"You Did It On Your Own" - Synik and The Power of Empathy in Hip Hop

"Over the phone, they be asking you what the snow like Like yeah its cold but it ain’t nothing like this cold life"

Staring through the 8th-floor window of this building, I'm soaking in the view of the city from the apartment I'm renting, with the reality of what is to be my new life sinking in. The snow takes some getting used to. My melanin is actually yet to fully comprehend this new environment after two decades in the sun and I'll be honest, the white flurry of floating ice flakes is quite scary. This is a far cry from the dreams I was sold from all those years watching Hallmark Christmas movies growing up. Nope. Snow is not cute. There were no handcrafted snowmen with carrots for noses or kids playing dodgeball with morsels of snow which are reminiscent of Sadza. And that's where the trouble begins - the slow realisation that you, a Zimbabwean boy are two airplanes away from home. 

After 29 years of living life as part of a people joined together by an in-quantifiable ideology which can only be described as Ubuntu, the reality that the concept of "I am because we are" becomes more alien as frequently as I see a stray cat in the streets of Istanbul. The rarity of smiles amongst the 15 million plus population of the city and even more so the less melanin I see, amplifies what I already knew: this is not home. That's where Gerald Mugwenhi, better known as Synik, celebrated emcee and one of Zimbabwean hip hop's most respected voices, separated by a 4-hour flight from Lisbon managed to connect with me in a way very few Zimbabwean artists have. 

This dreadlocked lyrical genius may have just made my stay in Türkiye bearable

There was no Zoom or WhatsApp call (although we are overdue one), instead, all it took was a 4 minute 30-second lyrical empathetic story told from growing pains and lived experiences that he and millions of other Zimbabweans who have left the country to ply their trade in foreign lands. Synik's song "Wega", which is Shona for "Alone/On your own", is the fifth track off his sophomore album aptly named "A Travel Guide For The Broken" and it could qualify as an alternative to the national anthem for every Zimbabwean living in the diaspora. I'm obviously exaggerating but I've struggled to find a rap song that perfectly captures the quandaries that every young African who has left their home country with nothing but a backpack and hope. 

I've often heard that "Africa is a village". While this is often said in jest, not necessarily to imply that the 54-country continent is impoverished but in the sense that the people of Africa have so many similar lived experiences that could make the citizens come off as a monolith. Be it the kleptocracy that defines state governing bodies, dysfunctional institutions or the quarterly mass exodus seen of those who can leave to try better their lives elsewhere. Africans, in their diversity, are probably some of the most connected people in the world, all tied unfortunately by the effects of colonial and imperial desecration on life, the ineptitude of their leaders and abject poverty.

All these things play a part in shaping the livelihoods of many young Zimbabweans, me included. In 3 conventional verses on "Wega", Synik managed to echo what I've felt, say what I've wanted to say, celebrated what I found too insignificant to celebrate and laughed at what I've found too embarrassing to tell anyone. All without being nowhere near me. It's almost as if I've discovered the power of music for the first time. Synik opens with:

"First things first, you gon' probably take a picture by a statue Get your pose right swagged up in your tracksuit And make sure that you’re smiling in the picture Send it in a letter that says I’m fine but I miss you"

The tears that ensued from my eyes when I heard that part should probably have been reserved for my wedding vows. I wondered how he knew I'd be wearing a tracksuit, which seems to be the defacto go-to attire for an African in Europe in their attempt to fit in. The picture behind a famous monument or statue follows, which is a great start in the "Selfies for Foreigners: Beginners Edition" playbook. The first two bars of the highlighted opening stanza encapsulated the emotional state coupled with the socio-economic weight on every young Zimbabwean's shoulder. No one leaves Africa for Europe for a tour, so basically, any picture and video you send has to be unequivocally joyous because you're supposedly in a better place than most who couldn't fly with you. 

