A Ugandan TV station is featuring hip-hop artists who rap the nightly news, and two rising female stars are using the medium to call for social justice.
A version of this article, by Amy Fallon, a freelance journalist currently based in Uganda, originally appeared on TakePart.
In the week at Kampala High School, Zoe Kabuye is just like other teenagers. But on Saturdays, while her friends are hanging out, she takes to the airwaves to rap the news. At 14, Kabuye is regarded as the leading female teenage rapper in Uganda.
Don’t mistake her music for nightclub fodder, though. Known professionally as MC Loy, she makes music that centers on social issues and children’s rights, including educational access and sexual abuse. She also made her television debut last year as the youngest rapping newscaster in Africa; she regularly appears as a guest anchor for NewzBeat, a popular Ugandan television show featuring hip-hop artists turned “rap-orters” and “newsicians” who deliver the news with what they describe as “rhyme and reason.”
“They say music is the food of the soul,” says Kabuye. “Rap can attract somebody. You become interested in listening to the words.”
So, Why Should You Care? Rap music is becoming increasingly popular in the East African country, and Kabuye is among a handful of socially and politically conscious hip-hop artists employing the art form to get their message across in a region where the media is often censored. Unlike government-regulated news reports, rap is a rare medium in which free speech reigns.
In her song “Skool Revolution,” Kabuye addresses corruption and the widespread sexual abuse and corporal punishment that exists in Ugandan schools:
Defilement…I can’t imagine how heavy the case!
Keeping law and order ain’t a slogan for police to make.
You take ’em in and after a few days they are lousing out!
Allow me to extend this grudge upon the school staff.
You know you got foxes but you hide them in sheep!
What you do you pay bribes to let these teachers out.
Kabuye fell in love with rap as a child while watching her older brother perform at home and later joined a church group that rapped gospel music. In 2012, she rapped for Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, at an event celebrating the country’s 50 years of independence.
She was recruited to join NewzBeat by 28-year-old rapper Sharon Bwogi, professionally known as Lady Slyke, one of the most popular female rappers in the country.
Bwogi’s music focuses on human rights, child abuse, youth empowerment, race, and peace and unity. In a song titled “Shakira,” Bwogi advises girls to pursue their studies instead of leaving school to pursue “sugar daddies,” she says. In her song “Nkooye,” she calls out corrupt politicians.
“[Government officials] say, ‘We’re going to make this road so nice, make sure you have clean water,’ ” says Bwogi. “But after getting votes, nothing happens. They just cruise in their big cars”
Like Kabuye, Bwogi developed her talent at a young age and later went on to rap gospel in church. When she started rapping professionally in 1999, Bwogi says, a male counterpart told her that rapping was “ ‘a male business.’ I told him, ‘Rap is a human business.’” Bwogi recounted seeing Kabuye rap for the first time, “I was like, wow, I’m seeing more and more female rappers coming up, [and] I’m like, yeah, girls can rap.”
Bwogi has taken her performances across Uganda, to Kenya’s Rift Valley Festival, and to Denmark, rapping in both English and in the Ugandan language Luganda. She is also the first female artist to rap in “Lugaflow,” a term coined by fans to describe her style of mixing both languages while performing.
These days, Bwogi and Kabuye appear together as anchors on the NewzBeat program, which airs Saturdays on one of Uganda’s most popular channels. From Uganda’s “miniskirt law” to updates on Ebola in West Africa and the political situation in Ukraine, the show isn’t afraid to voice opinions and cover controversial issues. It’s gaining a loyal following among young viewers who feel an immediate connection to the musical format.
While Kabuye aspires to be a lawyer one day, the two agree that Uganda is “on a high” with rap, and that it’s a great way to engage today’s youth about important social issues so they can form opinions and make change.