By: Daniel McElroy
Popular Zambian hip-hop artist Fumba Chama, better known under his stage name Pilato, has fled Zambia and refuses to reveal his location in the wake of death threats and censorship that left him with no choice but to run.
Following the release of Pilato’s newest single Koswe Mumpoto (“Rat in the Pot”) in December, Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) immediately began a crackdown on what it believes to be an insult to President Edgar Lungu. Soon after its premiere, The PF’s Youth League issued a statement giving Pilato forty-eight hours to withdraw the song. When he refused, the threats began pouring in.
By early January, Pilato says, “I started getting threats, both as (WhatsApp) voice notes and video clips, of warnings telling me what they were going to do to me.” Some detractors threatened to beat him, and others insisted that he deserved to die. Others were specific, threatening to kidnap him from the courtroom itself if he tried to report what was happening.
This is not the first time Pilato has caused controversy in Zambia, having made a name for himself with tracks that are overtly critical of the country’s corrupt political elite. In 2011 he released a song in which he referred to members of the Zambian parliament as “mental patients,” which was followed by another in 2013 which call then-President Michael Sata the “father of lies.” He was also brought to court in 2015 for a lyric that referred to Lungu as a “drunk,” though the case was thrown out before being heard.
Zambian officials, speaking through the Zambian High Commissioner to South Africa, deny accusations from the international community regarding the threats to Pilato’s life, but official repression of the artist’s work is widespread and prominent. The most recent song has been banned from Zambian airwaves, and Pilato was refused the opportunity to perform at several scheduled concerts in the weeks following its release. When he was allowed to perform last December, it was with strict regulation of his setlists.
After Pilato fled on January 5, Zambian authorities issued a bench warrant demanding his arrest and that he appear in court on January 29. As he remained outside the country past that date, the Zambian government could opt to issue an international arrest warrant, though it is unlikely that a Western nation would extradite Pilato back to Zambia, whose government is widely viewed as a dictatorship.
Even in exile, it is not likely that Pilato will stop performing—or speaking out about the state of his country’s politics—any time soon. “I keep making these songs because they are necessary,” he said. “I believe somebody has to stand, somebody has to speak out, somebody has to challenge the wrongs if we are to move forward, if we are to make a better country for ourselves.” Indeed, even his stage name is a revolutionary acronym: it stands for “People in Lyrical Arena Taking Over.”