21 May 2019

Uganda: Fresh Kid - Mother Speaks Out

Photo: FreshKid/Facebook
Rapper Fresh Kid, real name Patrick Ssenyonjo in a video.

There is no doubt that seven-year-old Patrick Senyonjo a.k.a. Fresh Kid will impact Uganda's entertainment scene in a big way. Well, depending on what happens, moving forward.

With four songs in three months, the child rapper sounds more talented than singers older than him. His freestyle raps and awkward responses during interviews have won him public interest.

With his famous response to tough questions being "buuza manager" literally meaning, ask my manager, it is now downtown slang. His songs are Banteeka, Bamuzeeyi Mukulu, Bambi and Taki Taki featuring 14K Bwongo, an upcoming youthful rapper, who is also Senyonjo's songwriter.

The Observer set out to meet the young rapper and his parents through his manager, Francis Kamoga, of Da Texas Entertainment. After almost a month of cat-and-mouse games with Kamoga even rudely hanging up on me last week, I took matters into my own hands.

CHANGE OF PLAN

Last Saturday a source tipped me on how to get the Fresh Kid's parents, especially the mother, Madrine Namata who resides in Kivulu-Kawanda, off Bombo road. By 9:37pm, we were in Kawanda. Commonly known as Maama Jonah, we watch her from across the road as she attends to customers, preparing tea for clients at a chapatti stall operated by Fresh Kid's stepfather.

Namata left Fresh Kid's father, Paul Mutabaazi, a resident of Luweero. At this chapatti stall, her current husband makes the chapattis while Namata completes the menu with a cup of tea. When I cross over, Namata welcomes me with a big smile. I ask to talk to her on the side. I introduce myself and she gets a little shy, saying: "Nze ntya n'abantu. Kati oba ngenda kuddamu ntya by'ombuuza! (I'm scared of people. How will I answer to your queries?)"

Her hair is unkempt and she tries to pull it back with her fingers as she struggles to cover her plastic sandals covered with mud and wheat flour. It has been a busy day for the couple. She requests that I come back during daytime.

The following day at 10:22am, I return. This time, Namata declines to talk; the child rapper's manager, who I learn resides just metres away with Fresh Kid, has ordered her to remain tight-lipped.

"I don't stay with Patu [Patrick]. If you want anything, you have to first talk to the manager," Namata says.

Not satisfied with this feedback, I hang around their stall as she goes about her work. When all is done, she serves her husband porridge and settles on a bench near me.

I ask: "How do you trust a manager to stay with your child?"

She replies in a very low tone, probably to lock her husband out of the conversation, given that she separated with Fresh Kid's father years ago. Her children including Fresh Kid had been in Kawanda, but Mutabaazi ferried them back to Luweero. This is where Kamoga found Fresh Kid and started living with him. Namata said the manager has a wife and child at his home, who take care of her son.

"Whenever they are moving around Kivulu, Patu comes here briefly to check on me," she says.

The only time Fresh Kid's mother has interacted with Mutabaazi at length since their separation is when the minister of state for Youth and Children Affairs, Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, summoned them to her office in Kampala.

"I don't have his contacts and I don't want to know what he is up to. If it wasn't for Patrick's singing career, we wouldn't have met anywhere today," she adds.

This statement prompts her husband to interject: "Nyabo, ebintu by'omubuuza nga bingi. Ofaayo okukomya emboozi eyo?" (Do you mind ending this conversation, because you are asking too much?)

He signals that I leave and Namata tells me to contact the manager for clearance as she leaves me. I grab a boda boda out of Kivulu to the taxi stage. This boda boda rider who also knows the couple tells me, "Fresh Kid is now a star."

Before, he would move around Kivulu village unattended to, but all this has since changed. He is always in the company of his manager, who drives a Toyota Wish.

FRESH KID A SMART KID

Last month, Fresh Kid's Bambi was nominated for the 4th Carolina Music Video Awards (CMVA) scheduled to take place at the NASCAR Hall of Fame High Octane Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is up against Feffe Bussi (Yes, No), Lydia Jazmine (You and Me), and Ykee Benda (Singa), all in the international category.

Last Thursday, another meeting was held at the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development in Kampala. The ministry's permanent secretary, Pius Bigirimana, asked Fresh Kid's management and parents to draft a memorandum of understanding that stipulates the roles and interests for each party. This includes a timetable for his music and education.

Two weeks ago, Fresh Kid sat for his P2 interviews at Kampala Parents School, where Ruparelia Foundation boss Rajiv Ruparelia offered to sponsor his primary education. According to sources, he aced the interviews with only 90s in English and Mathematics, according to sources.

Since the parents and manager reportedly turned down an offer of a place at boarding school St. Savio Junior in Kisubi, Fresh Kid faces an early commute from Kawanda to Kampala Parents School, to allow him do music at the weekends.

