Why The Zambian Hip-Hopper 'B Flow' Changed His Tune
Brian "B Flow" Bwembya used to make music for lovers, donning shades and gold chains in music videos and singing "You're the reason for my life, you're the only one I would make my wife" to pretty girls.
"My first two albums I was just singing about love," says the 28-year-old Zambian hip-hop musician. "They say love makes the world go around. The reason I was singing about love was because I thought that was what people wanted to listen to, and also because I wanted to do [music] for entertainment."
His first album, Mpu Mpu Mpu (that's the sound of heartbeats), was released in 2009 and earned him a nomination for best upcoming artist of the year at the Zambia Ngoma Awards. The second album, No More Kawilo (meaning no more loneliness), released in 2011, took home best song of the year with its title track.
But soon he realized he didn't like singing about love. In the hip-hop and dancehall music industry, he says, a lot of the music objectifies women. Bwembya didn't want to "promote anything that describes a woman as a sex object."
So he began rethinking what he wanted to say in his music.
He thought about his mother: "I was raised by my mother, a single mother, and I've seen the challenges she went through to get me to where I am, for her to raise me and my siblings," he says.
And he thought about the high domestic violence rates in Zambia, women being beaten and cheated on by their husbands. A United Nations report cites 5,236 cases of gender-based violence in 2011, including physical, emotional and sexual violence — and that's only looking at women age 15 to 50.
So Bwembya took a new direction. He wanted to be the voice of women. His third album, released 2013, is called Voiceless Women.
"When [women] try to promote equality for themselves, people tend to misunderstand it like a battle, [they think] women are so selfish they want to take over the world or be on top of men," Bwembya says. "If I, as a man, I wanted to defend the women, it's a different concept altogether."
"I want to make men understand that a woman is not a sex object," he continues. "A woman is not something to use. A woman is someone you can partner with and say, 'Let's build the world together.' "
In the music video "Cry of a Woman," Bwembya sends encouraging notes to ladies and writes messages like, "A good man respects a woman's opinions."
Not everybody liked the album.
"When you're trying to help society, people begin to think you're trying to say you're perfect. Some men would say, why are you on the side of women?" says Bwembya.
There were also people who wanted the "original" B Flow who sang about love.
But in the end, the album was a success. At the 2014 Zambian Music Awards, it was named Best Dancehall Album and Most Educative Album.
And his message seems to be getting through. Bwembya recalls how a man approached him and said, "Wow, your music has helped me appreciate my woman, I will send her back to school for her to get an education she missed out on because I deprived her of that."
Following the success of Voiceless Women, Bwembya wants to make music that gives voice to others in society who can't always make themselves heard: young girls married off at a young age, teens abusing drugs and alcohol. And he wants to address the issues that people leave in the comments on his Facebook page, from fixing village roads to acquiring clean water.
So his next album will be called, I Am the Voice.
The title sounds a bit pretentious, but Bwembya insists he's down-to-earth.
"I interact with people of all classes, regardless of my status in society," he says. "I try in all ways to be humble with people because all the music I have done, I believe it comes from the people."
He tries hard to be not only a friend, a peer, but also a role model. He goes into schools to talk to young people about HIV/AIDS. And, he says, "I'm the one who says, 'Don't get into premarital sex,' so I'll have to lead by example and show a difference. I try to be disciplined because I know that other young people are looking up to me."
So what's next for the Zambian musician? In addition to making music, he wants to start an organization called Music for Change, creating an art center, studio and music label that would help young people learn about the music business — and put their own positive spin on it.
President Obama is already a supporter. When Bwembya was at the White House on Tuesday as part of the Young African Leadership Initiative program (see inset box), he got a presidential shout-out:
"Brian uses music to advocate against things like gender-based violence and to educate youth on HIV/AIDS. So while in the U.S., he's learned about our health care system, met the founder of an American HIV/AIDS organization and now he plans to start a record label for music about social change. So, Brian, we're proud to be your partner."
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