Damien Marcus’ Bira Guru Album – Ideological Consciousness and Spiritual Awakening in Zim Hip Hop

By Tawanda Chari and Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza 

Conscious rap has always existed ever since the birth of hip-hop culture, but for our local contexts, rap is on the cusp of real spiritual/ideological and conscious awakening with artists like Damien Marcus Gwini. What used to be tales revolving around the conventional tropes – crime, street violence, drug talk, getting money and bad Bs, rags-to-riches, etc. – is metamorphosing into some revolutionary third-eye spit.

The album thoroughly exudes immaculate symbolism. It was meant to be released on the 28th of April 2021. And this is because 28 April 1966 marks the beginning of the Second Chimurenga (Zimbabwe’s armed liberation struggle), the day seven guerrillas were killed by Rhodesian forces in a battle in Chinhoyi (if you know the Chinhoi 7 Story). He also thought it symbolic that Thomas Mapfumo held his Big Bira concert on the same day in 2019.

Who then is Damien Marcus Gwini?

Damien is an artist who has always been inclined to things that lead to discovery of the world he exists in – perhaps what Che Guevara termed, “I’m a child of my environment.” Damien Marcus says he has learnt a lot listening to Immortal Technique (an American rapper) and that’s the kind of an artist he became. His earliest memory of creating music was when he was about 4-years-old. He got exposed to Tupac when he was only seven through his father, and by nine, he was learning how to rap by rapping lines from an English textbook.

He recalls when ExQ dropped Musalala single; side B had the song Pandakakuona with the instrumental as well and he wrote his own version of a remix on that instrumental, but actually remixing ExQ’s verse. In high school he was now a determined budding writer, penning detailed conscious tracks - tracks too conscious to be written by a 13-year-old. That was at St John's Chikwaka. And till now, he encapsulates that spirit.  

He recorded his first demos in Chivhu when he was about 18, while doing his A Level studies. Damien’s first performance was at Miss UZ 2012, and it attracted the attention of Sani Makhalima. In 2013 he decided he was going to be a full-time artist; he recorded his first body of work, a mixtape titled Rare Diamond in the Dirt. He became a regular at Book Cafe that year. He performed at Beer Fest 2014, courtesy of Book Cafe. The following year, he delivered performances at Dub Poetry Sundays, Mashoko, and Shoko Festival.

In 2016 Damien became lead vocalist and Mbira player of a band he co-founded, ‘The Zimbabwe Dreads’. He expresses that they made several performances, including one at the Cultural Week Festival. Financial constraints strangled the whole band idea. And the last shot was when a core member, Dread Jimmy, passed away.

He then returned to Hip Hop by releasing his first EP, BOSA (Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss), a collaborative project with Prolific, a rapper from Mutare and currently a Cottage 47 member. This was in 2017. He went on to release another EP, TITHOS (Trouble in the House of Stone) in 2019. For that project, he worked with Mfece from South Africa, Elias Nseluka from Zambia, and Big Midget from Zimbabwe.

In 2021, he dropped his debut album Bira Guru, much to critical acclaim. He worked with Robert Mboko, Elias Nseluka, Rox and Big Midget on production. The 17-track LP features Cynthia Marangwanda, Aerosol, Outspoken, Synik, Diana Samkange, BA7, Viewsa and Mfece.


What does Bira mean?

In the Intro track, Damien describes Bira as a calling for a national ceremony to collectively seek the Most High and the attendant divine guidance.

Bira – a Shona word – is an all-night ritual, celebrated by Shona people from Zimbabwe in which members of an extended family call on ancestral spirits for guidance and intercession. Spiritual guidance is from their ancestors (called vadzimu) in resolving grave predicaments that adversely affect individuals, families, or entire communities (in Damien’s album, the entire Zimbabwean nation).

Bira may also be performed to request rain, at certain life-cycle ceremonies, and to address mashavi spirits (in much of African spirituality/indigenous religions, a class of spirits including those of animals and of humans who were not given proper burials and thus give a hard time to the living).

A bira may also be held simply to remain in close contact with the ancestors. Spirit mediums (masvikiro) are typically invited to the bira and are the individuals most likely amenable to possession. When in a state of possession or trance, they become the mouthpiece for the spirit whose advice is being sought.

