“Yesterday, I was arrested because of my opinion,” proclaimed Ugandan dancehall sensation Bobi Wine to a screaming, sweaty crowd at a gig last October in the industrial area of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. “And still I tell the authorities straight in their faces: you can stop one man, but you cannot stop the voices of the people.”
Before leading into his next song, he continued: “I’m telling them that when the going gets tough, the tough must get going. “Especially when leaders become misleaders, and mentors become tormentors, when freedom of expression becomes a target of suppression…We are building the kind of future that we want, and that is what music is about.”
There is a wind of change sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa. The past eight months alone have seen Liberia’s first peaceful political transition since 1944 (with power taken not by the old elite but George Weah, a former Premier League striker), the rejection of an election result by the Kenyan Supreme Court — a first in Africa — and the fall of two of the continent’s most hated leaders: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, who are now infamous for corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses, but were once freedom fighters themselves.
While these leaders literally fought wars in their rise to power, today a different kind of freedom fighter is emerging. One of them is Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu. When he’s not performing for adoring fans, Ssentamu works as a Ugandan parliamentarian.
“It is very sad that many who came as great revolutionaries end up despots,” he said, sitting in his office wearing a suit. “That’s why if I was in power I would ensure there is legal infrastructure strong enough to take care of the egos of men. To ensure other Ugandans are protected from me by the law.”
In late June of last year, Ssentamu was elected Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East constituency. He is one of a growing number of famous musicians in East Africa who hold political office. While Kenya’s Jaguar is a member of the ruling party, Tanzania’s Sugu (aka Mr. II) and Professor Jay are opposition members — and, like Ssentamu, Sugu ended up in prison for it.
Tanzania! Still the donor poster child, where last week a Chinese citizen was released on $10,000 fine (dodging 20 yrs in jail) for possessing lion's teeth, while hip hop artist / MP Sugu is doing 5 months prison time for insulting the president, with no option of paying a fine. pic.twitter.com/yJcCPEv0j4— Africanhiphop (@africanhiphop) March 10, 2018
Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu grew up in Kamwokya, Kampala, with his mother and nine siblings. His childhood was spent partly in school, partly on the street, selling baked goods that is mom made. Their 11-person family slept in one room. Though his interest in politics didn’t come until later, it was always in his blood: Ssentamu’s father was a political prisoner, his grandfather was a founding member of Uganda’s Democratic Party, and his great grandfather was a village chief. “My mother always told me that it was politics that destroyed our family,” Ssentamu told me. “My grandfather’s house was taken over in a coup, my father went to jail, the family disintegrated, and that’s how we ended up in the ghetto. So I hated politics.”
When he was 17 his mother died, and Ssentamu had to work hard to provide for his younger siblings. In addition to selling his mother’s baked goods, he worked as a DJ and made hip-hop, dancehall, and ragga music about “girls, dancing, and beer.” Three years later, his first hit song made him famous. “It was like an explosion, yo,” he said. “At age twenty, I didn’t have somewhere to live, but at twenty and a half, I was driving an expensive car.”. He embraced the hedonistic hip-hop lifestyle, smoking weed and partying, while enjoying his fame.
But one night 10 years ago, Ssentamu’s life changed forever. He drove to a nightclub in a new Cadillac: “I was feeling good, I was the ‘McCool’ then” he joked, while laughing at my surname. “Everyone was excited by the car, apart from this security, kind of army guy who I saw looking at me. When I came outside, he said, ‘Hey, who do you think you are? Don’t you know this country has owners?’” The man slapped Ssentamu, pulled a gun, and tried to force him to get on his knees. “The police were watching; everybody was. But they seemed scared of him. Afterwards when I asked why, the police officer told me that’s the son of so-and-so, we can’t do anything,” he said.
Ssentamu said that at that moment, he “declared war on injustice and anyone who represents it.” Until then, he had believed something his mother had said: that you can lift yourself from poverty as long as you work hard. “I was feeling good about my sweat, about my achievements,” he said. “Then this guy came and poured cold ice on everything, as if to prove to me that I will never be free.”
The experience was representative of the struggles of the everyday Ugandan, he said. “We work and work, three or four jobs, but it is the leaders that determine whether the fruits of our hard work benefit us or them.”
