In a corner of the world most people are unaware exists, a young man dared to use his love of hip hop and talent for rapping to speak truth to power and raise awareness among the youth about the need for social change. The Mozambican rapper, social activist, and revolutionary known as Azagaia was found dead in his home in Mozambique on Thursday, March 9th, 2023. He was 38 years old.
Azagaia was born Edson da Luz in May 1984, in Namaacha, less than 80 kilometres from the capital city of Maputo. Namaacha is a border town, in the area where the three countries of Mozambique, South Africa, and Eswatini meet. The first President of independent Mozambique, Samora Machel, was killed in a plane crash that landed some 20 kms from Namaacha, across the border in South Africa, the cause of which continues to be a subject of debate and suspicion.
Edson da Luz adopted the stage name “Azagaia” after an African spear. In true form, Azagaia’s music was a weapon urging the people of his country to consider social, political, and economic inequalities and their disproportionate effects on poor and vulnerable. Azagaia believed that his music could shed light on the evils of society that he saw around him and catalyse positive action. His lyrics critiqued colonialism and slavery, but also held our current African leaders’ feet to the fire.
Azagaia’s raps were all in Portuguese, the colonial language of Mozambique. There is very little written about him in English. This is a loss for those who don’t understand Portuguese (the vast majority of the world of course), but who appreciate the progressive roots of hip hop, who love the music of Dead Prez, Tupac Shakur, Michael Franti and Spearhead, the Roots, the Fugees, Public Enemy, Talib Kwali, A Tribe Called Quest, and so many other visionary rappers with a systemic critique.
This invisibilization is not surprising. Between and even within countries, there are clear hierarchies of whose lives matter and whose stories are told. So many people within our countries, especially in Africa, are invisible, evoking pity when a deadly cyclone hits, but forgotten a week later. But these stories are important. Many of our obscure places are lightning rods, harbingers of what is to come, the canary in the coal mine, lessons for the rest of the world.
In Azagaia’s song “As Mentiras” (The Lies), he raps (translated to English):
It’s a lie that you’re independent
That you take your continent forward
You didn’t break the chain
You’re nothing but an unconscious slave
500 years of slavery
And the Europeans took 36 million slaves and only 16 survived
Now you call the European, the American or god knows who
To suck your oil and set up their homes here
But they don’t set up factories here, they just buy the barrel
On the mainland or in the diaspora
Independent Africans who impoverish our Africa
Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Portuguese colonial government held on to its colonies the longest. The country only gained its independence in 1975, the year that the Vietnam War ended. Data from the United Nations shows that Mozambique’s Human Development Index ranks at 180 out of 189 countries and territories. Over 60% of the people of Mozambique live under the poverty line, and 80% of the people are food insecure. It is also one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis.
Colonialism robbed and impoverished the country, like so many in Africa. The current ruling political party found its own way to enrich themselves and continue looting the land and peoples, but there are effectively only two political parties in the country to choose from. Azagaia once said in an interview on Sob Pressão (“Under Pressure”): “nao existe democracia com apenas dois partidos politicos” (there can be no democracy with just two political parties). Readers in the US might find this sentiment familiar.
In the same interview, he was asked if he feared for his life because of his progressive music. He replied that he is not interested in material possessions, he is not taking any of that with him. Instead, it is important to him to make his life count, to focus on safety for his family and to leave his ideas behind. How many rappers speak like this today?
His other songs include “Quem vendeu a minha patria?” (Who sold my homeland?), about the leaders selling off the country’s land and other resources; “Os Vampiros” (The Vampires), denouncing those who profit off of the labour of the people; “As Mentiras da Verdade” (The Lies from the Truth), about how the media and the powerful control the narratives of truth and lies; and “Povo no Poder” (Put the People in Power), a call to action for the people of his country to organize themselves.
Azagaia was a musician with a value system. His lyrics were harsh but his manner was soft. His mischievous eyes sparkled even as he spoke about the evils of colonialism and the need for revolution. Azagaia earned the wrath of the government, the wealthy and powerful few in Mozambique whose injustice and impunity he often critiqued. In 2008, he was ordered to appear before the Attorney-General’s office and was accused of inciting violence. He was boycotted by the government and companies who wouldn’t cover him on air and actively hindered his participation in big cultural events. But he kept producing the music he loved—and the youth of Mozambique loved it right back.
One of Azagaia’s last songs is called “Vender o Pais” (Sell the Country), where he sings (translated into English):
Your people can’t take it anymore, Lord
In exchange for oil and gas they sell our country
It references one of the largest oil and natural gas fields in the world found off the coast of northern Mozambique which has brought death and destruction to the region.
Mozambican organization Justiça Ambiental (JA!), with whom I have worked since 2011, is fighting the gas rush in northern Mozambique. In end 2019, while the UN climate negotiations called COP 25 were taking place in Madrid, JA! organised a climate justice event in Maputo to raise awareness. The event was held in a park where local artisans sell their wares. Azagaia agreed to sing at the event and captivated the audience completely.
