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Why Eddy Kenzo’s success irks Uganda’s middle class

Moses Serubiri, a cultural critic, photographer and curator, converses with Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire about Eddy Kenzo, a Ugandan musician’s rise to international repute despite disapproval from the Ugandan middle class for his failure to speak “proper” English.



Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire (B.M.): Eddy Kenzo does not have the type of history many middle-class Africans share. He is not a son or grandson of an aristocrat; he does not have a former colonial chief in his genealogy, nor did he attend the kind of school affordable to Ugandan business moguls or high-ranking government officials.

He is a son of the street; of the hustle. He’s a school dropout. He is the ‘other’ of the post-colonial African middle-class. The process of Othering starts with forming alliances within Edward Said’s ‘Orient’. These allies believe what they are told about themselves yet desire to escape the Other’s exoticized image. Like the colonialist, middle-class Africans regard Africa as uncivilized. Only after achieving a certain level of Whiteness and Europeanness does this opinion change. Thus, today’s middle-class Africans are the eyes and ears of yesterday’s colonialists.

They hang around White investors, while praising the colonial days when public systems worked. The ability to speak proper “Cambridge English” becomes an important passport to this class. Thus English language is central to the identification of who belongs and who does not. This, I assume, is why traditional schools punish pupils for speaking their mother tongue. It is perceived to lower their chances of joining the middle class.


Moses Serubiri (M.S.): Urban cultures in Uganda are strong replicas of colonial governmentality. In the planned urban space is a physical, and thus, social division between the local and the foreign: psychological divisions of Africanness and Europeanness. The African elite is a strange hybrid of both these states of mind and physical space. They speak both local and foreign languages; they inhabit both African and European spaces within Kampala city.

Since independence, the hybrid nature of urban Kampala has been exaggerated through media. Here, representations of the local and the foreign have grown to extremes. As if they were tools of advertising, print and television media in local languages have specialized in representing the local. Those in English specializing in representing the foreign. It is quite normal for a television that broadcasts in English to syndicate stories by CNN and BBC.

This is not to say that English language news doesn’t represent the local, but rather that English language news represents the local in an exoticized manner. This is the process of Othering that you speak about. The process of representing the local in English language media is a process of othering: it is a form of domination that originates in colonial governmentality.

On the other hand representation of the local in local language news is relatively new and, for the most part, an emerging cultural phenomenon, such as Agataliiko Nfuufu, the Vision Group Luganda prime time news broadcast. It would seem that within African media the local is uncharted territory. This is the bone of contention: when the local represents the local in the local language, the foreign becomes “othered”, automatically. This process of self-imaging, or self-representation challenges power and domination of the postcolonial government.

B.M.: Exactly. Say, what you wrote about Lord Fred Sebatta, a legend of Ugandan music, and how the English language media and its audience, the middle class, who–to borrow Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s word, are Euro-Africans–rejected him and his brand of music. These Euro-Africans are uncomfortable with the locals who are unabashedly ‘authentic’ (local) and care less about approval from mediums of Whiteness (foreign), which is central to the Euro-African, the middle class Ugandan. The only thing this middle class seems to want to receive from the lower class (lower meaning those who do not pretend to be white, or have failed to aspire to be) is failed mimicry of middle-class ways. They make fun of those who fail to speak ‘Cambridge English’. But they keep those who aspire to join them at bay if they do not fake this hybrid identity well enough. And in my view Sebatta or Kenzo that we are talking about are ridiculed and ultimately rejected because they show no need to mimic.


M.S.: Fred Sebatta was part of a wave of traveling musical theatre in the 1970s; he worked within a “Kadongo Kamu” company (Kadongo Kamu is a style of guitar music that blurred the lines between traditional forms of music and storytelling). Musical theatre was prevalent at the time, though representations of local musical theatre and kadongo kamu within the English language news are almost non-existent in the 1970s. The non-existence representation of Kadongo Kamu in the English language newspapers foretells of Fred Sebatta’s run-in with the Uganda media council in the 1990s.

