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The role of musicians in influencing the social-political culture in Uganda

In 1989, Ugandan musician Philly Bongoley Lutaaya declared that he had tested positive for HIV/AIDS. He was the first prominent Ugandan to confess to living with the condition, thus giving a human face to the disease that was silently killing so many people.

Lutaaya’s gesture was nothing short of revolutionary. It came at the peak of HIV/AIDS stigma, when even talking about sex was taboo. In fact, one could argue that most HIV/AIDS victims at the time were dying more from discrimination and stigma than from the virus itself.

Lutaaya’s declaration and, later, his AIDS anthem ‘Alone’ (also known as ‘Today is me, Tomorrow is someone else’ off his last studio album ‘Alone and Frightened’) was dedicated to all those who had lost the battle against the virus. It helped take away the stigma as many other people came out and declared their statuses, giving support to government’s programmes on sex education.

Lutaaya , as a result, became the poster boy in the fight against the disease. Uganda was the first country in sub Saharan Africa to open a Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) clinic.

Read: The good, the bad, the ugly of Uganda’s general elections

Before dying of AIDS, Lutaaya spent his remaining days writing songs about his battle, touring churches and schools throughout Uganda to spread a message of prevention and hope.

After his death, at 38, the Philly Lutaaya Initiative Association continued his work across Uganda highlighting personal testimonials of hundreds of people infected with HIV. To celebrate his legacy in Uganda, October 17 was set aside as the Philly Bongoley Lutaaya Day.

Philly Bangoley Lutaaya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Philly Bangoley Lutaaya. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Musicians and politics

The story of Lutaaya best illustrates the influence musicians wield over society. It is little surprise that some become carried away, declaring themselves ‘presidents,’ doctors, generals and other assorted titles. Musicians like H.E Bobi Wine and ‘Doctors’ as Jose Chameleone come to mind.

Since 2001, Ugandan musicians have been either overtly or covertly involved in the political processes of Uganda; some campaign for their preferred candidates through music while others go whole hog, even standing for elective positions. Political parties and candidates have paid a lot of money for musicians to perform at their political rallies. Some candidates have even enlisted musicians to compose, sing and record tunes about them to woo voters.

It all began when politicians started gracing album launches of some artistes where they would buy albums ordinarily worth hundreds of shillings for millions of shillings.

For instance, in September 2005, when musician Bebe Cool was launching his album Kisanja (meaning another term of office) the then Defence Minister, Amama Mbabazi, who was a presidential candidate in the 2016 election, paid shs7m (about $2,000) for the album’s DVD. Kisanja literally translates to dry banana leaves and most National Resistance Movement (NRM) supporters were seen donning them. It was the moniker given to the candidature of Yoweri Museveni in 2006. He was contesting for the third term in office after amending the constitution to lift term limits.

The trend of musicians cashing in on the hot political environment made music artists expensive to hire for ordinary performances.

Before the 2011 general election, singer Jose Chameleone pocketed millions of shillings to re-do a single ‘Basiima Ogenze’ (They appreciate when you’re gone) for the NRM’s presidential campaigns.

The updated version of ‘Basiima Ogenze’ is a Swahili song in which Chameleone scoffed on society’s norm of eulogising someone well after they are dead.

Many musicians are not letting the opportunity to cash in on the political cash pass them by. As a matter of fact, almost all candidates from presidential to parliamentary positions have had songs composed for them as a move to woo voters.

Jose-Chameleone. Photo: Hipipo Music Awards
Jose-Chameleone. Photo: Hipipo Music Awards

This trend, to be sure, isn’t new. The same has been done by artists elsewhere in the world. Rapper Jay-Z campaigned for Barack Obama in the U.S by integrating the candidate’s message into the theatrics of his concerts. When Obama included Jay-Z on his iPod list, as a gesture of reciprocation, the story became a hit on music websites.

In October 2015, at Speke Resort Munyonyo, a group of Uganda’s artistes hosted President Yoweri Museveni to a special dinner in his honour, at which they launched Tubonga Nawe, a song showing solidarity with him and endorsing him as the 2016 elections flag-bearer for the ruling National Resistance Movement, NRM.

The president, who was running for his seventh consecutive term in office since taking over power in 1986, responded with a pay cheque of Ushs400 million ($120,000) as a contribution to the development of the entertainment industry. The president further took the artists led by Jose Chameleone and Bebe Cool along with him for the entire campaign season. He eventually, and contentiously, won the February 18 election with 60.8 per cent.

Not content with others singing his praises, Museveni has himself hit the studio to sing his own praises. He has two song credits to his name, ‘You want another rap,’ in 2006, and ‘Kwezi,’ released towards the close of 2015.

Museveni’s foremost opponent, Col. Dr. Kiiza Besigye, had a song titled ‘Toka kwa bara bara’ sung for him by a little known artist known as Adam Mulwana, born in Luwero, the birthplace of the revolution, the district NRM launched its guerrilla bush war from when they shot their way to power.

Adam Mulwana Besigye Nayigira Official Video. Photo: Youtube
Adam Mulwana Besigye Nayigira Official Video. Photo: Youtube

In an interview with the Daily Monitor, Mulwana, who lost his father and two brothers in the the bush war, admitted to having supported the NRM until 2006, adding that his song for the opposition’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) presidential flag bearer is out of sheer support, and not for financial gain.

These musical campaign strategies not only exemplify the role of music in shaping the opinion of the citizenry, but are also setting agendas as much as the mainstream media does.

Recently Musician Bobi Wine, who commands a ghetto peri-urban following, caused a social media frenzy in Uganda when rumour circulated that his pro-peace song Dembe had been banned from the airwaves by the Uganda Communications Commission.

In the song, Bobi Wine despised as barbaric the election related violence; he preached peace, saying violence among the youth had increased, fuelled by some leaders; he also called for peaceful elections, arguing that, in the past, governments have been changed through guns and adding that refusal to leave power is what has made Uganda a ‘basket case.’

Although the commission later denied the allegation, the song had already circulated across social media platforms and could arguably be the most downloaded song of the campaign period and immediately launched Bobi Wine. The artist would become the only top artist not part of Museveni’s campaign trail to be featured on international stations such as BBC and Aljazeera.

Some musicians have taken their involvement in politics to a whole new level. Other than writing heart aching, provocative songs like Bobi Wine or singing praises like the Tubonga Nawe crew, they have decided to actively participate in the political sphere by offering themselves to be elected to represent and serve their respective audiences in key offices.

Dancehall artiste Daniel Kyeyune Kazibwe, popularly known by his stage name Ragga Dee, ran and lost the mayor’s position for Kampala. Comedian and radio personality Kato Lubwama and gospel singer Judith Babirye, however, won seats to represent the people of Lubaga South in Kampala District and Buikwe District.

From the enormous benefits of Philly Lutaaya’s spirited campaign against HIV/AIDS, the role of music in shaping and influencing opinion is taking an interesting trajectory.

 

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