Ugandans, especially in urban areas, have been wiling away the Covid-19 lockdown by, among other things, posting TikTok videos of themselves doing the Kiganda dance to a catchy song, Kwata Essimu.
The song done in cheeky Luganda with street slang undertones and a bakisimba vibe embedded in hip-hop, is the work of Arua’s Freeboy, real name Mandela Mubarak Adams, featuring Swangz Avenue’s Winnie Nwagi.
The song basically implores a girl to pick up her phone when he calls, and the two singers do not shy away from using Luganda words in the way a local guy would actually use them under similar circumstances. And that way, a hit that has cut across generations was born.
Last year gave us Big Trill and his Parte After Parte, this looks to be the year of Freeboy. Like Big Trill, Freeboy had a stint at Baboon Forest but things did not work out and he retreated to his West Nile homeland, where the good life has finally caught up with him.
“Kwata Essimu is a representation of many hardworking guys out there who try to impress pretty women, spending lavishly on them, [only for the girls to reject] their phone calls,” Freeboy told The Observer in an interview.
“This song has surprisingly got recognition on the African continent and the global scene, selling the Ganda traditional dance and sound. This is evident in so many dance challenges we’ve received from all over the world.”
That this song with a strange mix of bakisimba, hip-hop and kadongo kamu has come from a singer born and bred in Uganda’s West Nile sub-region – in Uganda, only Karamoja is perhaps geographically further from Buganda – is testament to the growth of Ugandan music and Freeboy as an artiste.
“I grew up in a musical background. My mother loved listening to music with collections from Southern Africa, Congo, Western music and our own Ugandan music mostly kadongo kamu and Afrigo band. So, I trained myself doing different genres of music, making me a versatile artiste,” the 32-year-old said.
Born to Peace Mbabazi a businesswoman, and Haji Adam Angua in Yumbe town council in 1988, Freeboy is the lastborn of four children, according to a profile on West Nile Web.
In 1991, Mbabazi relocated to Kisenyi, a Kampala slum, after misunderstandings with Angua. It is in Kisenyi that the young Freeboy learnt Luganda and also developed a love for Afrigo band, Oliver Mutukudzi, Lucky Dube, Phil Collins and Chris de Burgh, artistes his mother loved listening to.
According to West Nile Web, in 2002 Mbabazi returned to West Nile, settling with her children in Arua’s Ombizoku Cell, River Oli Division, where she enrolled Freeboy in Arua Hill primary school and later Arua Public Secondary School.
In 2012 he enrolled at Makerere Business Institute in Kampala for a diploma in Sales and Marketing, but dropped out due to lack of tuition fees. Again like Big Trill, this young man has been honing his craft for years, but many are tempted to refer to him as ‘upcoming’ based on the huge success of Kwata Essimu.
Freeboy said the hustle has been real for him, and a very big learning process; “breaking through has only humbled me”.
One wonders how high this song would have soared, had Uganda and most of the world not been under a lockdown due to the pandemic. Yet at the same time that could be what worked in Freeboy and Winnie Nwagi’s favour, seeing the number of videos that have come out of homes by those bored by a quarantine.
Still, crossover music, especially from the West Nile to other parts of the country, is never an easy feat to achieve. It is not lost on anybody that Freeboy had to sing in Luganda, not Madi or Lugbara, to get noticed outside the West Nile districts, where he is already their biggest star.
“Music is a journey an artiste takes and grows with, and for me this direction of Kwata Essimu is part of that journey and growth,” he said.
Because of his love for storytelling – thanks to early exposure to the kadongo kamu genre – Freeboy finds it easy to express his feelings in song and Kwata Essimu is just one of those thoughts or stories.
With other songs such as Letta, Sabala, Gwe Abinkubya, Kwiso and Alemi, among others, Freeboy under his VIVA Entertainment label based in Arua is testament that destiny will not be interrupted by location, and indeed all dreams are valid.
“West Nile region comprises many districts like Arua, Nebbi, Yumbe, Koboko, Moyo, Adjumani, Pakwach, etc, and these places are very rich in culture and sound. There are so many talents out there but all they lack is exposure and financial support. A lot happens there without recognition from the rest of the country,” Freeboy said.
His songs Sabala, Gwe Abinkubya, Kwiso have done fairly well on the national scene and even have videos, but for West Nilers, the real Free Boy gems are Alemi, Letta and Magic. Freeboy started his music journey while in school in 2002 with Sita Badilika, his first song.
“That’s when I got chance to record my first song sponsored by my elder brother, in one of the first recording studios in Arua [Audio Wave] owned by DJ Ronnie.”
In 2011, he travelled to Kampala in search of the famed greener pastures, and joined GNL Zamba’s Baboon Forest, where he mainly lent background vocals to Zamba’s music, now based in the USA.
Freeboy is testament that returning to the drawing board, or in his case, ‘going back to the village’ is not always a bad thing.
“Things didn’t work out as well as expected and I later returned to Arua to find a stable stand and win the love of my people,” he said. It is in Arua that his music took off, finally, despite having already got exposure on Kampala stages and concerts.
“I discovered myself, my sound and also earned the love and respect of my people, making me the biggest artiste in the West Nile for the past couple of years.”
In 2018, he got signed by VIVA Entertainment, a West Nile-based record label that recorded his first videos that re-introduced him to the rest of the country. As last year wound up, VIVA partnered with Swangz Avenue to make the Kwata Essimu project featuring the Kampala top stable’s Winnie Nwagi.
Combined, the artistes brought vocal force and funny lyrics to a laidback, easy-to-love song, and Freeboy’s life in particular will never be the same.
True, he has already worked with respectable artistes including Mr Blue (Tanzania), GNL Zamba, Beenie Gunter, Pasha & D’wyne (Arua) and others, but every artiste has their own version of epiphany and Freeboy’s is Kwata Essimu.
“Judging from where I come from, I see no limits to what I can achieve; I see myself representing Uganda on the African scene and God willing even globally, just the way am doing it for West Nile,” he said.
And The Observer does not doubt him.