MUSIC AS POLITICAL POWER - With PilAto, Zambian Music Artist Sensation
[This episode contains great music!]
His beautiful music reaches millions. He’s topped the charts in the African continent. He’s winning change. He’s even been arrested for his music. He is PilAto – real name Fumba Chama – the Zambian music artist and activist sensation. On this truly inspiring episode of the EQUALS podcast Max and Nabil speak to PilAto about his backstory, what’s behind his music, and the power of music to change the world.
This is the final episode of the EQUALS podcast this season – and if you’re joining us for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with the award-winning journalist Gary Younge on what we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr to fight inequality, to best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, to thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic. And more!
The following is a truncated “transcript” but you can listen to the full episode below or on your preferred podcast platform!
Meet PilAto – Fumba Chama
We start off listening to PilAto’s powerful song, “Economics Yamu Kaboba” and Max asks PilAto to let us in on who he is.
Pilato shares his background stating, “My name is Fumba Chama and I am (the second born) in a family of 4 (children). I was born in Ndola, … a district in the Copper Belt, … a province in Zambia. I grew up in … Ndeke, Ndola. Much of my childhood was like any other childhood until the age of 16 when both my parents died … and circumstances required that … my older brother went to look for his own space and I went to also look for my space at 16. (One of my) younger brothers went to stay with my grandfather and … the last born went to live with my uncle.
As time went by, I found myself in a situation where I needed to depend on people’s kindness. I needed someone to offer help for me to survive a day. At the age of 18 I was renting my first room … I didn’t have a job. I was in school. … A few months into renting (the room), my younger brother who was staying with my grandfather was kicked out, though I don’t know why, and he came to join me in this room. I had become a guardian to my young brother, and we were both in school. I had to make sure that I pay rent; … my own education; … my brother’s education; … feed my brother; feed myself; get clothes for the both of us and still survive. …
He continues, “It got to a point where we got so helpless and I remember … there is a time that we were so hungry, (having) spent about three days without food. So, I went to school and luckily, there were people from the hospital collecting (blood donations). … I went to donate blood and they gave me a packet of sugar, juice and a biscuit. That was so much for me! I left school immediately and went home. … I found (my brother) super starved and about to eat this thing that he got from the garbage. I told him, ‘No, you don’t have to do this!’ … and we ate what I had got from the blood donation. …”
PilAto reflects, “What saved us mostly was the support (and) kindness from the people in my community … and today I ask myself, what will I do for people that sacrificed so much for me? I honestly still don’t know what I could do to thank them, apart from the little I do to fight for their good. For a reality where these people that are poor can still have access to dignity (and) basic needs. … My work is to basically champion for equal access to these basic needs because at the end of the day, we do have people that are so poor, not because they are lazy (or) uneducated; but because the system does not favour people like them.”
Moved by PilAto’s past, Nabil references one of Pilato’s songs “Ni Yimbeko” in which he sings in Nyanja, “My parents are asking me what’s troubling me. I’m fearful. I can’t speak so I’m singing. Young children are homeless. They’re orphaned. They’re sleeping in ditches in the streets.”
Nabil then asks PilAto to share the inspiration behind his music.
Pilato answers, “… The background I just shared. Today we are living in a society where humanity is determined by how much one has in the bank account; in their pocket; or which side of town they live; or who they know. So, there are too many people whose humanity we’ve taken away because they do not smell as nice as we do; because they do not dress as well as we do. The victims are young kids that we’ve abandoned. We call them “street kids” … and these are innocent kids whose dreams we’ve not paid attention to. Whose life (and) dignity we do not care about. … What are we doing to the future of … humanity? … If our discussion on equality is something that we believe in, then we must invest ourselves in ensuring that the young people today are empowered (and) prepared for a future that would bring about equality.”
He explains, “’Ni Yimbeko’, is me trying to say … I’m worried because at the end of the day, whether or not you’ve educated these young people, whether or not you’ve prepared them for the future, they will still grow up! …”
Max then asks PilAto what he thinks of inequality globally, especially having billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (and their wealth) in mind.
PilAto answers, “…Society has become like a … stadium where we watch men compete to become the world billionaires. The world’s richest. The billionaire culture has even made inequality a sport. We are quick to … celebrate them but we neglect to ask very critical questions about the people that are working for these people. … Who are the accessories in this sport where men will be celebrated as ‘world’s richest’? This is the society that we have created … where dignity is meaningless.”
