Joe Trapido: Breaking Rocks: Music, Ideology and Economic Collapse, from Paris to Kinshasa

Breaking Rocks is a volume of the Dislocations series published by Berghahn Books, a series closely associated with Focaal and FocaalBlog. The immense dislocations and suffering caused by neoliberal globalization the retreat of the welfare state in the last decades of the twentieth century, and the heightened military imperialism at the turn of the twenty-first century have raised urgent questions about the temporal and spatial dimensions of power. Through stimulating critical perspectives and new and cross-disciplinary frameworks, which reflect recent innovations in the social and human sciences, this series provides a forum for politically engaged, ethnographically informed, and theoretically incisive responses.

For more than 50 years, the music of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was the most popular in Africa. A form of artistic expression that is strongly tied to the growth of the modern city, it was cosmopolitan in its influences and based on Cuban Son, a style enjoying global popularity in the 1930s and ’40s. The lyrics of Congolese music are generally about love, with the convention from early on being that an artist sings in the first person, making the song’s narrative of passion about a real named individual. Songs were written to please powerful patrons, make a gift to friends, or even to settle an unpaid bill in a furniture shop. Thus, while the music is about love, its context has always been deeply political and economic.

In the 1950s and 1960s, musicians became closely associated with, and sung for, various political factions in Congo, from Lumumba’s “radicals”—aligned with nationalists in other parts of Africa like Nkrumah—to the “moderates,” from Kasavubu to Mobutu and Tshombe, who made common cause with the CIA, Belgium, and white supremacists. Later, when Mobutu’s CIA-backed regime was the only game in town, musicians lent aesthetic credibility to Authenticité, Mobutu’s rather ersatz back-to-our-roots project of cultural nationalism.

While my book pays attention to this history, my own research concentrates on the period from the late 1970s until the present. Over this time, Congolese music retained its central political and economic importance, but it also became ever more deeply implicated in a migrant economy that connected European capitals like Paris, London, and Brussels, lawless diamond mining enclaves like Kafunfo in Angola, at the epicentre of Angola’s civil war, and the Congolese capital Kinshasa.



It is 2001, and I am at a concert at the Brixton Academy performed by the Congolese pop star Koffi Olomide. The concert is, as ever, extremely late in starting. The audience is extraordinary; gold leaf biker jackets, beautifully tailored suits in four colors with Andy Warhol screenprints, fur coats, knee-high crocodile skin boots, kilts. Later, one after another of these well-dressed men—there are few women in the audience—come on stage and press bank notes onto the sweating forehead of Koffi, the lead singer. This is not small change. Most of the notes are fifties, and each patron slaps down at least four or five notes, some patrons handing over more than a thousand pounds. As I would later learn, such prestations, called mabanga, are part of a wider system—the focus of my book—in which music, reputation, and control of social reproduction are negotiated in an economy of prestige that links Europe and Kinshasa.

Toward the end of the 1970s, the Zaïrian state began a downward slide from which it would not recover. A collapse in commodity prices, inflation, structural adjustment, and predation by the elite destroyed the formal sectors of the economy. The society began to reorganize into a set of political arrangements that, though they remained authoritarian and violent, were based on much more personalized and informal kinds of clientelism.

These violent social changes also relate to the title of my book, Breaking Rocks, a phrase that has recurred in the region throughout the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial worlds. I believe that the various usages of the phrase—meaning, initially, violent chief; then leviathan colonial state; then, as a verb, in its current meaning as the act of aggressively wresting a living from a hostile world—it illustrates some of the implications of these shifting political economies and how they are experienced by people, and exhibited in action and in cultural production. Be this as it may, as living standards collapsed in Zaire and hard currency income became crucial, a tide of migration quickened.

Europe has long had an economic importance for the Congolese that is also quasi-mystical. In a song he wrote in 1969, “Mokolo Nakokufa” (The day I die; Ley [1970] 1997), the singer Tabu Ley imagines various members of society at the moment of death. While the prostitute thinks of her wig and the drunkard of his glass of beer, the rich man thinks of the children he has sent to Europe. Wyatt MacGaffey (1986) suggests that in the late nineteenth century, Bakongo peoples thought Europeans were Kaolin-covered ancestors, returned from the land of the dead, while in contemporary “confessions” of witchcraft, children have recounted traveling to Europe in airplanes made from the bones of their sacrificial victims (De Boeck and Plissart 2004).

From the 1980s, the parisien, the mikiliste, and the sapeur became conspicuous figures in the urban culture of Kinshasa. For the young, designer clothes, strongly associated with a pilgrimage to Europe, became a mark of access to the metropole and a source of prestige that circulated as a quasi-currency. Returning, these pilgrims made prestations of clothes to musicians in exchange for their names being mentioned on records. This patronage, or mabanga, created a cast of celebrities based in Europe who “performed” at concerts, with recorded music telling those back in Kinshasa of the good life they were leading, while prestations made by members of this cast became the stuff of legend. Before the decade was out, cash had become a more common form of payment for a mention on a record, with a set of roughly established prices. New production techniques allowed more names to be included or added and, throughout the 1990s, younger sections of the political elite, migrants to London, and diamond dealers operating out of Angola or the interior all began to “buy in” to this system of prestige, until records became a kind of strange social almanac.

Breaking Rocks takes an interesting “social fact,” mabanga, and looks at it in empirical detail, explaining for the uninitiated what is going on. But it goes beyond this to look at power and exploitation and, as such, makes a contribution to Marxist anthropology and to cultural Marxism. One aspect of this concerns the relation between music and the “mode of production.” Industrial mining enclaves have underwritten power in much of postcolonial Africa, but they had collapsed in the DRC in the 1980s and 1990s, to be replaced with mining zones familiar to the Bronze Age. In this circumstance, ruling classes did not depend on increases in productive power to enforce their social dominance, and accumulation via the banking system only existed “offshore.” Ideas of social dominance as “gatekeeping” came to the fore—in the violent, parcelized sovereignties that made up the DRC of the period, surpluses were extracted not at the point of production but at nodes in the trade network.

Control of these “gates” rested in a series of powerful individuals who relied on a skillful interplay between the world of “offshore”—houses in Belgium and accounts in the Virgin Islands—but also on earlier notions of honor and splendor, where the value of the powerful person (but also the wider class he represented) was established in music-saturated ritual. Drawing on, but also critiquing, Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodities, my work suggests that in the DRC, a form of economic ideology I term “charismatic fetishism” became crucial. This ideological trope—created via musical and theatrical rituals—casts not goods but the persons of the powerful gatekeeper as generative of value, divorced from the wider relations of production and exploitation.

Joseph Trapido earned a PhD in social anthropology at the University College London. He was a British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he now works as a lecturer. His research is about the Democratic Republic of Congo.


De Boeck Filip, and Marie-Françoise Plissart. 2004. Kinshasa: Tales of the invisible city. Ghent,: Ludion.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1986. Religion and society in central Africa: The BaKongo of lower Zaire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ley, Tabu. (1970) 1997. Mokolo nakokufa. Le Seigneur Rochereau a L’Olympia.

Cite as: Trapido, Joe. 2017. “Breaking Rocks: Music, Ideology and Economic Collapse, from Paris to Kinshasa. FocaalBlog, 5 September.