HOW FIK COINED THE FRESH KID NAME

Moses Kyeyune aka Wembley Mo is a dancer and founder of Wembley Mo Foundation, and was Fresh Kid's first Kampala contact. Three years ago, Wembley Mo who features in all Fik Fameica's videos started a foundation along Salaama road in Makindye, off Bidongo stage. There, he has opened doors for all sorts of talent, which has seen street children, orphans and those from disadvantaged families join him.

Currently, the foundation has about 300 children ranging from four to 24 years. Of these, only 25 children are in the core performing team. Others are comedians, footballers, rappers, singers and some children have no talent at all but are there because they are homeless. Wembley says the foundation has no direct funders but through dance, the youngsters live off their talent.

One such child is Fresh Kid. In March last year, Wembley and Fik Fameica travelled to Luweero for a music show. Already, Fresh Kid was a secret admirer of the Kutama singer.

"Before Fameica could perform, he asked if there was anyone to challenge him. Fresh Kid, then known as Patu, jumped onto the stage. He performed free style on Born to Win and Mafia [all Fameica's songs] which caught everyone's attention," Wembley recalls.

After the show, Fameica asked Wembley to recruit the young rapper into his foundation for further training in Kampala. At the time, Fresh Kid was not in school.

"On the first day, he came with his father [to Makindye] but over time, he used to travel with an older sibling and I would foot their transport costs. Since he wasn't in school, I didn't want him to mingle a lot with homeless and street children," he says.

These trips continued until last December when Fameica staged his "My Journey" concert at Kyadondo rugby grounds. Fresh Kid showcased his talent with Wembley Mo and other talented dancers from the foundation.

Fameica had already coined him a name "Fresh Kid" and was introduced as a curtain raiser to lip sync to Fameica's songs. All went well until the end of January this year when Fresh Kid unceremoniously left the foundation. His father did not talk about the child's whereabouts but sources told Wembley Fresh Kid had been signed to new management.

"I was shocked and angry because [Kamoga] told me his parents were aware about the move. Next I see is Fresh Kid giving TV interviews, tarnishing my name and saying he has no idea about me," Wembley says.

"I didn't give Fresh Kid all he wanted at the time because I take care of many children, but I gave him a platform. He may not give us credit but we are happy for him. He is a star."

After the Fresh Kid explosion, Wembley says other children at the foundation are inspired that "they will make it one day."

HOW WEMBLEY DOES IT

Whenever Wembley is invited for a show, he moves with the performing team but that heeds to the rules governing the foundation. The children are also issued with identity cards.

"After our performance, we get into our car and they don't go anywhere. Whoever doesn't adhere to the rules is not allowed back into the foundation," he says.

The children don't perform beyond 6pm, and they don't perform in nightclubs and bars. Every Saturday, it's a general meeting at the foundation where the disciplinary committee punishes those who are ill-mannered and later have fun at their six-bedroom home.

For street kids, Wembley says dancing takes up most of their time and they don't go back to streets, as he finds them sponsors for their education. To Fresh Kid's new management, Wembley says: "Tell Fresh Kid that he is a star but he can be a better star with education. He is still young and needs education as collateral. Many young talented children are coming up; balance his education so that if music fails at some point, he has an education as back-up."

HOW DAUDA KAVUMA MANAGES TRIPLETS GHETTO KIDS

Since the release of Eddy Kenzo's Sitya Loss dance video in 2010, the Triplets Ghetto Kids (TGK) went viral, thanks to Dauda Kavuma who identified the talent of initially five youngsters. The kids have since won local and international awards through dance.

In 2007, Kavuma, also a former street kid, was already performing with three children at Wallet Pub in Kabuusu alongside Amarula Family, but they were not known by many. After the Sitya Loss fame, he revamped the group and gives credit to Kenzo for promoting TGK to date. Currently, the TGK foundation comprises 30 children but only 10 are performers. Three of the children study in the USA, after securing scholarships through dance.

Whenever the group travels to the 'states', the threesome occasionally joins their colleagues to perform at various shows.

"All children know that they dance to get school fees as well as support their parents," Kavuma says.

Ten years later, one may wonder how the group has stayed solid. Of the 10 performers, the youngest dancer is turning seven and the eldest is 18 years old. When at home, these children have a mother figure that ensures that they are smart for school, prepares meals and monitors their homework. Kavuma also encourages their parents to visit the children at school to check on their progress.

Recently, he suspended a child from the TGK Foundation when he became more focused on dancing and showed no interest in school.

"He didn't want to do homework, revision tests and didn't hand in his homework. I suspended him from dancing and performing at various shows but there was no change. I had no option but take him back to his parents to study from their home. When he gets better, I will bring him back," he says.

The strictness aside, he has a strong bond with the children to the extent that "we sit, discuss and agree on certain things before I implement them. These look to be young kids but have a right to accept or refuse certain things."

Kavuma took a decision to have the children under one roof to easily coordinate their training sessions and education. During school holidays, the children can visit with relatives. Otherwise, every morning, the children are driven to their respective schools and picked in the evening.

In case they have a training session, they go straight to their dance studio located along Salaama road for not more than two hours in order to give them time to revise, do homework and prepare for the next school day.

