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Can “Shulala” Give Harmonize the Pop Fame that He Deserves?

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Can “Shulala” Give Harmonize the Pop Fame that He Deserves?

To a certain extent, the entire WCB label, the music unit owned by Diamond Platnumz that’s fast beginning to resemble an East African empire, owes its legitimacy to Harmonize. His 2015 smash hit, Aiyola, was the first song by the label not involving Diamond to gain wider recognition. His second song, Bado, this time with Diamond on board, cemented him as one of East Africa’s premier artists. He is consistent, churning out new tracks every few months such as Matatizo and Niambie, both of which have over 5 million views and has another hit with similar numbers (Inde) with Dully Sykes, one of the forefathers of Tanzanian pop and among its most respected artists.

By any measure, Harmonize has done enough for his popularity to start yielding puff pieces about being a crown prince or the next big thing in Afropop. Perhaps even for CNN, that ultimate legitimizer of our continent, to take an interest. At the very least Harmonize should be an unquestioned star, an ambassador of East African music as almost all other successful Tanzanian artists are or are considered to be; and yet, no one in media is in any rush to call him a anything. His label mate Rayvanny is the future, a vocalist gifted enough to secure WCB’s legacy in the coming years. While another, Rich Mavoko, continues to defy those who questioned his move to the label with hit after hit. Harmonize meanwhile is just Harmonize. An artist who in pure numbers is bigger than those two but who, despite his best efforts, keeps making the kind of music that is welcomed rather than celebrated.

Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of this than the story of Hamorapa. In Richard Ayoade’s brilliant film The Double (based on a story by Dostoevsky no less), an office worker arrives one day to find that his personality has been adopted and is generally being put to better use by someone who looks exactly like him. As traumatizing as that may be, you get the sense throughout the film that the worst thing about it is the fact that others are allowing it to happen; that the original owner of the personality is either not sufficiently valued or otherwise so lacking as to allow another version of himself to exist at the same time as he. Now, if this should horrify an office worker imagine how infuriating it would be for a musician, for whom image is everything. Direct copycats of artists tend to be dismissed out of hand by the public. Not so for Harmonize, who for the majority of this year has been effectively trolled by his own double, Hamorapa, whose claim to fame and moderate success is that he looks like Harmonize but he raps.

An artist of Harmonize’s caliber should be able to count on a fan bases too loyal to stand such blatant mimicry of their idol or failing that should depend on DJs valuing his contribution enough to refuse to legitimize anything so derivative of him. That Harmonize is unable to count on neither shows the looseness of his place in the public consciousness. I could think of no other artist in Tanzania on whom such a thing could befall, who could be so unable to stop a person who while not technically plagiarizing his music is still in effect, with every show and every one and his one million or so YouTube views, living some part of Harmonize’s dream.

There are also other instances; such as the unearthing of his disastrous audition for Tanzania’s singing show, Bongo Star Search, where the judges called him out for ruining a classic. His maligned new bleached hair and the tattoos. The on-and-off relationship with actress Jaqueline Wolper. And the sense of this all adding to the sum total of a person who might enjoy stardom a little bit too much if he is ever given it whole.

A sort of unspoken public consensus seems to have emerged around Harmonize in Tanzania and East Africa at large; that for his own good, the level of his fame should be drip-fed in perpetuity, that he’ll never get any more of it than what is required to get him along to the next single. And, as a result, every new song feels like he is treading water, still aiming to beat the minor-level fame he has long outgrown with the indisputable hit that will put all that’s been mentioned to bed, and make him the undisputed star he probably deserves to be by now.

Of all recent candidates, perhaps his latest one, Shulala, is the best placed to do just that.

For a start the song features Korede Bello, whose songs Godwin and Romantic are such mainstays on East African radio that he is threatening to unseat  Tiwa Savage as the face of the Mavins label on the East Side. Korede also genuinely commits to the song, showing up on location and singing a verse in Kiswahili; they sing as equals, collaborating in a real sense rather than just for a one sided stunt where its clear some favor is being done.

The video, beachside and brightly colored, offers a strong holiday vibe and in the context of his recent videos this holiday might just be from trying to build himself,  from undercutting his own popularity by trying to make Harmonize ‘a thing’. He is neither burnishing a playboy image by surrounding himself with women such as in Show Me; nor promoting a high profile relationship like in Niambie; or trying to cut against the Matatizonarrative such videos have created with overly somber outings in Matatizo (about being broke) and Sina (about the once being rich and then losing it all variety of broke). Shulala feels purer somehow. A return to Aiyola and Bado where he was not trying too hard. Smiling and relaxed Harmonize seems like a man who’s stumbled on the first digits of an equation for being himself. And should he find the rest then be assured that any and all holds on his fame will be released and that we’ll be hearing more and more and more of him in the time to come.

 

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