When Sebatta produced a hit, Dole y’Omwana, in 1996, the middle class accused him of vulgarity and immorality. Dole y’Omwana was basically about a woman who longed for her husband to be at home, and through the metaphor of a child’s doll expressed how the “doll cries” when her husband is away. I have argued previously in writing that the song was a representation of the middle class by a working class or local musician. Such working class expression is not often tolerated by middle class elites. All along Sebatta had made a name in local circles of the downtown music scene since the 1970s, but here he had become renowned nationally. Amidst his sky rocketing success with Dole y’Omwana, the Uganda media council opened a court case that led to the banning of his song on the radio. This is just one example of the kind of policing of working class while dominated by an African elite. It is as if the local or the working class doesn’t have the right to form its own unique representations in the public space.

B.M.: As opposed to the 1970s when the middle class largely used the state to enforce its tastes and preferences, today, the media, social and pseudo-intellectual spaces are the weapons of choice. The state remains the instrument of last resort. Thus middle class disapproval of music happens in pretentious satirical pieces, denied media reviews etc. I will illustrate. Whereas mainstream middle-class artists like rapper Navio will get mainstream media attention for even the most basic of feats, Eddy Kenzo’s viral video Sitya Loss, the various awards he is getting nominated for among other things the middle class would ordinarily be proud of if he was one of them do not get enough attention. The marginal media, as Red Pepper and Chimp Reports are the ones that embrace these stars.

There is nothing close to immorality or any other lousy ground to discredit Kenzo for example. Thus the middle class is left with no choice but to expose its own true criteria for membership, which rotates around the ability to ape Whiteness. Much of the criticism of Kenzo does not centre on the quality of his music but the fact that he does not speak English ‘properly’ nor try to fake it. As reflected in his manager Johnson Mujungu’s comments when he was under pressure for grammatical and spelling errors in a condolence message, Kenzo does not feel it is important to speak a certain type of English. He does not readily embrace the sort of hybridity: a half White, half Black American existence that is found in the inflection of rapper Navio’s speech. These pretensions are important for middle-class existence. For accepting his history as a lower class, disadvantaged child, Kenzo pays the ultimate price. Middle class journalists, reviewers and pseudo-intellectuals do not talk about the fact that his music video Sitya Loss has gone viral for example, but will jump to listing 100 English words he can’t pronounce. They will jump to justifying anything Kenzo does with his local-ness, and his failure to accept a certain amount of foreignness, post-coloniality in his outlook. He is punished for remaining ‘native’ and being proud about it.


100 English words he can't pronounce

M.S.: Exactly. These are the things that concern the English media in the country. I am pretty interested in how many English reviewers and critics are impressed by Eddy Kenzo’s—for lack of a better word—misspellings; his “mbogos”. The critical eye of the English-speaking, and university-educated journalist becomes this voice of middle class approval or disapproval. There is something in this large effort to organize entire forums on Eddy Kenzo’s misspellings that is based on existing currents of coloniality under postcolonial government. This is where language and popular music become political. The Red Pepper, first a newspaper tabloid, has become a platform for the capitalist machine. The Red Pepper has fostered local representations of the local in the most extreme ways. I would go as far as saying that the Red Pepper is to the capitalist entertainment industry today, what the Voice of Uganda newspaper was to Idi Amin in the 1970s.

The internet has furthered this process of self-representation. Not only have local musicians and entertainers been liberated from the chains of political censorship, they have now gained a position of popular prominence, much to the dismay of Uganda’s middle class. The internet has created a space in which local musicians who rap or sing in local languages do not need the approval of elitist gate keepers (middle class).

B.M.: Yes, Yes. See, with YouTube in tow, Sitya Loss can go viral irrespective of the opinions of professional journalists and reviewers. Watched over 3 million times on YouTube, shared by P.Diddy, added to the Vevo platform, there is discomfort in middle class circles as to how this ghetto musician, this local musician who can’t construct a proper English sentence can access the international market in this way. How someone whose only mention in much of mainstream media is to ridicule his English can win international music awards. The realisation that the middle-class policing machine has lost control of what music represents Uganda is what, I think, has led to this desperation and need to tear Kenzo down. Kenzo did not have to fake middle-class pretensions to break into the international market, and there is nothing the middle class critics can do about it. Thus if there is a brawl involving Kenzo, it must be because he is local.