"Whoever is in a candidate class is not allowed to travel if we are taking more than a week away. Many have missed flights, cried, but I insist that they have to stay and study," he says.

For every travel within school days, Kavuma communicates to their respective head teachers in time and they usually share material for children to revise while off-stage. Upon return, he also hires tutors to help the children catch up with other learners.

"There are one-off opportunities that children got like BET and the French Montana and Swae Lee's moments [TGK featured in Montana's award-winning Unforgettable video]. We are forced to be out of school for some time but I was sure we would cover up for that time."

For now, renowned TGK female dancer Patricia Nabakooza is a senior four candidate and her movements are limited. Next term, she will join the boarding section and in third term she will strictly not engage in any performances. During school hours, they are not allowed to have phones.

At TGK, all the primary school pupils have tablets installed with only education materials and age-appropriate games, but no sim card. When they join secondary school, they get a phone but are not allowed to join any social media platforms.

"You will be surprised that Patricia has only Instagram on her phone, while boys have Facebook accounts that are monitored. We opened these accounts for them and randomly ask for their phones to catch them off-guard," he says.

According to Kavuma, the children only perform on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Even then, he labours to get day events.

"If we are around Kampala, our latest time to depart a show is 10pm. We also don't perform in clubs and bars. If the show has a beer sponsor, we don't attend it," Kavuma says.

"While on stage, if the background has a beer company, we don't perform. I want to keep the dignity of these children because they are still young." He adds that he has inculcated into these children a character of not associating with crowds before a show begins.

They go to the venue 15 minutes to their performance. They have a resident DJ who keeps them updated. Commenting on Fresh Kid and how he is being managed, Kavuma says he was saddened to learn that he performed in bars at night before the minister intervened. He says his new management needs to protect his identity and brand him like a child.

"There are times you find him with rings on his fingers - this is not good for a child. He can have a few necklaces and a watch because he is young," Kavuma advises.

"One time, he wore a shirt bearing playing cards [they are associated with gambling] and this didn't reflect a good image of a child. For Ghetto Kids, you can't find any with such things. They have travelled and seen how other young stars dress. I don't expect them to let me down."

He also urged Kamoga to guide Fresh Kid on how to express himself before journalists and presenters, lest he goes astray. For the Ghetto Kids, Nabakooza has been trained and is the face and spokesperson of the group.

On their just-concluded Inspire African Coffee tour, Kavuma says, he was surprised when Fresh Kid freely interacted with TGK children, yet in TV interviews he often says: "I don't play with kids."

He showed me videos of Fresh Kid swimming, dancing, singing and playing with ghetto kids his age.

"What you see on TV does not reflect his real identity. Management should let him to be original," he says.

HOW TRIPLE S' CLAIRE LULE DOES IT

Triple S is a fairly new singing group of three siblings but is a big name in children's circles. Last August they started from scratch with a lot of hesitation from their father, Saad Lule Snr.

In seven months, they have seven songs and recently, their Child Abuse song won the Inspirational song of the year for the High School Awards. Other songs are Uganda Ey'enkya, Koona, Tusiimye Allah, Ekisiibo, Kikube and Follow Me.

The singing siblings are all pupils of City Parents School. They are Saad Lule (P7), Sytrah Nalule (P5) and Sammy Lule in P2, who doubles as their rapper. According to their mother and manager Claire Lule, the trio does music strictly during holidays.

"When we get shows during school time, it has to be a weekend and day shows for children. We don't go beyond 6pm since most kids' shows are structured that way. We've performed once at night on this year's Easter Sunday at around 9:30pm and spent about 30 minutes at Freedom City," Lule says. "We declined to perform at any show the following day because I give my children enough time to rest."

She says the latest sensational rapper Fresh Kid is overworked by his management. "On Easter Sunday, we worked at two shows; the zoo and Freedom City and cancelled others, yet Fresh Kid performed in many places. When does he rest or sleep?" she asks. "The boy is very talented but they need to restructure his programme."

Meanwhile, Lule also hires professional writers to compose music for her children. This, she says, follows a song written by a writer she declines to name and didn't suit interests of the children.

"The song, Uganda Ey'enkya, was good but it was too political and not age-appropriate. We recorded the song, shot the video but after further scrutiny, I decided not to release it," she says.

She likened the song to Fresh Kid's Banteeka which she insists captures the writer's interests but not those of the child rapper.

She says songwriters need to "listen to children's conversations to come up with eye-catching song ideas".

Occasionally, she takes her children to music schools to fine-tune their voices. While on shows, the trio keeps inside their branded Triple S car until they are announced to perform.

The only artistes that her children have talked to at length are B2C Soldiers and Daxx Kartel aka Sulaiman Ssebunya. Other parents such as Betty Nakibuuka have also navigated the tough waters of raising child prodigies.

'Baby Gloria', now Gloria Ssenyonjo, is an accomplished, instrument-playing singer who has recorded music with Ruyonga and others, and has received professional music training, because of her parents taking her talent and education seriously.

nangonzi@observer.ug

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