Political communication through popular music in Uganda

Music has been found to be essential in supporting human activities including socio-political, cultural, religious and educational activities (Olatunji, 2020). It as well plays an important role in the life and development of societies.

The author; Mugonero Ivan Mutebe

By Mugonero Ivan Mutebe

This article puts forth the increasing role of music as a tool for communicating socio-political issues. Particular attention is placed on how Bobi Wine has in recent history used his music as a tool for communicating political messages not just to his fans but for raising political consciousness to the wider population. The article acknowledges the ability of music in permeating every level of social life and in occupying a leading position amongst other arts.

Recent years have witnessed an increasing number of research studies attesting to the view that music, communication and politics are closely linked. This has simultaneously grown with a common widespread view that music is universal and communicative and like language, music is an interactive and participatory medium that appears to constitute a communicative system (Miell et al., 2005).

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Hansen, (2015) offers a vivid illustration of the interconnection between music and communication as he defines music as a matter of sounds performed live or recorded and written in notes to be read and played for or with others.  As such music is a process of communication that involves several people playing or listening.

Music as a form of communication is a tool by which people express their individual and social identities and express themselves through the emotions they make (Tanyıldız, 2020). Music has been found to be essential in supporting human activities including socio-political, cultural, religious and educational activities (Olatunji, 2020). It as well plays an important role in the life and development of societies.

It is safe to say that music has social and political features, among many other things (Thorsén, 2004). Music also intervenes in and exerts an influence on discussions taking place in other sectors. Music is a cause of and a reflection of changes in societies. Take the example of freedom songs that provide powerful support for democratization processes. 

In colonial and post- colonial Africa, musicians played a vital role in politics and they continue to do so in contemporary Africa (Friesinger, 2021). The narrative of the history of colonialism and independence in Africa would largely be incomplete without adequate attention to the music and songs that were used to mobilize people to agitate for political freedom (Onyebadi, 2018).

Political protests have as well been fueled by messages communicated through music. Artists like Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Sonny Okosun and others whose influence is littered all over history have fueled the belief that genuine development can only begin after political independence.

In Uganda, the use of music as a popular communication tool for socio-political issues is not a recent development. For example, the now chronic strikes and demonstration at Makerere University have always managed to gather attention and participants largely through the chant of songs that are added to the match.

In both the 2011 and 2016 general elections music played a key role with musicians singing sensational songs such as the Forum for Democratic Change’s (FDC) popular song Toka Kwa Barabara (Clear the Way) which became the highlight of the opposition campaigns (Kakungulu-Mayambala & Rukundo, 2020).

A key figure in Uganda that has emerged as a prototype of how music can be a tool for politics is Bobi Wine-real name Kyagulanyi Robert Sentamu. In the baby days of his popular music career, Wine performed with the Fire Base Crew, in which he branded himself as the “ghetto president” for Kamwokya, one of Kampala’s ghetto suburbs that shaped his early life struggles as a youth (Lwanga, 2020). According to Lwanga, (2020) the term “ghetto President” turned into a popular buzzword for someone who represents, voices, or advocates for the basic rights of marginalized people.

Bobi Wine later started a new popular music group called the Ghetto Republic of Uganja which on the surface sounded funny to many people because he had changed the name of Uganda to Uganja (a twist on the word “ganja”). However, the name of the group commanded great metaphorical inferences and mimicked the political structure of the state with Bob Wine on top of the power hierarchy as the “ghetto president,” and there was a “ghetto vice president” as well as a variety of ghetto ministers.

As Lwanga, (2020) observes, the power hierarchy that shaped Wine’s ghetto cabinet was not to be taken as mere fun or entertainment. It also established a template for commenting on the state and its failures. Bobi wine has over the years got consumed by the need to communicate and correct the social ills in society through music.

This can be seen through songs like; Kadingo and Tube Bayonyo on the importance of sanitation, Dembe on violent free elections, Ebibuuzo on why fires were ravaging schools and markets, Ghetto in 2005 as he spoke for the ordinary Ugandan that lost too much during the Commonwealth heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) as schools and other establishments were cleared for redevelopment and beautification plans, Obululu Tebutwawula calling for Ugandans to stay united even when they support different candidates, Time Bomb in which he questioned corruption, nepotism, unemployment and high costs of living, Tugambire ku Jenifer in which he detailed the brutality of Kampala Capital city Authority (KCCA) in the eviction of street vendors.

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This he feared would result into crime as many youths were left unemployed (Daily Monitor, Jan, 2021). His later liberation songs Akatengo, and Tuliyambala Engule were an antecedent of a strong political storm whose ingredients were the political messages they communicated. Bobi Wine’s careful use of language and lyrics that permeate various dialects in Uganda convey messages that are easily accessible and appealing to Ugandans across all cultural “perimeters.” Songs like Kyarenga and now Nalumansi claim a friendly association and unity across a number of regions. The two songs convey a strong socio-political message hidden in their highly figurative lyrics. His focus on political activism through music is particularly interesting for anyone choosing to unpack Bobi Wine’s strategy for politics and as such invites one to delve deeper into the meaning of the lyrics presented in his songs. 

Though Bobi wine’s music has demonstrated such effortless success in fundamentally communicating political messages, only a handful of political analysts and commentators such as Kakungulu-Mayambala & Rukundo, (2020); Lwanga, (2020); and Friesinger (2021) have specifically examined how African musicians use their platforms for political messaging.

This article adds to the list and invokes more candid discussions on how music is used as a tool for communicating political messages. This will add to the strategies used both by ruling parties and the opposition in rallying support from the masses. 

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