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Why Michael Kiwanuka is not famous in Uganda

Michael Kiwanuka

Four years ago Ugandan media were excited by a one Michael Kiwanuka, being among the many nominated for the famous BBC Sound of, 2012.

He won and went on to release his debut album, Home Again that year. Soon after, it was reported that American superstar Kanye West wanted Kiwanuka to feature on his Yeezus album. Kiwanuka flew to Hawaii, where the rapper was doing much of the recording from.

The Guardian, UK, quotes Kiwanuka as saying he was shocked that Kanye and his team were blown away by his unique voice that has captured hearts in Britain, where he is based. His stint on Yeezus, however, did not materialise after the artiste abruptly abandoned the set in a bad case of self-doubt. Kiwanuka is huge in the UK and internationally, which begs the question why he has hardly caused a ripple in his ‘home country’ Uganda.

Mira Nair’s Disney blockbuster Queen Of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo may introduce many to this ‘son of the soil’, seeing as his music is part of the movie soundtrack.

In fact, after his BBC win in 2012, his triumph in Uganda was done; although Ugandans are good at picking up complex genres in the name of fitting in, Kiwanuka’s neo soul is not one of the things they have picked up.

Home Again presented Kiwanuka’s image as an artiste less focused on the retro pop and soul vibe that saturates the music scene. His lyrics, writing style and voice are way older than his 29 years, and he has been compared to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Randy Newman, Terry Callier, and Otis Redding.

Early this year, Uganda was again on Kiwanuka’s heels thanks to a tweet by Adele about his then upcoming album, Love & Hate; but again, that was it. You will not hear Kiwanuka’s internationally trending album on Ugandan airwaves, despite having worked with Adele before, and topping UK charts.

Some argue Ugandans don’t understand Kiwanuka’s music because he is British, but then the same Ugandans have celebrated artistes such as David Bowie, U2 and of recent Adele, whose music is arguably as far-flung from what the average Ugandan ear comfortably laps up.

On Black Man In A White World, Kiwanuka recently told The Guardian it was inspired by the confusion he faced growing up. His Ugandan parents wanting him to fit in, had not taught him Luganda.

“People would come around, like my mum’s sisters and cousins, and they’d be speaking Ugandan [sic], and I’d be like, ‘I don’t get it!’ I used to sit there playing computer while they had adult conversations they wanted to protect us from. That used to piss me off,” he told The Guardian.

This confusion was the genesis of his highly-political Black Man In A White World. Kiwanuka, with his trademark Afro, has been described as a black soul singer, yet black people were not interested in his music.


“The fact that no black people were coming to my gigs made me realise we’re more segregated than we think. Even in the kinds of music we listen to,” he told the Irish Examiner.

On the few occasions he and the family have been to Uganda for visits, he has been referred to as a British tourist. He possibly felt that way too. Collin Hinamundi, an arts blogger, notes that Ugandans can consume things that are sold to them and pushed down their throats; “When it comes to Kiwanuka, it’s like many of us just bump into his work”.

Kiwanuka’s music sounds like a refined form of Maurice Kirya’s ‘Mwoyo’ genre. So, anyone who love Kirya, loves Kiwanuka; they just don’t know it yet. Nathan Magola, a copywriter, probably sums it best; he notes that the artiste is neither white English nor black English; and he is not completely Ugandan, either.

Many cite Germany-based Lou Bega (Mambo No5), who, like Kiwanuka, did not necessarily acknowledge his Ugandanness, but still got the country excited because of what he was offering. “See Lou Bega had even changed his name from Lubega, but we kind of bought into his art, because it was funk and made us dance, something Kiwanuka doesn’t,” one person noted online.

But another school of thought argues that Ugandans are mere pretenders.

“If he was the kind of celebrity that is always cited, quoted by Entertainment Now, trust me all Ugandans would be playing catch-up to his old music now,” Hannah Babirye, a music lover, noted.

Babirye argues that by keeping his Kiwanuka name, he has already recognized himself as Ugandan. Very little is known about Kiwanuka’s family apart from the fact that his parents fled Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime.

According to The Telegraph, one of them was an electronic engineer while the other was a cleaner. Whether the two were related to Uganda’s Amin-era tragic Prime Minister Benedicto Kiwanuka is not known, as the artiste remains fiercely secretive about his personal life.


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