Norient–a site that, like Afropop, works to bridge the gap between scholarly and popular writing about music and culture–has just delivered another powerful mixtape, this time focusing on the contemporary music of Uganda. Given that Uganda is rarely the emphasis of such projects, we saw this mix as our window into the relatively under-listened territory that is the country’s music scene.
The mixtape well represents Uganda’s mixed musical tastes. Because its music market is smaller than those of, say, Nigeria or Kenya, artists there have created alternative paths for themselves that strategize by appealing to pan-African and even Western fan bases. As you will hear, the musicians and DJs featured on the compilation represent a wide range of genres from reggae to hardcore rap.
The mixtape also offers a critical discourse on the recent work of Uganda’s leading artists. Its 23 tracks capture what seem to be the harsh realities of the country’s musical backdrop: competition and controversy. The largest presence on the mixtape goes to Dr. Jose Chameleone, who has been called the Michael Jackson of Uganda and whose 2014 show at the Lugogo Cricket Oval Stadium in Kampala broke the record for largest live audience of any East African performer. His style straddles the crossroads of Ugandan folk, rumba, zouk and reggae. His tracks on the compilation, “Born Fighter,” “Salute” and “Beauty,” are all thematically consistent, referencing the pride Chameleone takes in his country and the political consciousness he hopes to inspire in his audiences.
However, Chameleone’s lyrics sometimes serve an additional purpose, according to another of Uganda’s international music stars, Moses Ssali aka Bebe Cool. Cool is a ragga rapper whose lyrical objectives diverge from Chameleone’s altogether—his two tracks on the mixtape are “Coccidiosis,” named after a disease of the intestines, and “Big Mouth By Far.” Cool and Chameleone were some of the first artists affiliated with Kenyan record label Ogopa Deejays. Although their early careers were linked, by their return to Uganda in the early 2000s, it was clear the two had separate agendas.
Cool and Chameleone’s on-and-off rivalry constitutes an epic poem, but the sake of space has forced us to spare you all but one relative detail: fans of both artists believe that Cool’s “Coccidiosis” is an indirect attack on Chameleone, an interpretation that certainly sheds an interesting light on Norient’s mixtape. Without making any explicit references, Cool claims in the song that he has no time for games or to boast of his wealth while, in the music video, dancers behind him fall down as they mimic Chameleone’s signature dance stroke. This kind of referential jab is not unusual for Cool, who, aside from being known for his music and taproot dreadlocks, has become somewhat of a controversial figure. On the topic, he has been quoted as saying, “I am controversial for a reason. To be a good musician, you have to sell. And there is nothing that sells like controversy.” So, despite accounts of recent efforts Cool has made to abandon his bad boy image for a better-regarded family man one, we see with “Coccidiosis” that his intentions still lie in the attacks he makes against others in his work.
Less-contentious features include two tracks by Klear Kut, a five-member hip-hop group that has worked with Cool in the past. The music video for their hit single “Mon Coeur/Murder of Crows” was the first Ugandan music video ever to appear on MTV. In addition, Navio, who first emerged as part of the group but later took up a solo career, contributes two excellent tracks of his own.
This much said, if Norient’s mission is to provide us with new perspectives on our emerging global music scene, then the Uganda mixtape accomplishes just that. These are artists whose lyrics have created important conversations around issues pertinent to Ugandan society today. Yet at the same time, we cannot avoid the frustration of knowing the competitive factors at work in all of this success. In any event, we do recommend that you lend Norient your ears for this one.