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Pilato -

Zambia 50 years on from Zamrock

Half a cen­tu­ry after the gol­den age of Zam­bian rock, the coun­try still vibrates to the sound of its local cultures blen­ded with the music of the moment. But while so many artists are drea­ming above all of fame and for­tune, the rap­per Pila­to is taking advan­tage of his popu­la­ri­ty to wade into the social and poli­ti­cal debate. Even if it means making ene­mies in high places.

So, what about Zam­bia ? Accor­ding to Wes­tern ears in this new cen­tu­ry, it can be sum­med up in two faces. For lis­te­ners who value Afri­can reis­sues, this land­lo­cked coun­try in sou­thern Afri­ca, the continent’s second-lar­gest pro­du­cer of cop­per, takes the guise of Rick­ki Ili­lon­ga, from the group Musi O Tunya (the name for the Zam­be­zi falls in the Ton­ga lan­guage). The native of the north-west pro­vince is one of the last sur­vi­vors of a gene­ra­tion of Zam­bian musi­cians deci­ma­ted by AIDS, who, all about fuz­zed-out gui­tars, in the mid-1970s crea­ted the sound that the Zam­bian radio jour­na­list Manas­seh Phi­ri, who died in 2019, would chris­ten Zam­rock : an enthral­ling seam of psy­che­de­lic rock that still delights those who like to unearth conti­nen­tal gems.

For youn­ger lis­te­ners, urban music enthu­siasts, modern Zam­bia has the atti­tude, allure and flow of the Aus­tra­lian Sam­pha The Great, with Zam­bian roots, whose video for “Final Form”, taken from her latest mul­ti-award-win­ning album The Return, marks her homecoming.


The repu­ta­tion of the rap­per Pila­to (People in Lyri­cal Are­na Taking the Power), alias Fum­ba Cham­ba, aged 36, ins­tead remains confi­ned to the youn­ger gene­ra­tion and the inha­bi­tants of the town­ships in this coun­try of 18 mil­lion. But it won’t take long before this repu­ta­tion reaches beyond the bor­ders of sou­thern Afri­ca. On stage and in his dai­ly life, Pila­to is both a calm rebel in Zam­bian civic socie­ty and one of the pet peeves of the Patrio­tic Front, the ruling par­ty. Next year, Zam­bians will take part in a repeat of 2016, which pit­ted incumbent pre­sident Edgar Lun­gu against the UNDP busi­ness­man Hakainde Hichi­le­ma. Pilato’s influence in the country’s town­ships will be decisive…

Pas­sio­nate about poe­try and a student of phi­lo­so­phy, Pila­to pri­ma­ri­ly raps and sings in Bem­ba, the most wide­ly spo­ken ver­na­cu­lar lan­guage along­side English in Zambia’s towns and fields, from the banks of the Zam­be­zi River to the Cop­per­belt, the mine­ral-rich region from which Pila­to hails. Relea­sed on the country’s social media chan­nels on 4 July, Here I Live, his fourth album, set with raw accounts pro­vi­ded by Zam­bians from the streets, affirms his uni­que­ness on the domes­tic rap scene. Pila­to expresses him­self through music influen­ced by that of the sub-region, but also by Kalin­du­la, the tra­di­tio­nal music of north-west Zam­bia, popu­la­ri­sed by the late P.K Chi­sha­la under the regime of father of the nation Ken­neth Kaun­da. The themes the rap­per brings up in pic­to­rial vignettes are those that concern the 60% of Zam­bians living on less than two dol­lars per day : pol­lu­tion lin­ked to the cop­per indus­try, the cost of living, cor­rup­tion, street kids, women’s rights…



When he’s not rap­ping, Pila­to (@iampilato) is on social media lea­ding poli­ti­cal inter­ven­tions and taking part in debates on solu­tions to the gro­wing social inequa­li­ties in the coun­try. “Where the voice of many sin­gers iden­ti­fies itself with the few power­ful elites who abuse the public trust, rob the poor, manu­fac­ture inequa­li­ty, serve as the mid­wi­fe­ry of injus­tice, and erode Zambia’s demo­cra­cy, Pila­to raises his voice to pour cri­ti­cism on the action of such elites, to attend so the pain of those who suf­fer, and to serve the silent and oppres­sed”, points out Zam­bian his­to­rian and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Sishu­wa Situla

The name Fum­ba Cham­ba began cir­cu­la­ting among Zam­bians in 2013. Hopes car­ried by the popu­list stan­zas of pre­sident-elect Michael Sata, nick­na­med the Cobra, were tur­ning sour. “When he came to power, he announ­ced that he was going to build roads, give jobs to young people, indus­tria­lise our eco­no­my, etc. When we saw that nothing had been star­ted, we wrote a song cal­led Lies. Sata died while in office. In 2015, when Edgar Lun­gu was nar­row­ly elec­ted to see out the term of his decea­sed pre­de­ces­sor, Pila­to got him­self tal­ked about once again with “Lun­gu Anab­we­la”, which casual­ly took aim at the new head of state. The song ear­ned him his first arrest by the Zam­bian police for defa­ma­tion. A year later, Edgar Lun­gu was re-elec­ted as the country’s lea­der after a par­ti­cu­lar­ly hard-fought duel with Hakainde Hichi­le­ma. On 29 Sep­tem­ber 2017, while the natio­nal bud­get was being pre­sen­ted to the Natio­nal Par­lia­ment, a group of six “acti­vists” inclu­ding Pila­to orga­ni­sed a pea­ce­ful demons­tra­tion near the Cham­ber of Depu­ties denoun­cing the misuse of public funds. The result was his arrest and indict­ment for breaches of public order law. In late 2017, a new song this time for­ced Pila­to, the reci­pient of death threats, to take refuge for five months in South Afri­ca : Koswe Mum­po­to (A rat in the pot), a meta­phor for the cor­rup­tion that rei­gns among the circles of power.



Since Pilato’s return to the coun­try in May 2018, human rights have conti­nued to dete­rio­rate in Zam­bia amid dimi­ni­shing food safe­ty and the exter­nal debt time­bomb. The eco­no­mic cri­sis cau­sed by Covid-19 now places the coun­try at an “unsus­tai­nable” level of debt, of which Zam­bians them­selves will once again be the first victims.

Pila­to reco­gnises that the release of his new album “has spar­ked a num­ber of inter­es­ting debates and conver­sa­tions about eco­no­mic inequa­li­ties in Zam­bia and the fact that the Zam­bian masses are the sole owners of solu­tions to these pro­blems”. Howe­ver, he does not intend to get behind any par­ti­cu­lar poli­ti­cal par­ty : “I’m com­mit­ted to the idea that the real power to moti­vate change is that of the people. Nobo­dy elec­ted me to be an artist : it’s a pri­vi­lege that I take serious­ly and with grace ; it allows me com­plete free­dom and flexi­bi­li­ty”.



Jean-Christophe Servant

Jean-Christophe Servant

During the 90s, I worked the urban music magazine l'Affiche, I was also the former head of the department of Géo magazine. For thirsty years, I worked mostly for Le Monde Diplomatique about the English-speaking areas of sub-Saharan Africa. I have a particular interest for its cultural industry and its new urban music.


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