creative works watchdog, on the grounds that it contained “prohibited” content. It’s one of the myriad ways Magufuli has cracked down on dissent since taking office in 2015, with authoritarianism advancing in the nation of nearly 60 million.
After the decision to ban his song, Sugu said he would sue the government so the nation can hear his unfiltered words once more. But he has yet to follow through on his threat.
OZY’s 5 Questions for Joseph “Sugu” Mbilinyi
- What’s was your angriest moment in prison? When prison wardens accused me of sneaking in a mobile telephone. They ordered me to undress before everyone.
- What was your surprising moment in prison? A surprise birthday cake my wife brought.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My cell phone.
- Who’s your hero? My mother.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Creating 5,000 jobs for my people.
- Kizito Makoye, OZY Author Contact Kizito Makoye