A raptivist who believes in the power of music

Fumba Chama, otherwise known as rapper PiLAto. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Fumba Chama is a Zambian-born rapper who goes by the name PiLAto. The lyrical wordsmith has used his music to question the unfulfilled promises made by politicians. PiLAto attended Amnesty International’s global assembly in August. Maverick Citizen sat down with him to discuss his music and activism.

MC: The name PiLAto is an acronym, what is that about?

A: Yes, PiLAto is an acronym standing for: Peoples in lyrical arena taking over. So, that in itself denotes responsibility for creative people to take charge and responsibility. Instead of just watching things play out, can we add creativity to the issues that affect the people, can we play a role in ensuring that we have a society that works for all?

MC: Who is your musical inspiration?

A: Fela Kuti, Kanye West. A lot of people. Someone taught me when I was young that you don’t need one inspiration, you need a lot of them for you to create your own mind. So, if you pick one you become a clone. You pick two you get confused ’cause they may not always agree, so pick a lot of them and then you create your own mind.

MC: You use your music to address social issues in Zambia. What are the issues you are tackling?

A: First of all, one of the things that I am so passionate about is equality, be it gender equality, economic equality and so on. I believe that everybody is born with a dream. Everyone has their fair share of ambitions. All of us are human beings born with a measure of dignity. If one group of people is more advantageous than the other, then there is something wrong.

These are issues that bother me and I try to speak about them as much as I can.

MC: One of your songs is about the procurement of 42 fire trucks by a public figure, and that song caused a stir in Zambia. What was the idea behind that song?

A: The song is called Rat in the Pots, and it is not really about the 42 fire trucks. It is about a number of issues that happen and the theme there is corruption. The song is talking about a rat that invades your house, comes into your house and eats everything, even steals things that it doesn’t use. I did the song as a reflection of the reality that I was subject to. The message there was this rat is stealing from the people and if we are not careful, we may not have things to fight for tomorrow. So, we better stop the rat now.

MC: Do you understand your music as being a catalyst for change?

A: I expect people who listen to my music to question themselves and what they are doing. When you see the house is on fire, what are you doing about it? I am doing a song about it, protesting it, what are you doing about it? Gustave le Bon asks: “Who is the enemy of the society? Those who attack it or those who do not even give themselves the trouble of defending it when it is being attacked?” So, I ask, who are the enemies of our country? Is it those who steal from it or those who refuse to stand up and defend it?

When I was growing up, I was told that music is power. Many people told me this and I asked myself, what would I do if I had power? What would I do if I was the most powerful individual on Earth? I try to find an answer to that every single day. If music is power and I can do music, I would rather create a society that works for me, and you, and our families.

MC: What is the role of music in the state of the world as it is now?

A: Music has always been an important tool in the struggle. As much as I agree with that, I also want to add that it’s not just music. Everything that people devote themselves to has power to bring change. One example is the apartheid struggle; we are too quick to point at artists who released music and we forget about the doctors, lawyers and others that played their part in ensuring that these musicians were safe, that these people survived. We forget to do that. I say that because I want you to have a [holistic] look at the struggle, not one particular element or talent. Doctors, teachers, musicians, drivers, soldiers and all these can be used for activism. While music is powerful, important and is a force, all these professions, gifts and skills can also be powerful and can be used as a force of change and activism.

MC: Do you consider yourself an activist?

A: People call me an activist and I’m yet to call myself such because not even a lion called itself the king of the jungle, people called it that. I am just a human being who believes that all human beings are equal.

MC: What impact do you think your music has made in Zambian society?

A: In 2013 we did a song that talked about the lies that were told to us during the campaigns leading to elections in Zambia. Specifically that if President Michael Sata and his PF party got into power they were going to create roads, that they would give jobs to young people, they were going to industrialise our economy and so on. When they didn’t do that, we did a song called Lies with a colleague of mine and a few months later we saw the road construction had suddenly started.

MC: Have you ever been arrested or persecuted because of your music?

A: In 2015 I got arrested for the first time and it was because people thought I defamed the president. I did a song Alungu anabwela which is a narration of Mr A-lungu who went to [the] presidency clueless, drunk and with nothing but a briefcase with a Jameson whiskey in his bag. He went there knowing nothing, so in his ways of trying to navigate through power he went into the gutter, into the rubbish bin to pick individuals that were evicted out of power and brought them back into the system. So, some people convinced themselves that I was defaming President Lungu. It’s an assumption I refuse to affirm or deny. I was arrested and when we went to court the government, the director for prosecutions discontinued the case without an explanation.

MC: So you have been arrested three times, by the second time did you not think, “Maybe this is not for me?”

A: By the second time I was thinking: When is the 10th going to happen? If I am going to tell you that this guy is corrupt, that this guy is a thief and they are not troubled by me it means I am not doing anything right. We can’t be on the same side with the people that I think are crooks and thieves, it doesn’t happen like that. For as long as I say, I believe in equality, justice and the equal distribution of resources, those that don’t believe in that cannot be on the same side as me and if we are both not in prison then what is keeping us on one side? My compromise or theirs? I’m ready to go back there a million times as the corrupt remain corrupt and I remain PiLAto.

MC: If the government decided that you could no longer do music, what would PiLAto do next?

A: If somebody decides, PiLAto is going to decide, simple. So, if one has that much power to decide then PiLAto must have power to decide too. If they decide no music, no art, PiLAto is going to decide more music, more art, more culture, more of everything. MC

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