The "Zimbabwean in the diaspora first picture" Starter pack
The "Zimbabwean in the diaspora first picture" Starter pack 

Migration is in our roots, identity and culture. Tracing back Zimbabwean ancestry and there's an identifiable lineage of a people who would move from one place to another all in search of better conditions. It's almost poetic. Only that this time we migrate to permanence via a myriad of avenues; critical skills jobs, certified nursing assistant (CNA) jobs, asylum, Canadian Express Entry, postgraduate scholarships or even marrying outside of our ethnicity. The goal is to change the colour of our passport and this couldn't have been better expressed by Synik when he raps: 

Trying to make it, a stranger in this nation Chasing permanent status, you camping at immigration Thousand cuts will make you feel like you’ll die They try to keep it disguised Clutching their bags you see the fear in their eyes

Waking up at the crack of dawn for mundane activities like passport applications, money withdrawals at the bank or even national ID card applications back in Zimbabwe isn't new. In fact, we've become so desensitized to the absurdity we've made it a part of our national identity. This is why, as Synik puts it, "camping at immigration" in Istanbul for a residence permit application was more nostalgic than it was tedious. All the basics of social competence that have been stolen from Zimbabweans through decades of draconian and incompetent rule have led to the birth of a generation that doesn't know how to use an ATM machine. Me included and I'm 30 next year. Try to imagine the anxiety levels shooting up the roof when you're trying to work the machine while impatient residents stand behind you. How can they know that all you know is a mobile service called Ecocash? Try explaining to a Turk what "Ximex Mall" and "rate" is

...in Turkish!

It's really uncanny how Synik manages to address all of this almost verbatim. He masterfully closes out the first verse with an old Shona proverb which basically translates to "The child of a king in one place is a slave elsewhere". A damming indictment in its own right but it's even augmented when you're in a foreign country. A strong sense of self-awareness rises up your spine and you feel like everyone is watching you. Such is the price we pay for trying to escape poverty or tyranny. 

Album Art for Synik A Travel Guide For The Broken
Synik's second studio album takes a unique approach to a lifestyle which defines a generation

One of the best things about Synik's "Wega" is that it plays like phases of life. Cleverly structured to reveal the predictable and linear narrative of how most Africans' lives in the diaspora play out and the second verse ticks the boxes on what I've personally experienced.

"And that loneliness will creep up on you in them crowded places When you can’t find a single smile on a thousand faces And no one to ask if you need a soft loan So you working 2 jobs just to keep the lights on" 

I actually had to work two jobs you know. It's funny now but having to wake up with work on your mind and sleep with work on your mind isn't a life worth living. These lyrics resonated way more prophetically than any prophecy by any man in a slick three-piece suit has ever said to me. There's no one to ask for soft loans. There's no one coming to save you.  The thought of asking your parents for money is as ridiculous as the idea of coming back to Zimbabwe because you don't like the snow. Loneliness is never a factor in Zimbabwe because I've always been surrounded by familiar faces. It's a different ball game when you're surrounded by multitudes who walk like they're in rush and only stop for a cigarette smoke. It feels like no one smiles, and best believe you'll likely be gloomy too. The moods are as transferable as the smoke from the cigarettes. 

Life is fast and adaptation is mandatory not a suggestion. You're exposed to new problems as much as you're introduced to new cuisine. So while I was still reeling in shock at the fact that my palette has finally evolved to eating a soup dish isolated with no starch to accompany it, I was simultaneously thinking about how fast I can learn the language to ease the feeling of alienation. A feeling is best captured by the closing line of the second verse (which is my current state at the time of writing) when Synik laments "Every day you stay changing, for the good or the bad. You don't know, won't be the same if you ever make it back"

Now I wait for the 3rd verse to come to fruition.

When Synik released his critically acclaimed album, Syn City, where he documented the tales and thrills of life in the city of Harare with insight into his own personal life, he cemented his status as a Zimbabwean hip hop legend. However, aside from the glaring skill he possessed, there wasn't a record on the album I truly connected with, only ones I empathised with. It took 10 years since Syn City for A Travel Guide For The Broken to drop but in this one track, he managed to feel what I had for so long thought I only felt. Three verses that all sound like Morgan Freeman narrating my biopic. I've never felt so seen. The album is very good, and it might not be for everyone, but it is certainly for me. In every true sense of the word.

This article is another installment of my ongoing "Justify My Bias" series. You can stream Synik's "A Travel Guide For The Broken" album here, or anywhere you stream your music
Mukudzei Mlambo

A bit of Romans 7:15 and 90s Hip Hop & RnB. I write words about things that fascinate me in Zim hip hop on my column series "Justify My Bias"

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