Ugandan Superstar – an anthropologist's reflections on popular culture in Kampala

Bobi Wine takes the award as Artist of the Year at the 2006 Pearl of Africa Music Awards. Photo by Gitte Christensen.

By Nanna Schneidermann Thorsteinsson (September 2007)

“There’s no music in Uganda”, Geoffrey, a twenty-one year old sound technician told me as we walked down the slippery, muddy lane between two ramshackle lines of houses in one of Kampala's slummy valleys. We had spent all morning talking about why many Ugandans have come to prefer local musicians and their music to international artists. Radios at food vending stalls were blasting out the latest hits in the local language, and a bunch of kids were dancing to the beat a bit further down the road. Something was not making sense to me, and as a reaction to my surprised face Farouk continued: “In our traditional culture, those long-time-ago people would never sing for just singing. There, when there was a funeral or they did the traditional wedding, they would sing and play those drums. Then it was different. Now we are just sing-singing.”

This “sing-singing” is one of the fastest growing sectors in Kampala, Uganda, over the last ten years. After decades of political instability and civil war, where entertainment was a rare commodity and the media was in constant crisis, radio stations, tabloids, lifestyle magazines and tv-shows featuring the latest music videos, local as well as global, are booming in Kampala today. Every day of the week, fans flock to bars, clubs and stadium shows to see their favourite artists perform. The most popular artists are followed closely by a tail of friends and well wishers, paparazzi and groupies as well as corporate sponsors. Clad in the latest fashions and wearing sparkling oversized jewellry, they frequent VIP clubs and compete fiercely for the position of top-artist. The social position of the artists is contested in public as well as among themselves. Is it appropriate for young people to behave like they are ‘big men’, earning more in one night than a senior civil servant would earn in months? And is it possible to remain a respectable person when working in a world associated with night-time activities, bars, sex, intoxication, violence and prostitution? Are artists role models for the next generation of Ugandans, or just a bunch of thugs who have watched too much MTV, pretending to be like TuPac and 50 Cent?

The new generation of Ugandan superstars has been inspired by the introduction of karaoke shows in Kampala in the late nineties, where aspiring singers would copy their American or European idols or create their own lyrics to 'western music'. Through their inventive use of technologies, global popular culture and local social realities they have created new genres and meanings and carved out new spaces for music.

My study sets out to explore the world of the young musicians. How are global elements like fashion, beat and language given meaning in the local context of the artists? In what ways are they challenging ideas of traditional culture? What are the young people trying to gain by entering the entertainment sector? During five months of anthropological fieldwork I followed some of the most celebrated artists in Uganda in their daily work in a bid to get closer to what it means to be a superstar in a place which is usually associated with poverty, civil war and the AIDS pandemic.

Geoffrey wraps up his tale of long-time-ago culture by concluding: “Today, I think culture is not strong, so you have to look for your own way.” He glances at the kids still dancing between the pools of mud. “Even if you grow up here in the ghetto, if you work hard, you can become a man of your own. For us, that is music.”

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