Even in a music industry as healthily diverse and splintered as Tanzania’s Roma is a colorful outlier. For one thing his real name Ibrahim Musa is at odds with his stage name, Roma Mkatholiki, Roman Catholic. When he preaches, sermonizing over long, unapologetically grand songs, he is often dressed in Islamic garb. And he is an academic, a former teacher whose first single was called ‘Mathematics’ and an advocate for science and other technical subjects in schools.
Earlier this year, in the final week of Ramadan, he attended a school Mbagala, Dar es salaam, where he had once taught—holding an algebra class and donating a few books while still limping slightly, unable to quite stand fully straight at the head of the class yet still holding everyone’s intention. To watch Roma or to listen to him is to be confronted with pure sincerity. He is a man incapable of gimmick so all these contradictions are allowable, part of an eagerness for truth. He is also unsparing, bringing all that sincerity and truth seeking to bear in driving anthems that defer to no one, least of all those in power.
This from Mathematics
The country’s been sold, the big men drawing us all like ATMs
And from Tanzania,
Say it Tanzania, Tanzania, a lost state of citizens crying over false promises
Later that same week, after Eid-el-Fitr, Roma was to descend from a crane, dressed in white for a performance at the Dar Live Festival not too far from that school. His first since being abducted with some of his colleagues and returning bruised and injured after several days.
That I can even write those words without qualifying them with ‘ongoing’ or ‘perpetrators found’ speaks to an identity impasse Tanzania finds itself in. As with many countries globalization has proved to be a bad deal for most. Inequality is growing and in that a gap a staunch conservatism is finding room as global uncertainty is peters in. We’re far from an oppressed nation but also not above examples of how that may go.
Earlier in the year some of the countries biggest artists were marched into central police station for questioning over drug trafficking allegations. Some, such as Vanessa Mdee, spent almost a week inside without charge. Later another rapper, Ney, was arrested and then released over a song. While Roma was taken from his studio, beaten in an unknown location for three days, and then released following a massive public outcry.
The interviews that followed were a sore sight.
Roma, hand heavily cast, would explain that he was sick at the sight of food because that meant he would be there longer or that blindfolds gave him hope because who would go to such trouble for a man they would grievously harm. The kind of interviews that might be national elsewhere conducted in small pop radio booths by DJs rather than journalists. If this was indeed a test, a first they came for the artist scenario then it was roundly failed; the precedent set; and aftershocks still to come.
Roma returned with his biggest song so far, choosing his words carefully but far from bowed. On the crane, hanging and dressed those white robes he sang verses flecked with scripture acapella to a crowd many of whom were part of a wave of across all social media platforms calling for his freedom under #freeRoma.
“Many of you wondered if those who took me were the police” he sang, “your searched all through central station, they said we don’t know where he is and mother even had to go to the mortuary…well…render to Cesar what is Cesar’s, your tears will find an answer so I fast and I pray.
The song, below, is called Zimbabwe.