In the yearslong run-up to Uganda’s 2021 elections, pop-star-cum-politician Bobi Wine was the standard-bearer of political dissent, especially among the youth, who constitute nearly 80 percent of the population. Wine’s political rise was preceded by his musical one. He remains Uganda’s most popular recording artist of the past decade. Famous not just for catchy tunes alone, Wine pioneered a politically minded genre known as “edutainment.”
Wine, who was raised in the Kampala ghetto of Kamwokya, not only made music that people enjoyed listening and dancing to. He also drew people’s attention to the plight of the poor. Using his fame as a platform, in 2017 he successfully ran for parliament; in 2019, he ran as a presidential candidate for the National Unity Platform (NUP), but he lost to Uganda’s incumbent president, Museveni.
Wine’s outspokenness and popularity have made him a target of Museveni’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Since 2017, Wine has witnessed the killing of his driver as well as his bodyguard, and he has been placed under house arrest twice — once during the 2021 election, and both times illegally. He has also been arrested at least four times, on one occasion being brutally tortured.
Having faced police interference at his concerts and bans on his music, Wine has not performed in his home country in nearly five years. His music is not played on the radio, nor does he appear on television. Once the popular firebrand of the Ugandan opposition, Wine has now been entirely censored, and the entire country is feeling the impact.
Violence has been a defining feature of Ugandan politics of late. In the city of Arua on August 13, 2018, following the alleged “stoning” of the presidential motorcade, more than fifty supporters of People Power — Wine’s resistance pressure group — were arrested. Opposition candidate Francis Zaake was brutally beaten, and Wine himself was tortured; Yasin Kawuma, Wine’s driver, was shot and killed. When news of Wine’s arrest reached Kamwokya, protesters poured into the streets to demand his release. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowd.
In November 2020, more than forty people were shot dead during protests again following Wine’s arrest. And, in March 2021, just after the national elections, Wine released a list of 423 people he believed to be in government custody for supporting his People Power group and the NUP, the movement’s corollary party.
In late July of 2020, Allinda Michael, also known as Ziggy Wine, was found outside a hospital after having been abducted the week prior. He was missing two fingers and an eye, and he died shortly after. Another People Power supporter, Ssewankambo Hannington, also known as Sweet Pepsi, died from injuries sustained during a protest. Video shows him dressed in red, standing calmly on the side of a street before security forces bludgeon his head with batons. Wine’s own right-hand man and longtime collaborator, Nubian Li, was arrested and beaten last year.
By volume, the arrests, torture, and murder of musicians like Wine, Michael, and Li pale in comparison to that experienced by the Ugandan populace as a whole. However, the targeting of musicians, in particular those associated with the most potent vehicle for revolutionary politics in recent Ugandan memory, has an outsize effect.
Once the most prolific recording studio in Uganda, Fire Studioz no longer attracts the talent it once did. “My business is not flowing like it used to,” said Kim XP, a video producer at Fire. “We don’t get clients because they have fear [sic] to associate with you.”
“Business is really down,” agreed Tony Houls, head producer at Fire. “Few clients come; they feel kind of insecure to come.” When asked why, Houls placed blame not on the pandemic and the accompanying economic slump but on politics, citing fear to “associate with us . . . because of [the] kidnappings and arrests” that have occurred. Now, the once-flourishing studio goes weeks without a single artist coming to record, often allowing freedom fighter types to record for free.
Fire is not the only once-successful studio to be affected. Dream Studios, up the road from Fire and owned by Wine’s older brother, has also suffered as artists have begun leaving Kamwokya to record at new studios in other parts of Kampala, like Makindye, that do not have the affiliation that the two major Kamwokya studios have. According to Houls, this problem started before the pandemic, beginning when Wine started to show an interest in running for president, and especially after the 2018 Arua incident.
While this chilling effect had political roots, it has been accentuated by Uganda’s uniquely severe COVID-19 lockdown. Museveni’s government implemented the world’s longest lockdown, including a two-year closure of schools, despite a relatively small case and death count.
Events exceeding two hundred people were banned, precluding any and all live concert performances, the main source of income for most musicians. Whereas before the pandemic, Wine and his Fire Studioz affiliates faced concert bans for any number of reasons, after the pandemic, the government needed no excuses — and virtually no security resources .
In this way, the lockdown has been particularly convenient for Museveni’s threatened administration, especially given the demographic overlap of the opposition and concertgoers, i.e., the youth.
Li recalled a specific incident, just prior to the pandemic, when a radio host for NBS Television, Uganda’s largest broadcaster, cut short his own programming to inform Li and Wine that the song they were debuting, “Tuliyambala,” had been banned by the station. Coincidentally, the song’s title translates to “we shall be crowned king.”
“We have songs that are allowed to be played, and we have songs that are censored,” said Chris O., a radio host based in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu. According to him, censorship phone calls are made anonymously to radio and television stations’ upper management, who have no other choice but to comply. This is the sophistication of censorship in Uganda; if nothing is written, then no official order was made. “Rumors circulate, but we cannot produce evidence,” said Chris O. “Still, there is a body responsible.”
While Friday and Saturday programs featuring in-studio performances did occur, few of Uganda’s broadcasters had the financial resources necessary to conduct virtual events, amplifying not only the intense scarcity inherent to the pandemic market but the efficiency of the censoring “call from above,” as well.
Moreover, many of the country’s local radio stations are owned by politicians who are cautious about associating with any opposition figure. In this way, censorship in Uganda is now both preemptive and vertically integrated throughout the industry, forcing radio hosts, video producers, and promoters to, in Li’s words, “think twice.”
In this bottleneck created by the government’s long-standing censorship practices and the authoritarian conveniences of the pandemic lockdown, few, if any, opposition artists have broken through. This presents a stark contrast to the near-constant barrage of political music being produced and performed just two years ago.
If anti-Museveni musicians have been struggling in these circumstances for the past two years, pro-Museveni musicians have had a very different experience. While some artists have preserved a chance at success by avoiding politics altogether — and thereby avoiding unwanted scrutiny — others have pursued advancement by appealing, more or less directly, to the government itself.
Politically motivated music in Uganda has a history as long as that of the nation’s modern politics. During election season, once-unaligned artists tend to suddenly develop strong feelings for one candidate or another, sometimes shifting allegiances and even composing propaganda. “Basically, an influential person paying for an artist to do a song is nothing new in Uganda,” said Chris O. What is new, however, is the desperation created by the pandemic, which has engendered a perpetual, campaign-like environment of rent-seeking behavior on the part of musicians.
According to David Lewis, secretary general of the NUP, this behavior is facilitated by Uganda’s Operation Wealth Creation program, which is headed by President Museveni’s brother, General Salim Saleh. Gulu, where Saleh lives, has recently been described as “a mecca” for artists allegedly requesting funds from him, such as Jose Chameleone.
“If you want to get money [as an artist], you have to associate with big men [and] sound the drums of praise,” said Kim XP.
Only Love Songs in Uganda
Censorship and violence against opposition artists in Uganda are having an impact. In such an atmosphere, fewer and fewer artists are aspiring to speak out against the government.
At the very least, it is true, as Li says, that “there are certain topics which [artists] cannot sing about,” that today it is easier and safer to sing songs about love. It is also true that Uganda, in the words of Chris O., “is a country taken by events.” Elections offer a narrow window for change, and when they are closed, the attention and passions of the public go with them. With this in mind, perhaps it was really Bobi Wine who was responsible for briefly opening a window for freedom fighters and their music.
But for now, and until that next window opens, there will be no new Bobi Wines, and there will only be love songs playing in Uganda.