The resistance music of the Ugandan people

The pop star turned Member of Parliament, Bobi Wine, is only the latest in a long line of music-as-politics in Uganda.

Image credit Martin Giraldo via Flickr CC.

Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a. Bobi Wine, continues to make waves in Ugandan politics, unbowed by the Museveni regime’s violent attempts to crush him and his red beret-wearing People Power movement. Before Wine entered politics in 2017, he had already established himself as the “Ghetto President” of Uganda’s pop music world. In his reggae-inflected hit “Ghetto” (with singer Nubian Li) he excoriated the regime for exploiting slum dwellers for their votes, then abusing them with its neoliberal policies. Wine’s lyrics were blunt, indecorous, and rooted in street life, recalling another African pop music “Black President,” Fela Kuti, as well as the political reggae of Bob Marley and hip hop artists like KRS One. In his angry directness, Wine represents a generational shift in Uganda’s long tradition of musical politics, though he also builds upon this tradition.

The pre-colonial Uganda region was the site of kingdoms that were heterarchical rather than purely monarchical in nature. It was assumed that the power of kingship would be balanced by other semi-autonomous powers—namely, the clans with their clan heads, as well as the spirits with their spiritual healer representatives. Ngoma (music and dance) was used to express this balance of power in public. Each king, clan elder, and spiritual healer possessed his own troupe of musicians, battery of instruments, and repertoire of songs. Even today, drumming on clan-proprietary instruments is still used to keep the Buganda kingdom “in tune,” as Damascus Kafumbe has detailed in his book, Tuning the Kingdom. Within this musical system, critical singing, expressive of the political concerns of the common folk, was both possible and expected, but it had to be done carefully and politely. Grievances were to be couched in esoteric and ambiguous proverbs and cushioned with praise of the powerful. Besides being in keeping with the values of empisa (manners) and ekitiibwa (honor), this indirectness in song gave the artists and their backers plausible deniability, should the king or clan leader rise to vengeful anger.

The arrival of phonograph records, radio, and cassettes introduced a new democratic potential to music and politics in Uganda. Whereas live performance had always been pitched to the most powerful dignitaries in the room, mechanically reproduced music put every listener in the privileged auditory position of a chief or king. This was truly “popular” music in the political sense of the term. A new, distinctively Ugandan sounding music crafted for mass media came to be known as kadongo kamu (“one small guitar”). Kadongo kamu singers, such as Christopher Ssebaduka, Paul Kafeero, Herman Basudde, Fred Ssebatta, Matiya Luyima, Sauda Batenda, and Florence Namirimu, carried on the old bardic tradition of singing long, elaborate, stories in veiled, suggestive, Luganda language. Thematically, however, these singers focused much more on the trials and tribulations of ordinary people. They sang songs about the difficulties and indignities of getting by with little money in the city—an alternately exciting and alienating space that was becoming increasingly important in ordinary Ugandans’ lives. They sang songs praising and criticizing the actions of the new nation-state’s leaders. The kadongo kamu pioneer Ssebaduka, for example, praised President Idi Amin for his expulsion of the South Asian merchants, whom the singer reviled as “bloodsuckers.”

Bobi Wine has paid homage to kadongo kamu as the genre historically most representative of Uganda’s lower classes. In 2010, he remade Paul Kafeero’s famous song “Dipo Nazigala” (“I Left that Depot”), as “Ghetto Nazigala,” perhaps signaling that he was the true inheritor of the legacy of this esteemed kadongo kamu master who died in 2007. It is clear, however, that Wine does not wish to be seen as a card-carrying kadongo kamu singer—he is doing something new, which his fans have dubbed “ghetto” music. One notable departure from kadongo kamu is in Wine’s unapologetic celebration of the urban slum. While kadongo kamu singers have often mused about the pains and pleasures of city living, the moral heart of that genre has remained in the rural villages. It is in idealized rural space that singers like Kafeero have searched for the traditional social values that animate their art. Wine’s music, by contrast, speaks powerfully to a new generation of young people who are urban to their bones. Many have lived their whole lives in the slums and do not feel the same emotional ties to a rural home space that their parents did. The celebration of the streets, in all their roughness, is of course a prominent theme in reggae and hip hop, which partly explains why these globalized genres have appealed so powerfully to youth in swelling cities around the world.

Wine’s ghetto music also stands apart from kadongo kamu in its bluntness. In refusing to comply with the regional tradition of elegant indirectness in singing (still very much alive in kadongo kamu), Wine seems to signal his refusal to work within the traditional heterarchical politics which that kind of singing has long helped to maintain. It is no longer enough, he seems to suggest, for coexisting gerontocracies to supposedly balance each other out, preserving the peace and enabling some freedom of movement in their lower strata. What Uganda needs today is a revolution from the bottom up, with little regard for traditional values of order and deference. It is this message, articulated in song, which may make Wine’s political ascendancy especially threatening to the Museveni regime.

About the Author

Dave Pier is the author of Ugandan Music in the Marketing Era: The Branded Arena (Palgrave, 2015). It focuses on the commercial exploitation of traditional Ugandan music and dance. He is currently writing a book about kadongo kamu.

Further Reading

Singing truth to power

When Ugandan police imprisoned Bobi Wine in his own home, the singer-turned-lawmaker used the internet, music and multiple languages to craft a call for solidarity between civilians and security forces.