Uganda: Bobi Wine - the 'Badman From Kamwokya' in a Leopard's Lair

Robyn Curnow tweet about Bobi Wine.
26 September 2018

MP and "People Power" symbol Robert Kyagulanyi (more famously known by his stage name Bobi Wine) has for the last two months been the biggest Ugandan anything in international media and social media.

He was propelled to dizzying global attention following his arrest and torture on August 13. Bobi Wine began his political ascent, following his emergence last year as a surprise winner in a by-election. He was a strange creature: Neither NRM, nor FDC, nor DP, and not even traditional independent. He was a kind of a "fourth force", ie the first politician representing a purely 21st Century phenomenon, born out of the angst of Uganda's youth bulge.

And so here we are today. Something unusual has happened to Bobi Wine. On YouTube, there are more videos of him being arrested, limping wounded, marching in political protest, or being interviewed than there are of his music. Yet, the real politics of Bobi Wine is not in his politics, but in his music.

I read a lot about Ugandan music and musicians, but I don't listen to their work much. My pure music interest in Uganda music tends to concentrate around jazz, and to the bits with deep history like Afrigo, Philly Lutaaya and so forth. I used to also be a Chameleone man.

He was unruly, prodigiously talented, and avant-garde (together with Maurice Kirya) in ways no musician had been since Peterson Tusubira Mutebi and, immediate post-1986, Limit X.

The rest, for the longest time, I followed because of what they revealed about the times, not for the music for itself. Thus I would play jazz pianist David Pragmo N'saiga until everyone ran mad, and marvel at the shameless talent of Brian Mugenyi, dubbed by some "Africa's finest [young] saxophonist".

Bobi Wine represents something important for reasons bigger than politics. Some years ago, I was at a fancy Nairobi mall with one of our daughters, when she spotted musician Navio.

She told (or rather ordered) me to go, introduce myself, and say she wanted to take a photo. I ambled over and did so, my notoriety from a previous life as editor at The Monitor ensuring that Navio knew who I was. Photos were taken, and I got enough daddy points to last me a year.

Later she told me about Badman from Kamwokya by Bobi Wine and Navio, and how it was one of the biggest things in Nairobi with young people. I hadn't listened to it, and she thought I was a cave man. Then I did.

I was floored. I hadn't seen such a badass, gritty music video out of Uganda, or heard such a clever commentary on class in Uganda.

Badman from Kamwokya did something that has now become the subtle political vocabulary of young African musicians, from Nigeria's Yemi Alade (in Johnny) and Davido (Aye), to Congolese superstar Fally Ipupa (in Eloko Oyo), to name a few, that are steeped in tough slums or forlorn villages as the video background. They are a refusal to allow the people who have lost out to be forgotten, and feed the narrative of inclusion and opportunity that birthed "People Power".

An iteration of it is Eddy Kenzo's blowout Sitya Loss, which takes the same bleak material, and builds the story that happy moments are still possible, best epitomised by the fact that the poor Ghetto Kids in the video went on to become international stars.

Ugandan music in this way, has become a powerful political soundtrack.

In 2003, Pastor George Okudi's Wipolo took Africa by storm, going on to win several gongs. It was mysteriously unnerving in its vibrant soul. That was because it was a refusal by the Uganda political north, after nearly 15 years of the horrors of war and deprivation, to roll over and die. And it didn't.

Some years later, I watched Lilian Mbabazi's Kawa for the first time. It was happy, but had a strange melancholy undertone. In its way, it was an accidental representation of "peak Museveni"; the magic was fading.

And so back where we started. Since 2016, Bobi Wine's videos have become more overtly political acoustically and visually, and clearly foreshadowed his direct involvement in politics.

However, what's striking is watching the transition from Badman from Kamwokya to Aidah in 2016. It's not so much what Aidah is about, as the remarkable fluency of Bobi Wine. Quieter, and even more lighthearted than his previous, in it the man seemed to have finally found his inner voice.

Bobi Wine is certainly not the only one who found it. He, and his diehard supporters, are only the few who have expressed it. If Uganda's rulers listened, in its music are many signals of what is to come, but also a cry for help that they could profit from answering.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of

Africa datavisualiser and explainer site [email protected]

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