Ugandan Music: Balancing Local Roots with Global Appeal

Understanding the 5 Eras of Ugandan Music (Part 1)
The Ugandan music industry, like any music industry elsewhere on our planet, is a fast-growing one and keeps making great strides. Come to think of it, artistes are ‘licking’ delicious endorsement deals, and financial stability and social capital have become more attainable in recent years. Clap clap clap. That’s progress, and it brings a warm feeling. However, what is worrying is the trend of this growth; while the industry may be expanding in certain areas, there are numerous other dimensions in which we anticipate further growth (and this is a bigger problem even for Ugandan sectors that are state-run). It is a concerning fact that the path of this expansion, though admirable in length, its width, and height is narrow; it’s a bit like watching a tree grow taller but neglecting its branches and roots. And the thought that nobody out there has made themselves useful to examine the realities of this growth is also tear-inducing. There’s not a single book on the market analyzing these issues, despite the industry boasting many stakeholders and commentators.

The fact is: the music industry’s growth is increasing at a decreasing rate, and artists are stuck in a cycle of mediocrity that keeps the industry afloat but doesn’t propel it forward. The industry has failed to reach certain milestones, let alone surpass them. The industry is caged. Though this might not come out as an interesting concern, especially to the artistes, who are ironically its major stakeholders in it, it should be. At the least, some sober-minded stakeholders who have been watching this industry since the rise of the 90s should be. Perhaps someone from today’s generation reading this material might find these statements puzzling. But if you stick around, you might just harvest some wisdom that could benefit the next generation.

Well, I have conferred on myself the daunting task of exploring the uncharted music corners that no one has dared to examine. And that will be the flow of my writings. And boy, it’s going to be a series of enlightening pieces for artists, music managers, executives, and anyone invested in music. Since someone is here to read this, and not on TikTok laughing away I will ensure that I use this unusual opportunity such that every word written here is not just a rumble but a useful statement. These are not entertainment thoughts, but thoughts on entertainment!

Now, providing a useful opinion on the Ugandan music industry and offering potent solutions to its challenges requires an understanding of the generations that have historically shaped it. There’s an academic word for that: Historical Growth Curve! Don’t run away, we are not going to draw graphs. It’s just an English word. Now let’s get to it. Through this curve or graph, we can grasp, at a deeper level, how this industry has fared and what it’s missed. You see, the music industry has evolved from one era to the next, with each either outdoing or, as we’ll see, underperforming the last. Let’s break down the generations or eras 5down:

1. The Big 3 Era: Enter Jose Chameleone, Bobi Wine, and Bebe Cool (and Ragga Dee, depending on who you ask), the patriarchs of modern Ugandan music. These were (and, in the present politically charged environment still are) bitter blood-spilling rivals who reshaped music consumption in Uganda in the 90s, steering fans away from Congolese soukous, Rumba, and Ndombolo to dancehall-inspired Afrobeat. These trailblazers, still fairly active today, set the stage for generations to come. Their era inspired the emergency of Red Banton, Emperor Orlando, Mad Tiger, Nubian Lee, Chagga, Master Parrot, Jamal, to name a few.


2. The Goodlyfe Era: The Big 3’s long dominance eventually gave way to a new wave of artists in the mid-2000s. Radio and Weasel, with their Goodlyfe Entertainment, in what seemed like a direct confrontation of the Big 3’s status quo, inspired a generation of artists. Their influence crowned talents like GNL Zamba, Gift of Kaddo, Vampino, Cindy, Navio, Sizzaman, KS Alpha, Mun* G, Big Trill, and Viboyo, among others. Their effect was combined with that of Swangz Avenue studio, now a full music label, when the studio was still finding its direction in the Ugandan music industry, to inject R&B, hip-hop and poetry into the Afrobeat-dominated scene and this brought a shift towards those three genres. Similar to many other countries, Uganda has a cultural inclination towards consuming both local and American music like one eats a main course and a dessert.

Consequently, the music scene in Uganda was heavily influenced by sounds from the United States, particularly listened to in high schools, shortly before the emergence of Radio and Weasel in 2007, which factor influenced the sound of artistes in this era. The Benon Mugumbyas, Michael Rosses, the Vamposses, and Mowzey Radios of this era were cool kids that had gone to urbanized schools that glorified music from the United States, and that explains the westernized sound of this era. It is likely that Radio and Weasel derived their name from Kanye West’s “Welcome to the Good Life.”

Additionally, artistes from Jamaica who had influenced the Big 3 era were moving to the US and their subsequent signing to US labels contributed to the Americanized sound in Uganda. And this new fusion produced results: Ugandan music started being exported outside East Africa, major award nominations and international performances started flooding the Pearl. We won’t shy away from the effect that this era had on Bebe Cool’s career: he joined Kenya’s Necessary Noize to form the East African Bashment Crew that gave him wings outside Uganda; only Jose Chameleone had been able to pull this off before. Save for a few Jose Chameleone collaborations with Tanzanian Bushoke, AY, and Professor Jay before this era knocked on the door, collaborations with foreign artistes were something Ugandan artistes were not much into (reasons for this can be brain-stormed); the culture was only elevated during the Goodlyfe era.

Other artists like David Lutalo, Aziz Azion, Tonics, and Peter Miles emerged during this era, although their inspiration did not directly stem from Radio and Weasel. Eddy Kenzo too began to rise to fame during this time, but his unique sound which was more local and non-westernized, disqualifies him from this era; he belongs to the next.

The emergence of this era posed a threat to the dominance of the Big 3. However, the Big 3 managed to maintain their relevance through their never-ending rivalry characterized by intense competition, physical fights, family wrangles, controversial stunts, and diss tracks. Even the Goodlyfe Crew, prodigal sons of one of the Big 3, Jose Chameleone for some time found themselves mixed in the pot of rivalry, almost earning themselves a place among the Big 3. This era was cemented by an all-star record ‘Mr DJ’ by Swangz Avenue studio which featured almost all artistes of the era.

The Big 3 and Goodlyfe Era laid the foundation, but a challenge emerged: can Ugandan music find its global voice without sacrificing its local soul? Join us in Part 2 as we navigate the complexities of the modern scene and explore the exciting future of Ugandan music.

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Mwesigwa Joshua
Mwesigwa Joshua Buxton is an artiste, humor columnist, strategist writer and journalist who draws inspiration from the works of Barbara Kimenye, Timothy Bukumunhe, and Tom Rush. He focuses on writing on entertainment. His background includes collaboration with the Eastern Voice FM newsroom.
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