In “As Mentiras da Verdade” (The Lies from the Truth), he rapped (translated to English):
you can kill me
but you can’t kill the truth
In an interview with TV Sucesso in 2021, Azagaia was asked if he feels threatened by the government. He responded (translated to English):
My life as a Mozambican is itself a threatened life. Unreliable transport and healthcare—people go to the hospital but they don’t know if they will even get seen—this is a threat, we live under threat, we are used to living under threat, so when the politicians threaten me, it’s just another threat on top of all the others. Life is so difficult and precarious for so many on the planet.
The circumstances of his death are strange. The family has attributed his untimely demise to his epilepsy. Regardless, Azagaia already knew that those in power did not want him to stick around. He was a thorn in the side of the self-serving political and corporate elites of Mozambique. In 2014, he posted on his Facebook account (translated to English):
“Mozambican youngsters, if I lose my life, there will be many explanations that I died of epilepsy or something else, which might lead people to think that no one is to blame, that my death was an accident, natural and justified. This could happen within or outside Mozambique. If this happens, I only urge you one thing. Do not weep. JUST CONTINUE TO DO THE WORK WE TALKED ABOUT! Put the People in Power!”
His death may not be nefarious at all. But it is a reminder that, in one of the poorest countries in the world, where everyday life is already difficult and basic needs are unmet, exposing corruption and empowering the dispossessed attracts scrutiny and violence. In my experience as an activist for over two decades, those in power try to bribe you, to shut you up, to intimidate you. The day they realize you can’t be intimidated, they try to get rid of you. But killing a dissenter or social activist outright is now a dangerous game for African governments. It risks creating a martyr. It risks upsetting the Americans and Europeans who hold slightly higher pretenses about how they treat their own dissenters. So the new trick is to feign an accident. That may not be what happened with Azagaia but a disturbing trend none the less.
Nólia Macajo was a community leader whose village was being devastated by coal mining in central Mozambique. For many years, she organized her community to resist. Justiça Ambiental has worked to support Nólia and other coal mining affected communities for long over a decade. In their Annual Report of 2019, they wrote:
The coal companies built a road right thru Benga, cutting off the main part of the community to the river and once the main bridge linking Moatize got damaged by floods, this road became the main route for traffic. It caused major loss of livestock and numerous people from the community were victims of hit and run car accidents, especially children. On the morning of 26 September, 2019, Nólia was standing near the road when a truck veered off the road and crushed her. We don’t know if the driver fell asleep at the wheel, or got distracted, or whether it was intention, because he never stopped, he just turned back onto the road and continued driving, leaving her to die.
Many Azagaias, many Nólias are constantly lost to the struggle. Activists and their communities are worn down and constantly diminished by those in power.
Several thousands of people showed up for Azagaia’s funeral in Maputo on March 14th. In a country where street protests are highly controlled, it was a rare sight to see so many congregated in the streets. The police showed up in riot gear and made use of their tear gas bombs. “State linked media appear to have boycotted the event,” tweeted Zenaida Machado, a Mozambican activist working with Human Rights Watch. On 18 March, protests were called for in major Mozambican cities in honour of Azagaia. As of this writing, the police is responding with scary and unnecessary brutality. As reported by Amnesty International and CNN Portugal, police stopped the march in the central city of Beira even though it had been authorized, while police in Maputo used tear gas to disperse protesters.
Speaking with my friend and colleague, the Mozambican artist, photographer, and Deputy Director of Justiça Ambiental, Mauro Pinto, I can hear his heartbreak. Artists of conscience in Mozambique are a rarity and rely on one another for support. A few months ago, Mauro’s photos of the human cost of coal mining, what Nólia Macajo’s community is fighting against, were displayed in Maputo. Azagaia was there to support.
I asked Mauro how it feels right now to have lost his friend and fellow artist and if he could talk to Azagaia, what would he say. Mauro responded:
“Great Azagaia, you leave us with a great responsibility that we always discussed when we were together. We’re going to have to die so that our great-grandchildren can have a better future. Our country needs to change course and now is the time. We are in a bankrupt state and a fake society. But I don’t feel frustrated because I know that we leave behind our art, our work, our messages. The fight for justice is urgent. Power to the people!”
I remember the first time I met Azagaia, somewhere in 2011 at the Maputo airport, on the eve of my wedding. He was heading to Angola for a concert. I had just moved to Mozambique, to be with my partner. I didn’t speak Portuguese yet and I didn’t understand his lyrics. But having become part of a Mozambican activist family, I knew about the “rapper of the people.” I was completely tongue-tied as I was confronted with his stature and the scale of his genius. I think I blabbed out some words in English, thanking him for his music. “We have a lot of work to do together, let’s keep fighting,” I remember him responding, his kind eyes sparkling with graciousness.
This is the rallying cry Azagaia left for every single one of us. POVO NO PODER! (Put the People in Power!)