And so, as Bobi Wine, Ssentamu’s music took a new direction. He started singing less about babes and weed, and more about corruption, human rights, and urban poverty. It was after the 2016 Ugandan election, widely accused of being rigged, that Ssentamu made the decision to enter elective politics. Serendipity paved the way when a seat became available in a by-election in his area the following year.
Since his victory as an independent candidate last June, mainly thanks to the youth vote, Ssentamu has had a dramatic political career as one of the only opposition voices in the country. His outspoken response to President Museveni’s age limit bill — which allowed the 73-year-old leader to extend his 32-year rule indefinitely — earned him jail time, and saw grenades thrown at his mansion, one hitting the bedroom of his young son. “My family lives in extreme fear,” Ssentamu said grimly. “My wife is followed and gets calls intimidating her. Many of my friends are afraid to be associated with me now.”
As different as the two worlds may seem, Ssentamu said he also sees parallels between many African politicians and hip-hop musicians. “When I came to parliament, my fears that many politicians are in this for the biggest buck were confirmed,” he said, while sunlight from his office window caught the face of his expensive watch. They want to be celebrities too, to catch attention. It’s not any different [from the hip-hop lifestyle]. I’m only glad that I came into politics after having this lifestyle for over 20 years. “They are star struck when I come to parliament.”
A few years back, the Ugandan government even tried to get him, as Bobi Wine, on their side — along with other popular artists. “They know we communicate a lot to the people,” he said. “Before, many were producing music that’s critical of the government, but when they were paid off, they started singing praises. I refused.”.
There are even instances of politicians mimicking hip-hop style, despite not being musicians themselves. In Kenya, Governor of Nairobi Mike Sonko describes himself on his website as “generous to the Kenya’s majority poor sponsoring underprivileged children, youth and women…also known for his unorthodox mode of dressing affiliated with the hip-hop community.” Many leaders on the continent own the sports cars (see: this detailed description of Museveni’s armoured Mercedes Benz) and mansions that would not be out of place in a hip-hop video either.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the appearance of wealth has become synonymous with power, something that likely has roots in the colonial era, when European powers used material inducements to get African chiefs and administrators to collaborate with their oppressive regimes. But wealth gained by artists like Ssentamu is a threat to political elites, particularly if these musicians — who are incredibly influential with young populations in countries like Uganda — dare challenge the status quo. Professor Jay, a.k.a. Joseph Haule, a hip-hop artist and one of the founders of Tanzanian music genre “bongo flava,” was elected to office in 2015. Last year Haule’s mansion, built from the riches he made in music, was demolished by the Tanzanian government — against a court’s orders. In a statement in October Haule said: “This is a house that took me so many years to build and cost me a fortune. They demolished the house with electricity still flowing, thus endangering the lives of the demolishers themselves, my family, and my neighbors.”
The destruction of Professor Jay’s mansion in Tanzania, and continued violent intimidation against Ssentamu, send a message: Not everyone is entitled to political power. Isn’t it ironic, though, that stars like Ssentamu own the same luxury cars, watches, and mansions as the corrupt politicians they seek to subvert?
“When I rose from extreme poverty due to hard and smart work, of course I bought lots of nice things. “I think I was justified to enjoy that,” Ssentamu said with a smile. “And to me, and to many ghetto youth, it’s a symbol of resilience and achievement. It reminds those struggling people that maybe if I’m in a position of power, they could be too.”
Benon Muyomba, a Ugandan motor taxi driver and fan of Ssentamu, said he agrees: “I love Bobi Wine’s music and politics. He’s a man who has come from far to be where he is. He sings songs which touch people’s souls, because he is singing about reality.” Muyomba added that during Ssentamu’s first months in office, he was worried the musician lacked professionalism, but he’s since seen a change. With support from other opposition voices, Muyomba said, “he’s proved that he is courageous and ready to do anything to change people’s lives.”
But as the grenade attack remains unsolved by police, and with the signing into law of the president’s age limit bill in December, Ssentamu has a long way to go.
Still, he said, he’s been noticing a change in the people around him since his election to office. “There are these guys that I used to smoke weed with that were never politically conscious,” he said. “But now when I go see them in the ghetto we spend an hour talking about Uganda. Every now and then you even find a guy saying he wants to run for office. That stuff keeps me going.”