He continues, “When we speak about inequality, … what we are saying is that the people that are making the most; benefitting the most (and) stealing the most; must be responsible enough to say, ‘This is what we got. Is everyone benefitting?’ We cannot celebrate the people at the top without taking time to lift the lives of the people at the bottom. Jeff Bezos may be the richest man, but do we know the poorest man at his company? …”
Charity is NOT Justice; Charity is NOT a solution
Following up, Nabil asks what PilAto’s take on charity is.
PilAto expresses his stance saying, “… Charity cannot replace justice! Charity is not a solution! The issue with charity is that you take away so much from people; … you put them in a situation where they need charity to survive and then you come back as a messiah. … That should be criminal. … We should resist a system that makes millions of people … (dependent) on an individual’s charity to survive. … It is sinful that millions should wait for an individual like Bill Gates to buy them a vaccine! … the millions of people should donate to an individual; not an individual being so powerful that (he) can donate to millions of people. To nations! It doesn’t make sense! … Charity shouldn’t come at the expense of justice, … morality (or) human dignity.”
It’s Not Fair
Nabil notes that PilAto, along with other artists, is at the top of the charts with the song “It’s Not Fair”. So, Nabil asks PilAto how it feels to be number 1 with this song.
PilAto answers, “It’s not a new thing for me but it’s new in that this is a song that’s talking about issues that matter. When we make music about alcohol and we become number 1, we’re super excited and it’s rare that a song that’s conscious and is speaking to reality becomes number 1 in the country. … I’m excited because of that.
Fight Inequality Alliance (FIA)
The song was recorded as an FIA initiative and Nabil asks how it feels to be part of the movement and what it’s all about.
PilAto explains, “The FIA for me has been like a bigger family. I’ve always worked alone … purely because I’ve always had trouble connecting myself to established organizations because I’m impatient, especially on things that I’m strong about. Like for me, inequality is an emergency that needs to be addressed. So, I’ve always had trouble working with any other person because what bothers me may not bother them as much as it bothers me. So, when I heard about FIA and had a meeting with them, I realized that we were agreeing, and we were at the same pace. … That’s not easy especially for people in my space because it’s difficult to find solidarity in a situation where you have to stand against the powerful. It’s difficult to find friends in a society where standing for truth is not popular. …”
He continues passionately, “It’s also very important because the FIA is made up of ordinary people like me. The grassroots people. I’ve always held a belief that anybody that’s going to discuss inequality without the people at the grassroots, is purely gossip. For example, Davos. Billionaires discussing issues of inequality. For me, that’s just billionaires gossiping about poor people. It doesn’t work like that! …
Music as Political Power
Max asks PilAto how he sees the power of music in Africa, given the reach that musicians have to young people.
PilAto answers, “Music is powerful everywhere. The power of music, art (and) creativity cannot be doubted. … If we are able to use music to promote ideas that are negative – a good example is patriarchy: we have used music to promote men (who) belittle women – why can’t we use the same power to shape society? … I ask myself, what is it that I could do if I had power to influence? To change anything. … If music is power, it means that I have that power. … I have to use this music to create a society where the humanity of those that will come after me is not going to be determined by which side of town they live. … If music has the power to create a society like that, I don’t think I can use it for anything less.
And the million-dollar question: what gives you hope in the fight against inequality?
PilAto shares, “What gives me hope is … the fact that I’ve got a voice that can be heard. The fact that I can speak and someone will nod and say, ‘Yes, that’s true. Yes, we deserve better. Yes, we have the power!’ … The situation we are in now is that there are so many voices speaking. For those of us that have the privilege to be heard and listened to, if we can speak equality, … justice, … equality & inclusivity; and there is 1 or 2 people listening, that’s hope already, because the next discussion these people will have, their minds will be aware that we need a better society. And there’s no way that we can create a better society without equality.”
He adds, “Secondly, the young people… When you speak to these young people, you see … that they realize that things have been bad and we can do better. For me, that’s hope enough for a better future.”
We finish with PilAto’s “Mama Earth”, a song about climate change and how we need to act responsibly because if we believe in the future we must take responsibility in making sure that the environment is part of our planning for a better future.
You can listen to more of PilAto’s music on www.iampilato.com
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The featured image is credited to PilAto.