During the Independence struggles in Africa, artistes were allies of the local people. Yet after victory, many were labelled public enemies because they remained critical of the excesses of the new governments that were supposed to represent them.
One well-known story is that of Nigerian music prodigy Fela Kuti — a political artiste who was fiercely critical of his country’s postcolonial leaders. In his book Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Arts and Politics, Nigerian academic Tejumola Olaniyan tells of an incident in 1977 when lorry-loads of armed soldiers stormed a venue where Fela was performing.
The commanding officer ordered his lieutenants to “arrest the music.” He had meant to disrupt the show but his officers didn’t know how to carry out the order. Furious that he was being undermined, the commander drew his pistol and shouted the order more sternly. His subordinates quickly scrambled onto the stage and carted away Fela’s musical instruments.
Fela pioneered the Afrobeat music genre that later inspired artistes across the world, including Uganda’s Afropop/dancehall musician turned legislator Kyagulanyi Robert Sentamu aka Bobi Wine.
On October 18, Ugandan police proscribed Bobi Wine’s music shows that he had been staging since his landslide election to parliament in June. In his 15-year musical career, Bobi Wine had never held back-to-back concerts across the country or been welcomed with such an outpouring of emotion. But now, everywhere he goes, enthusiastic crowds form long queues.
His shows, interspersed with calls to the audience to rise up and work for a better country, sound like campaign rallies. Because of giving speeches in between his songs, police accused him of inciting the public to violence and banned his shows.
Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander Frank Mwesigwa, who signed the ban, said, “We did not refuse Bobi Wine to perform at musical concerts. Rather, we refused Hon Kyagulanyi Sentamu. We want him to know that there is a difference between Bobi Wine and Hon Kyagulanyi. We have noticed that Bobi Wine has been turning into Hon Kyagulanyi to make political statements at music shows. Bobi Wine is free to perform at musical concerts, but the moment we see Hon Kyagulanyi on stage we shall arrest him.”
Bobi Wine, like Fela, has built his musical career as a protest artiste to articulate the plight of the downtrodden. He has said that he will neither stop performing nor censor his messages.
Music as a channel for mobilisation has gained visibility in Ugandan politics since President Museveni’s song titled You Need Another Rap? in the 2011 elections.
In 2016, the president recruited local star artistes to sing his praises. Their record, Tubonga Nawe (We’re With You), became the theme song of Museveni’s campaign.
However, the musicians who participated in the record had to later apologise to their fans. Bobi Wine interceded for them against a boycott that the opposition had pronounced against their subsequent performances.
“As everyone knows, this is not prosecution. It is simply persecution,” Bobi Wine wrote of the ban.
“You notice that when some of my artiste colleagues sing political songs in support of the regime — the real inciting songs because they get most people angry — police don’t come out to stop them. In fact, they are given protection.
“We shall record songs and they will be listened to. We shall awaken our people. Our people shall arise, and they shall liberate their country. Oppressed people shall not always be oppressed,” he added.
Entry into politics
Since his entry into politics in June, Bobi Wine has attracted public debate.
Bobi Wine the politician would still be latent if the country’s electoral commission had conducted last year’s polls in accordance with the law. From his standpoint, it was no longer enough to just speak out against injustices when he could get involved in leadership and be part of finding solutions.
“He had, in the past, appeared to only be a ganja-smoking dreadlocked Rasta with some nice beats. People are surprised that he is more than that by how knowledgeable and articulate he is,” said Rachael Kiconco, who was a key resource person in last year’s presidential campaign of her father Amma Mbabazi.
“His novelty stems from the fact that this is an MP not afraid to speak out and speak loudly to the entire population. This is a man who has no fear and who owes no one anything so as to render him beholden to one party or another. So he comes across as one who loves Uganda and is genuinely trying to change things. He is young and fresh,” Ms Kiconco added.
The age limits debate has become a generation defining issue for Bobi Wine, one of its chief proponents. Some 23.7 million Ugandans today, out of the country’s total population of 37.7 million people, were born after 1986 when President Museveni first came to power.
President Museveni constantly reminds the country of how far he has brought it. But Bobi Wine says that that is a broken record. Times have changed and the Ugandan society has moved on.
The nation’s Constitution, which was hailed at promulgation as being among the most progressive in the world, is hailed as one of President Museveni’s signature achievements.
In 2005, legislators removed term limits so he could extend his rule.
Resistance to the proposal to remove the age limit shows no signs of abating. As Bobi Wine chides him, if the Museveni of 1980s were to meet the Museveni of today they would fight.
Yusuf Serunkuma, a doctoral fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), is researching the intersection between popular culture, identity and the politics of recognition.
“Even when we dance to their music, the general pulse is to dismiss artistes as clowns — as lowly people. Many are social outlaws: Their fashions are strange; they often drink hard or abuse drugs, and sometimes are caught up in revolting circumstances. This damages their social-moral standing,” Mr Serunkuma said at a seminar organised by MISR on August 25.
At the onset of his parliamentary journey, observers wondered whether by joining the club he had always criticised in his music, Bobi Wine would remain as transformative, revolutionary and influential as he is as an artiste. So far, he has shown that although he is in parliament he is not of parliament.
At the MISR seminar, director Mahmood Mamdani said to Bobi Wine what he thought about the current state of political parties in Uganda.
His reply was that parties were the most effective platforms of organising even if the Ugandan ones were still grappling with endless and pointless bickering. However, he did not propose any concrete action to fix the problem.
His critics have latched onto this to write him off as a political upstart. Time remains the true arbiter of Bobi Wine’s political trajectory.