7 February 2018

Uganda: The Death of Mowzey Radio - Behind the Shock and Emotion

Photo: The Observer
Mowzey Radio

Music superstar Moses Ssekibogo, popularly known by his stage name Mowzey Radio, was laid to rest Saturday in Kagga, Wakiso District, amid very emotional scenes.

The brutal beating of Radio in an Entebbe club on January 22, his hospitalisation, and his death were a big deal. On the face of it, it shouldn't have been.

For Radio was not Elly Wamala, who tapped in the nation's post-independence euphoria and its souring love with parts of itself; a Fred Masagazi, who basically told the country not to give up and die; or kadongo kamu great Paul Kafeero, who enshrined an unshakable salt-of-the earth spirit that was a (sometimes uncomfortable) compass to who we were.

Radio, you would think at first glance, didn't belong on the big Ugandan cultural or historical canvas. Well, it turns out he did. Born in 1985, Radio was your archetypal Ugandan millennial, a Museveni era child.

He enshrined its possibilities, finding fame and fortune at home and abroad while young. To understand Radio, and other musicians of his generation, you need partly to appreciate how technology has revolutionised artistic production.

Since late 1994 when Uganda's airwaves were liberalised, the explosion of private FM stations gave musicians a reach and ability for overnight fame that others even in the 1980s would have thought impossible. The proliferation of computer production, and later internet distribution, enabled them to leapfrog channels that were previously controlled by bands, music labels, agents, band and marketers.

But there is something else: a star (celebrity) system enabled by the amplification of digital and social media. Thus, we have reached a point where some of them have up to 100 million followers.

Critics argue that there's something problematic about that, adulation by people who could well be ghosts to you, but the possibilities to reach beyond the parochialism of home are also quite liberating, as Eddy Kenzo must have felt as he saw his Sitya Loss racking up millions of views on YouTube.

It is a powerful counter-narrative to the limitations imposed by politics, tribe, religion, and other local forces. Folks like Radio made fabulous livelihoods, but not on roads built by the State; nor from industries licensed by the powers that be. It was from that elusive, yet omnipresent "attention economy" that has bedeviled traditional authority.

For Radio, who was a product of this system, and a vindication of its promise, millennial culture viewed him as having certain immunities. In this culture, people like Radio die by their own hand (suicide), a drug overdose, a plane crash, and even possibly a drive-by shooting like Tupac Shakur. Dying from a beating, even by a night club bouncer, is insufferably 20th century, and disrupts the millennial narrative. The scariest part though, is that while State delinquency and rising criminality has put the security of many at risk, the points system of the new popular culture that has grown around all these hurdles should have given Radio some protection. It didn't.

It can be hard to put a finger on it, because these things are "just felt". What does it mean for (now MP) Bobi Wine to be "president of the Ghetto republic"? That he's the embodiment of hope for the urban youth marginalised by the economy and politics. What exactly is that if you wanted to touch it?

So, that's how it goes. Radio's death, if the insights from the outpouring of commentary on Ugandan social media tells us anything, was unsettling because it epitomised the fragility of present day young Ugandans at its sharpest point. And from their actions, the Men of Power clearly understand that "something happened" with Radio's attack, and death. What follows next? I am not a millennial, so I wouldn't pretend to know, but this generation can learn from what ours did in December 1989. I was still a young man then, the year musician and HIV/Aids activist Philly Bongoley Lutaaya died.

At that time, it was just three years into the NRM's ascendance to power. The "nightmare" of the previous 15 years to 1986 had supposedly ended, and those who had survived had geared up to celebrate a new promise when the HIV/Aids pandemic rained on the party.

A few years earlier when Philly pulled among the few world-firsts by publicly announcing he was HIV positive, the immediate response was denial and negativism. It was not uncommon at that time for journalists to ask him; "how/from who did you get Aids?"

By 1989, we had travelled a long way with him in his harrowing pain and heroic struggle. When he died, he enabled us to embrace the reality of Aids with a new found grace. We really got smart, and it's partly why some of us are still here. This one is yours. How Radio goes down, is not the story of my generation to write.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3

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