Earlier this year, musicians were largely united against the government as several ran as opposition candidates. Not so much anymore.
This July, a hotel in the northern city of Gulu was the centre of a scuffle as a group of musicians jostled to enter. Inside, some other local artists were coming to the end of a two-week workshop on "strengthening the cultural and creative industry in Uganda". The training had been organised by General Salim Saleh, head of the government's Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) and the brother of President Yoweri Museveni.
The disgruntled musicians on the outside, based in the north, exchanged bitter words with the guards and accused Saleh of inviting just a small number of artists, mostly from central Uganda. This, they felt, was deeply unfair, particularly as the attendees did not just receive the training but a "Covid-19 bailout", the value of which has not been made public. Eventually, the frustrated musicians were allowed entry and given allowances to cover their "travel costs".
At about the same time as this incident, a letter signed by a group of musicians from the Uganda Superstars' Association - some of whom were part of the workshop in Gulu - was circulating widely on social media. That letter, addressed to Saleh, was requesting a USh9.4 billion ($2.6 million) government stimulus package for the music industry to help it deal with the effects of the pandemic.
In terms of the musicians' relationship with the government, this set of events marked a remarkable turnaround from just a few months ago. In Uganda's January 2021 elections, several musicians contested for seats as opposition candidates as they denounced the mismanagement and corruption of the ruling party. Now some of those same individuals were attending events put on by the president's brother, accepting government bailouts, and calling for more state intervention.
Music and politics
Music and politics have long mixed in Uganda. President Museveni, in power since 1986, has been accused of "buying off" musicians to support his election campaigns in the past and, in 2010, he even released a folksy rap song in a bid to appeal to the youth.
Since the political rise of popstar Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, however, the government has found it harder to win over the music industry. As Wine became an opposition MP in 2017, took on the leadership of the National Unity Platform (NUP), and ran as the main opposition candidate in 2021, the self-styled also "ghetto president" galvanised support among other artists along with millions of young Ugandans.
In the face of this challenge, the government turned to repression rather than co-optation. In 2019, the ICT Ministry approved guidelines that would allow it to vet all artworks, including song lyrics, before release. This controversial proposal was due to be debated but was delayed when Covid-19 struck in 2020.
According to some observers, however, the pandemic and its associated economic distress also provided a new opportunity for the government to take advantage of struggling musicians. Its offers of bailouts and expenses-paid training has attracted so many needy artists that local authorities in Gulu had to tell hotels not to host individuals claiming to be on one of Saleh's government programmes without official authorisation.
The rift at the heart of the music scene
Unsurprisingly, this new trend has also polarised Uganda's music sector. Wine, for instance, has described his former comrades now taking government money as "beggars who forgot about the common person" and who have decided to "bow down in humiliation".
Speaking to African Arguments, he went on to suggest his fellow artists have betrayed people's trust. "Musicians are a reflection of society, and when they are being bought off like that, they become silent on the issues affecting their people," he said.
Several of these musicians have defended themselves or hit back.
"We didn't go Gulu to beg for financial help," said Joseph Mayanja (aka Jose Chameleone), who unsuccessfully contested for the position of Kampala Lord Mayor this January as an NUP-leaning independent. "Salim Saleh is my fan... He has the authority to call the artists to understand how we can unite and improve the industry because he is the brother to the president."
Obol Simple Man, a musician who contested the Gulu district chairperson position with the opposition Democratic Party (DP), made a similar case for his attendance at Saleh's training. "I was there as a neutral person and as a musician," he told African Arguments. "I don't have to have any side even if I received money from the government."
Lalam Irene (aka Liama), a musician who ran for parliament on the NUP ticket, was cagier when asked. "I can't talk about anything related to that," she said.
Some responses were more forceful. Bosmic Otim, the formerly self-appointed "ambassador to the northern region to the Wine's people", changed loyalties to the ruling party last year because, he says, "Bobi Wine was greedy and selfish". He commented: "[Wine's] family is fine and that is why he is always travelling abroad while for us we are suffering... When I met President Museveni at the statehouse, I told him that my people needed to be uplifted out of poverty and he promised to do that. That's what I wanted to hear. It doesn't matter whether someone stole votes as long as they are going to use their position to help my people."
In Chameleone's response, he also attacked Wine for being hypocritical, claiming the NUP leader had rubbed shoulders with senior government figures in the past. Wine responded: "I became an enemy to Museveni, Muhoozi [Museveni's son] and Saleh, who were all my friends, the day I began speaking truth to power."
For the government's part, it has continuously denied that it is trying to buy off musicians. "What we are doing is training musicians on how to benefit from their music commercially, on things like copyrights and licensing," Ronald Kibuuka, from the OWC office, told African Arguments at a recent meeting in Gulu, adding a warning that "there are some musicians who are weaponising music for their benefit".
Regardless of the government's declared intentions, its actions have managed to create a rift at the heart of an industry that was, until recently, largely united in its opposition to the ruling party. And, regardless of many musicians' justifications for taking government support, many ordinary people have come to their own conclusions.
"Museveni is using the national budget to buy them off into silence," said Patrick Kinyera, a retired civil servant in Gulu. "How are we supposed to trust these musicians who used to help the common man by pointing out the rot government through their songs?"
"Most of the musicians, who used to be critical, continue to be bought," added Mercy Nalwanga, who runs a restaurant in Lira city. "Our voices will not be heard, and in future, we may not have another person who will stand up to the government like the way Bobi Wine did".
John Okot is a freelance journalist based in Gulu, northern Uganda.