Aya Twende Tetema (Oh Let’s Shake It

As I was walking to Kijana Kwanza this morning, characteristically late (how better to integrate into the local culture than adopt its most positive attributes), a truck passed by on the road blasting one of Tanzania’s most famous songs – Tetema (Shake It) by Diamond Platnumz (né Nasibu Abdul Juma).

Platnumz is by far Tanzania’s number one hip-hop artist winning countless awards and a YouTube following of more than 2 million. In part, his story from rags to riches, resonates with the largely impoverished Tanzanian population, who can but dream of economic independence and fame.

At Kijana Kwanza, we are not immune to Platnumz’s popularity. Whenever there is an opportunity to break out into song and dance, the young people play his music and imitate his incoherent, comical dance moves.

I must confess that I do not understand all of his lyrics, partly because like most popular singers, Platnumz uses an abundance of street language and peculiar word constructs. But in summary, Tetema is a rapturous appeal to his lover to twerk, dance and lust (and that is putting it mildly!).

The song opens with the lines:

Aya twende tetema (Oh let’s shake it)

Oh mama tetema (Mama, let’s shake it)

Shuka chini tetema (Drop down and shake it)

…and this forms the chorus of the song.

And there’s quite a few (apparently) incomprehensible lines…

Katoto kamenoga (Baby she’s so beautiful)

Nakapandizi za Bukoba (I give her a banana from Bukoba*)

Nakaoadisha bodaboda (I get her on a motorbike)

Kakichoka kuchuma mboga (When she’s tired picking green leaf vegetables)

My friends insist the words are meaningless, but I sense that modesty plays a role in his response. His nervous smile hiding a degree of shame because we don’t talk about sex in Tanzania.

In a conservative society like Tanzania where 80% of the population follow organised religion, songs like Tetema ignite much controversy. This is probably the reason why Platnumz dismisses his ambiguous lines by saying that their significance is personal to the listener – he, simply performs. Indeed, some of his music has gone so far as to ire Tanzania’s National Arts Council (BASATA) which temporarily banned him from performing his popular song, Mwanza, due to its overtly suggestive lyrics and an accompanying video that allegedly showed dancers simulating sexual moves. Platnumz response was defiant – “If they don’t want me to perform my songs I can live in another country and play there.”

Platinumz is himself from a Muslim background, where orthodox opinion frowns on frivolous entertainment – including public dancing (especially with the opposite gender) and in some quarters, even the sound of musical instruments. But amongst young Tanzanians, including those who practice faith, this is largely ignored – either in violation of their religious conviction or because of their personal rejection of such orthodox opinion. But mainly, they do it, because it’s fun. There is no conscious reflection on the rights and wrongs of Platnumz’s lyrics.

When some of the young people recently broke out into dance at Kijana Kwanza, I decided to capture this on video. A member of staff who was Christian was visibly annoyed. “In Tanzania we consider this to be bad morals. Don’t show this to anyone. We should ban them from listening to this music.”

Having grown up in the West, I guess that I am somewhat numb to the lewd lyrics and music videos which play in public spaces. I do not always agree with it, but it’s the norm. Sometimes I don’t even recognise it playing in the background. But I wonder how effective it is to ‘ban’ something so popular, simply because traditional Tanzanian values frown upon it.

Like Platnumz, our young people will simply go elsewhere. When there are competing perspectives on what is and what is not moral, our role is to help young people make informed choices and create their own belief systems. And that is a far more important goal rather than imposing subjective opinions on growing minds.

Since the vast majority of NGOs in Tanzania are missionary led, our approach at Kijana Kwanza is somewhat unusual. For us it is far more important to give young people the space to practice their faith – and then focus on building tolerance and understanding across religious boundaries. As I cannot impose faith on my young people, I cannot dictate their moral compass. They must discover it themselves.

* Bukoba is a town in North-Western Tanzania which harvests some of the largest quantities of banana and plantain.