Uganda's unconventional blend of music and politics


Do you remember the surprise when an Ukranian actor won his bid for the presidency, beating his experienced incumbent by a landslide? Or when a Brit-pop drummer fought the Conservative Mark Field for Parliament in 2008 London? Or in a most implausible move, a certain florid-faced TV personality becoming the president of the United States?

Whilst we may be still acclimatising to such unexpected turns of events, this blend of celebrity and politics is a concoction Ugandan citizens, unlike their Western counterparts, have gotten used to. The country’s 2021 election will see current PM Yoweri Musevini pitted against a more contemporary rival - hip-hop star and activist Bobi Wine. Robert Kyagulanyi, who opts to use his Wine moniker on both musical and political stages, is still relatively new to the ‘People’s Party’ movement, the opposition group challenging Musevini’s own, far-right National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Before winning a candidacy in Kyadondo East, a constituency near the country’s capital Kampala, Wine was better-known for his musical achievements. Emerging on the East-African scene in the early 2000’s, his mix of traditional Ugandan kidandali and Jamaican dance-hall beats resonated with both impoverished youth and big labels alike, winning the singer over six awards before he turned thirty. As his career in government has taken off, his music has begun to follow a simularily politicised path: self-described as "edutainment" - entertainment that educates -, his latest songs have a clear social conscience, most recently using his platform to encourage Ugandans to keep on a ‘coronavirus alert’ as the region’s cases near one hundred.

Unlike his competitor, whose constant changes to the constitution has faced criticism from the international community, Wine has successfully cemented his image as a Robin-Hood for the masses. From backing sanitation projects to opposing Musevini’s social media tax - costing citizens a daily fee of 200 Ugandan shillings (£0.04) - to trying to discard the presidential age limit of 75 (which would have seen Musevini out of the 2021 race), the singer-turned-statesman has proven himself to truly be the ‘Ghetto President’. Whilst a recent Rolling Stone profile showed Wine’s past to have its blemishes, with the twenty-something star flaunting expensive cars and indulging in the typical hip-hop lifestyle of debauchery, this only acts as a reminder of how far Wine has come since his interests moved from parties to politics.

He isn’t the first Ugandan musician to dip their toe into government, however. Veteran statesman Bidandi Ssali’s son Bebe Cool, one of the country’s most popular stars, has openly voiced his support for the NRM, making many media appearances and interviews in support of its leader. Indeed, Musevini himself had a controversial meeting with Kanye West, who gifted him a pair of his designer Yeezy’s. However, even with music in the mix, politics is still a dangerous game in the African nation. Ziggy Wine, a musician, friend to Bobi and close supporter of his People’s Power movement, was killed in what many believe to have been a politically-motivated act. In a statement following his death, Wine affirmed his resolution to go on, declaring that “we shall never, ever give up the struggle for a better country.” But with tragedies like these at risk of becoming regular occurrences, we’re left to wonder whether the musician, who was recently jailed for alleged treason to Musevini’s government, is getting in over his head.

Why is there such an intrinsic relation between music and politics in Uganda? Like other countries, music has always been an important part of life within the nation, particularly following the downfall of despots Amin and Obote in the 1970’s: it offered an outlet from the conflict’s hangover. And whilst singing is used as a form of entertainment and relaxation, the voice is also employed as a vessel for political change - especially when oppression and censorship disables citizens from using more regular platforms. In one of Uganda’s most devastating natural disasters, a landslide in the Bududa region that left 1,000 homeless and 100 dead, survivors transformed their poor treatment after the disaster into song to address the social issues of life in resettlement camps. ‘Obu Bulamu Bweesi Khuli Nabwo’ (This Is The Life We Have) became an anthem for the displaced and disadvantaged communities affected by the landslide - the severest in Ugandan history.

Wine utilises music in a similar way. More than three-quarters of Uganda's 35.6 million people are below the age of 30: Wine is a figure many of these young people can see themselves in. His rags to riches story - growing up in Kamwokya, one of the capital’s worst slums where his recording studio is still based - is undeniably inspiring, adding credence to his ‘People Power’ movement and offering welcome change to a political system many have become disillusioned with. Compare this to Musevini’s public image - an ageing statesman with a long history of undemocratic political maneuverings - and it’s easy to see why Wine appeals to the masses. Combining politics with popular music has brought an important focus back to the youth: Wine’s unconventional background is breathing fresh life into a presidency gone stale.

Then again, a pop star becoming president may be closer to a pipe dream than a probability. "We are not here for a show”, Musevini told the BBC’s Alan Kusujja last year, “we are not theatergoers, we are people who are here to deal with very big issues of Uganda and Africa". Whilst in defence of Wine’s campaigning, proving that he is committed to providing for the nation, which had almost a quarter of its population under the poverty line as of 2017, having a few years of philanthropy under your belt doesn’t substitute for real political experience. His lack of government background is unconvincing in comparison to his competitor, who has held on to power since 1986.

However, as composer Nigel Osbourne, an expert on African music with a penchant for Ugandan beats, noted, ‘music can succeed where politics has failed’: with almost a year to go until the 2021 elections, and Wine facing further challenges from restrictions placed by the nation’s tenacious leader, we will just have to wait and see.

Image - Pexels.

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