GNL Zamba, the Baboon Forest/Lab 360 general, recently gave me a glimpse into his latest campaign to take Ugandan hip hop beyond boundaries.
I braved the rain and a rescheduling, but when we finally got time to talk, it was a wonderful experience, especially following his good fortunes at the just-concluded Club Video Music awards, where he won Best Male Video.
First, I wanted to know if he feels he has matured as an artiste.
He explained: “You do music for yourself to enjoy like Caesar or Nyo Nyo. Then there is music for no profit, to build society like Luka, Ekikufuula Omusajja or Maziga, and also music for people to enjoy; for women because they can’t really enjoy the hardcore stuff.
[Hits] like Kikankane and Nyenya Ekyensuti. I want to be a 360 artiste; I don’t want to be monotonous. The 360 means you do music for all emotions people go through. If I give advice all the time, people get bored; if music does not serve society, it loses meaning....these are the ways I have matured.”
His recent trip to the USA has clearly had a fundamental impact on his professional outlook.
“It was a very big eye-opener. I compare it to man coming out of the cave and discovering fire – it was destiny. It made me discover that man can fly, I had been to many countries to perform and get money but this trip and the Renaissance album made me realize I can conquer the world,” he said.
“I pitched my script ‘A Bus Ride to Juba’ to Michael Barnathan (the Studio City owner and the man behind blockbusters including Home Alone, Harry Potter; Mrs Doubtfire and Gremlins, among others) over a business lunch and two days later he called expressing interest.
I also held discussions with Bad Robot co-owners J Abrams and Charles Scott, after Tamar and I had been corresponding with them for a while before the trip (Tamar is his girlfriend and an upcoming artiste on his label) about sound tracks.
We had sent them a lot of music, but Scott was most impressed by Mwana Wa Baaba from my first album....we are keeping our fingers crossed.”
He said the trip was about how far he could push his music internationally and he performed at the World Series beach volleyball competitions in Long beach, California.
“I came back with the mentality ‘I don’t wanna be Jay-Z but GNL Zamba the successful African artiste telling the story from Kampala, Kawempe’.
Speaking about his third and most recent album: “Renaissance means the rebirth of knowledge and the album was already named before I went on the trip; it was like the stars were aligned.”
So, has GNL (Greatest of No Limits) passed the certified gold mark in terms of sales yet?
“Depending on what your gold standard is; if it is Ghetto gold, then yes, because I have done 250,000 units but I have not yet reached the 500,000 mark but let’s wait and see how the Renaissance album does.
Koi Koi was a ground-breaking album lyrically, because it was something new, but Speaking Vernacular has been my best album to date in terms of sales,” he revealed. “I bought a bar and did all the construction from the proceeds.”
The only time during the interview that I sense him being cagey is when I inquire about him signing with international labels, and all he can let out is, “Something should be coming in with K’naan, which will be our second project together since the first one - The Orchestra has not yet been released by his label, this one we are releasing on Baboon Forest/ Lab 360. But I aspire to work with Yousou Ndour, because he is a cultural icon for Africa.”
In case you are wondering why Ndour, GNL describes himself as a rapper inclined towards world music. GNL seems to be a born leader.
“Many people tell me that; I just know when to mean business. I was raised as the third born and only boy in a family of girls.”
GNL is highly respected in the Lugaflow sub-genre of hip hop; so, we talk about the current state of UG hip hop.
“I’m glad many rappers are coming out. Now we have hip hop songs competing with other genres. What needs to be corrected is the content; it is immature. Many of them want to imitate, when the essence of hip hop is to tell your story.”
I was itching to find out whether he is eating off of rap.
“Yes, I’m a professional rapper, I have bought property off rap. I never had sh*t. I went through what everyone goes through looking for a job after campus, until I turned my passion into a job. But I want to make movies like [Ice] Cube and Will Smith, clothes line like Diddy, philanthropy like Russell and retire like Rothschild.”
As we close, I ask about his spirituality.
“I believe in the power of the one true God but I have not been to church in ages because religion controls people. Man should have a direct relationship with God. I pray every time I go on stage, every night and every time I tour. That is my relationship with God with a capital G; we are both Gs”.
His fans can look forward to the Renaissance album release party and premiere of his Caesar video, tonight (October 9) at Cinema Magic, Metroplex mall.
GNL was home-schooled up to P.7, before joining Kiira College Butiki, Makerere High School, Kabojja and Ntinda View, among others, for secondary education, then on to Makerere University where he studied Environmental Management, bagging a first-class degree.