Rap, Indigenous African Spirituality, and Ideology

Are rappers the embodiment of holistic self-realization? Damien Marcus seems to be close, if not already there. Bira Guru is predominantly spiritual. And profoundly ideological.

Spiritual/ideological rap can be gleaned as a sub-genre of hip-hop that focuses on assisting beings to heal their limited thoughts and beliefs. It seeks to teach beings new ways of seeing the world – how to heal personal pain by addressing public pain. Which ultimately is the essence of hip-hop to begin with.

Spiritual rappers traditionally focus on bringing people together through awareness of the higher consciousness that connects us all. And how that affects our material realities, hence the ideological plane.

Damien Marcus Gwini explores spiritual astuteness or lack thereof, identity crises, ideological/intellectual bankruptcy, political illiteracy, general indifference, hypocrisy, religious intolerance, and African Cosmology over old school Mobb Deep-type boom bap beats with an African feel.

Totally composed in his raps, clearly articulating his points and arguments, resembling complete control over his craft. That’s Damien Marcus and the Bira Guru album.

Political Illiteracy

Bernard Crick described that “politics is not merely a struggle for power among groups whose aim is to control the state”.  Instead, Crick identifies three parts in politics: deciding who gets what, when and how; the exercise of power; and ensuring the welfare of whole communities.

Following Crick’s guidelines, “political illiteracy” is the flawed state of the average Zimbabwean’s political knowledge and the political behaviours which are its most direct consequence. Damien’s explanation of political illiteracy is not just about how he thinks politically; it’s about what we do and how we act in everyday life.

The Zimbabwean Politician

“Many people perish and he’s the cause.”

On the track I Thought He Was Bleeding Damien goes on to illustrate how a typical Zimbabwean politician acts and behaves. Their cunning and deceptive nature. They promise you heaven if you vote for them then turn into tyranny once they get into office. The dirty game.

Damien describes the parochial nature of politics in Zimbabwe: when someone is running the government specially in a liberal democracy, that person should be open to criticism. Everyone will not agree or will not have the same opinion and that is the main basis of a democracy. But not listening to people who voted for them, torturing, and scaring them to maintain power for the sake of it can be termed as oppressive politics as illustrated by Damien.

On I Feel Like Marley, Damien expands the continuum of political narrow-mindedness from where he left off on I Thought He Was Bleeding. He labels all politicians in Zimbabwe as the same, whether ruling party or the opposition. He specifically describes politicians as hypocrites and insidious enablers of provocative politics. Or polarization.

(Politicians across either side of the political divide vaingloriously believe in neoliberal capitalism as the panacea to the country’s problems – as all of them in one way or another, and via a clash of egos and messianic tendencies, preach fiscal austerity, free trade/liberalization, deregulation, and privatization.)

Provoking groups to hate other groups on the basis of religion, class, creed etcetera. Polarization. Here, politicians strategically provoke their own party supporters against others to be prevalent and predominant in politics.

However, all in all, the song is about demanding better living conditions and better public service provision. Much like Bob Marley, the iconoclast reggae artist who was a beacon of hope for humanity through his music.

Chaos & Confusion

Has Western Civilization brainwashed African people?

Well, House of Chaos and Confusion is a song that preaches African solutions for African problems. Damien expresses his contempt for neoliberalism. He laments the misconception Africans have between being schooled and being educated. Almost as if one is about to dissect Antonio Gramsci’s ideological theory of hegemony.

He candidly asserts that Africans are educated fools. Simply put, educated fools are people who have tons of academic achievements to their credit and are full of bookish knowledge, but have very little practical experience and common sense, and are not driven by people-centred values. Common sense or lack thereof part refers to prioritizing alienating 'individual liberties' than freedom of not being inferior to white supremacy. And while that is debatable, the fundamental point remains the same.

African Cosmology

The hill on which Cecil John Rhodes is buried is called Malindidzimu, the legendary place of benevolent spirits. Yet, Cecil is an outsider. Cynthia and many Zimbabweans demand that the remains of Rhodes be exhumed from Matopos. Because Rhodes’ sacrilegious presence in Matobo mirrors the deliberate defilement of Zimbabwean spirituality.

