The Observer (Kampala)

11 April 2013

Uganda: Just Writing - Meet Our Modern-Day Griots

Men fear what they can't conquer and hate what they don't understand. I am not sure if Nas coined the phrase or he borrowed it from someone else - say Marcus Aurelius. But what I am sure of is it perfectly describes a wide section of the public opinion held by those outside the hip hop community in Uganda; towards the music and different aspects of UG hip hop culture.

If one does not possess the Rosetta stone to decipher what our fire-spitting emcees are trying to communicate, it may sound like a whole bunch of gibberish and can be rather frightening. After attempting and failing (miserably I may add) to brush aside hip hop in UG as music for teens who are American wannabes, the public decided to act on their instincts and fear took over.

They demonized the music as one that caused most if not all the vices and problems facing our society today. Hip hop offered an easy scapegoat for all the things that society did not want to face and deal with. The bulk of the current generation of emcees having been born during this regime or just before it came to power, came up in an environment where the cold war had ended and capitalism was charging for the spoils in Africa like a raging bull.

The long and short of it, society experienced a shift whereby in the effort of rebuilding the nation parents went into over drive in terms of work and building a life for their families. In effect the raising of the children was left largely to house helpers and TV, a reverse of the cultural arrangement where the extended family members played a pivotal role in instilling the cultural norms of the respective communities.

Boys and girls alike navigated adolescence under the guidance of their peers and a number of TV personalities, who happened to be rappers like Vanilla Ice, Run D.M.C and later Snoop, due to the parents being too busy. I remember listening to a young Tom Mayanja (The Mith) spit what I later learnt to be a Curtis Blow verse during break time in P.3 at Kitante Primary school.

Griots are a distinguished caste of poets, repositories of their people's culture and generally living encyclopaedias of their communities' history, the term is said to have Portuguese roots but is mostly associated with West Africa but not exclusive to that region. It is why our first citizen (Kagu "DA EMCEE" M7) could easily wear the emcee cap, because he was drawing from a griot-like aesthetic (See Mpenkoni hit).

In these modern times, I would liken our present UG emcees to the Griots of old and thus deserve the respect. The first local emcee by most accounts to get national attention was Lyrical G. He has a legendary status in the community and is the de facto "Godfather of UG hip hop", but like most pioneers, has not ripped commercial success on the level of stars like GNL, Navio and Keko.

A number of groups have also taken UG hip hop to greater heights but most notably, Bataka Underground, and KlearKut, the former masterfully rhyming in vernacular with strong community ties and the latter spitting UG content with a global appeal. Undoubtedly, the talent pool is rich, with the underground acting as a reservoir of mad talent.

The state of UG hip hop seems to be set to take off onto the next stage of maturity with emcees like Ruyonga and Big Trill - these two have upped the game with brilliant word play, voice inflection, sleek flow and content that signals UG as a major contender on the continent as a hip hop giant. Whether it is Navio's Dreams, or Zamba's Koyi Koyi , if the full potential of this art form is to be realized, the message being passed on must be acknowledged.

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