Sam Chitsama’s mobile constantly buzzes with WhatsApp notifications: emojis, song lyrics, texts from furious clients and joyful ones — and electronic payments. Chitsama, 33, is a keyboard player and dancer from Mozambique, who has made a name for himself as a singer for hire among South Africa’s 400,000-strong Mozambican diaspora.

Singing mostly in Ndau, a local language spoken across borders in western Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe, Chitsama peppers his songs with Portuguese and isiZulu phrases. There are occasional love songs and pieces in tribute to good employers or charitable acts, but most of Chitsama’s business comes from “gossip songs.” “If paid,” he told Rest of World, “I sing of your private family feuds to the public on WhatsApp.”

In migrant communities, many based around the gold mining towns of Springs and Welkom, and in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, these “gossip songs” are big business. Clients — jilted wives out to publicly shame their husbands’ mistresses, neighbors wanting to broadcast the name of an untouchable cattle thief, a sibling rebuking a brother who has grabbed the entire share of a family inheritance — pay musicians like Chitsama $40 (600 rands) to record, mix, and broadcast songs via WhatsApp. Chitsama also charges an optional $60 “booster” fee every three months to re-share files of a client’s gossip songs to his hordes of offline and WhatsApp fans in South Africa and thousands back home in Mozambique. 

The dozens of singers provide more than just entertainment — they’re an outlet for wronged parties who have few other ways to vent their anger or get justice in civil proceedings.

“You pay, I sing and dance out your gossip via WhatsApp,” Chitsama said. “I package your slander, anger, congratulations and turn a client’s emotions into shareable songs and beats to dance to.” In many ways, Chitsama acts as not just a songwriter and singer but also a song publisher and a record label, by using WhatsApp to distribute the finished songs. 

In 2005, Chitsama moved from his home in the Manica province of western Mozambique to Polokwane in South Africa’s northern province of Limpopo, 536 miles away. It is a journey that has been made by thousands of young Mozambicans since the late 1990s, when they fled the social and economic fallout of a 15-year-long civil war, which claimed more than 1 million lives. They were lured to South Africa by the seemingly successful migrants who returned to their rural homes each year at Christmas time, flaunting cash they had made digging for gold as artisanal miners in South Africa’s abandoned mines. 

But over the last decade, South Africa’s economy has struggled, leaving nearly one in three young people jobless, and formal jobs have been hard to find, especially for those without South African citizenship. The reality of gold mining, which had once seemed attractive to Chitsama, was that it is dangerous and risky work, particularly in the unregulated mines. But after he saw the musical success of fellow Mozambique immigrant musicians like Ally Manyike, he decided to copy their approach. Then the 2014 arrival in South Africa of easy user-to-user communications like WhatsApp sped up his ability to reach a wider range of fans and clients. His first client was a Mozambican immigrant businessman who contracted him to do a song and provided him with a keyboard too.

Most of Chitsama’s clients are wealthier Mozambican migrants in South Africa. One, a highly danceable track he produced in 2018 on behalf of a diaspora gold tycoon, calls out the name of a gardener, whom the tycoon alleged had an affair with his wife back in Mozambique. 

In another, a migrant named Happy Sigauke — who consented to be named — hired the singer to air his grievances over people mistreating his family back home. The resulting song goes:

I’m Happy Sigauke, Tenson’s dad….I come to you my people

moaning about rough people who mistreat my family members.

I might be poor and orphaned but I don’t deserve ill-treatment.

To the rough folks, I’ll crush your ego on heaven and earth.

Sigauke typed his story on WhatsApp in Ndau and wired his payment to Chitsama, who recorded the song and shared it with an audience of thousands on WhatsApp.

In another WhatsApp song, Chitsama introduces his fans to another client, Chiriro Chiwenda, a fellow Mozambican migrant and artisanal gold digger living in Springs. Chiriro, who was also happy to be named, contracted the singer for a song about his wife back home in Mozambique. He questioned his wife’s trustworthiness in the song, ending with the not so cryptic lyric: “My wife please, in my absence, guard our cattle against enemies.”

Chitsama’s song for Chiwenda, a fellow Mozambican migrant.

Using a prerecorded dance-pop track in the 1990s Shangaan disco music style, made popular by artists like late South African singer Ntombi Marhumbini, Chitsama is able to turn songs around quickly. The beat stays the same, just the lyrics and client names change. “It’s super easy,” he said.

The popularity of gossip songs could owe to their offering a kind of visceral justice for their sponsors, who often lack legal means to settle civil disputes. According to a UNDP-supported study, the majority of Mozambique’s population lacks access to law courts, and around 40% of districts in the country have no formal court at all, leaving traditional, patriarchal courts led by untrained local chiefs to adjudicate on personal, land, or marital conflicts with uneven outcomes. 

Despite the nature of the disputes he sings about, Chitsana said he doesn’t feel any pressure to fact-check his lyrics or to hide the names of the parties involved, unless there are children involved. “The paid-for WhatsApp audio … belongs to the customer,” he said. “And the consequences that could follow too.”

He also argues that the fact that thousands of people from within a close-knit, cross-border community hear these songs gives protection to those who pay for them. “If you contract me, and I belt out to the public a WhatsApp track about a powerful villager who stole your cow, they’re unlikely to assault you,” he said.