In the summer of 2008 East African rap artists in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, dared to write from their “socially conscious notebooks” rather than draw from their “club tracks.” Topics included human relationships, rape, school fees, HIV/AIDS, gender issues, spousal abuse, and inheritance rights.
Socially conscious rap is a risky business in Uganda. On the one hand, Kampala-based groups such as Klear Cut and Bataka Squad have committed to socially conscious rapping since the late 1990s and gained fans as a result. On the other hand, studio owners such as GK and Dawoo have not been so fortunate. They continue to make most of their income outside of hip hop supplementing their work with advertising for local businesses and multinational corporations as well as producing radio dramas with local NGOs. And lately, Klear Cut has done likewise to bolster their international touring. Added to these inconsistencies is the suspicion of local radio stations, who view local rap and hip hop recordings in the same light as the sexual and violent tracks frequently heard from American artists, which ironically, receive rampant airplay in Kampala. This hypocritical stance of radio execs may in fact expose a discrimination against local language lyrics for listeners of rap accustomed to English and a concern as to whether socially conscious rap in Kampala can be sustained financially.
Local rap artists in Uganda have their own unique rhyming style, Lugaflow. Ugandan MCs coined “Lugaflow” to describe rap in Luganda - the language of Uganda. Bataka Squad, credited as the first professional rap group in Uganda, and now relatively inactive as members have moved away from Kampala, began their careers rapping in Lugaflow. Artists like Twig are up-and-comers in the Lugaflow tradition. Rappers such as Lumix and Rawfam go even further by rhyming in non-Bantu languages such as Acholi and Ateso, spoken in the northern areas of the country. But Klear Kut and three-time Pearl of Africa Award winner Lyrical G “spit” their socially conscious rhymes in English. Yet Klear Kut remains rooted in local culture by adopting regional instrumentation. Attempting to mix the local and global lyrically, an artist such as Derique BC raps in English with Kiswahili hooks and choruses. Kiswahili is understood by many beyond the Ugandan borders in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. Kenyan-born Tafash does the reverse, rhyming in Kiswahili and using English for choruses. Such musical and lyrical maneuvers confirm courageous commitment to socially conscious rap rooted in local concerns and local culture, and perhaps one day Kampala radio stations will check how they hated on Ugandan rap.
Kampala Flow is a snapshot of Ugandan hip hop in the first decade of the 21st century, advancing the conception of East African rap beyond the popularity of the genre in neighboring Tanzania and Kenya. It is also a portrait of artistic freedom and musical goodwill that challenges the perception of what Ugandan rap is and what global hip hop means outside the borders of the United States.