The sacrosanct nature of the Matobo Hills cannot be overemphasised. His grave being there is a way of spiritual dominance and assertion of spiritual superiority and cannot be tolerated, proclaims Cynthia Marangwanda.

This is actually the inspiration behind the album. In 2020, Damien had the opportunity to interview Cynthia Marangwanda when he coordinated The Pan African Dialogue. The interview was about her campaign, Rhodes’ Grave Must Fall.

(Cynthia has previously written about Rhodes’ grave on her blog.)  Bira Guru was birthed from a combination of Cynthia's thoughts and beats from Robert Mboko.

Damien’s curiosity with regards to African spirituality made him digest the works of Terence Ranger’s Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-98, David Coltart’s The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, Blessing-Miles Tendi’s The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, and Mhoze Chikowero's African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe. Powerful literature.

He became fascinated with the Shona culture and tried to understand what could possibly be wrong with us as a people. He says that we are not the only race that was colonised, but we are the only continent that has failed to develop after colonialism.

The problem couldn’t be economic, we have top-notch economists, the likes of Mthuli Ncube, a whole professor (albeit his neoliberal proclivities). It couldn’t be political; we have brilliant political scientists. So, he ended up flirting with the idea that the problems of Zimbabwe are probably spiritual; therefore, there is need for a national spiritual ceremony, Bira Guru, led by the spiritual leaders of the country, despite religious affiliation. That is how the album was conceived.

Cynthia Marangwanda goes on to say that the other 36 Europeans (including the whole Allan Wilson patrol, Leander Starr Jameson, and Charles Coughlan) buried at Matopos are curses and should be removed. And that’s non-negotiable because we remain a colonized people as long as their remains are there.

That interlude begs the question of religion and spiritual astuteness of Zimbabweans as a people.

Being spiritually astute, therefore, requires us to have a keenness not just of the things that draw us deeper to a higher power presence, but also of those that pull us away.

What Damien seems to aim at here is that like muscles, spiritual astuteness requires regular workouts. Sharpening, strengthening, seeking clarity. Keep training the self to distinguish what belongs to our ancestry and what does not. This must be applied in approaches towards relationships, political ministries, finances, self-worth, and just about every other facet of life.

Hypocrisy, Heroes and Villains

Mavara ft. Outspoken, Synik and Diana Samkange

“Dindingwe rinonaka richakweva rimwe, asi kana rokwevewa roti mavara angu azarevhu.”

Literal translation – The cheetah enjoys pulling the other along, but when it is pulled it retorts, “my spots are covered in dirt.”

Proverbial Meaning – One objects to the treatment that they actually give to another, revealing their hypocrisy. Do unto others…

The social media-crazed generation could easily be perceived as the recipients of this message, given the disoriented expectations of such a young generation. People are continuously abusing each other but complain when they get abused themselves. It is ironic. For instance, there may be people saying that some South Africans are xenophobic and white people are racist, but the same people are tribalistic in their own country. Damien says you can’t complain about government brutality or oppression when you go home to abuse your spouse.

We love playing the victim when we are essentially the wickedest of villains.

Bob Gone

Many argue whether Robert Mugabe ruined his legacy or not. From a liberation war hero to an autocratic leader. And this is a matter (demanding high levels of historical/contextual nuances) that has been given detailed attention elsewhere and does not warrant repetition here. Important to note is that Damien Marcus is not a fan of the former president. And we pretty much know why given Zimbabwe’s not-so-rosy postcolonial history and reality.

Bira Guru is a packed album. The conflation of spiritual and ideological consciousness as well as recalcitrant artistry combined is unparalleled.  He values the voice within him. Winning a battle against the ever elusive existential crisis. He paints vibrant images that ground complex emotions in tangible metaphors thus embodying the universal concept of human struggle.

Damien acknowledges the spiritual connection that human beings have with everything surrounding them. The worst species on earth can easily be humankind.

Stream the Bira Guru album by Damien Marcus by clicking the Audiomack link below.

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