The Ugandan music scene: 5 new trends to like about the industry

Zex Bilangilangi
Zex Bilangilangi

Ugandan music faces tough competition from West Africa, South Africa, and occasionally, Tanzanians, Kenyans and Rwandans. It always feels like every time I’m tuning back into the 256, many people on the internet are crying to promoters to bring some new Naija kid on the block. Nevertheless, it’s been a while since I’ve felt the way I’m feeling about Ugandan music lately, so I thought I’d share the 5 major things I’m liking about Ugandan music today:

The underdogs are louder

Let’s face it, not everyone can get a deal with Swangz. But ever since the pandemic, the smaller, upcoming artists with fewer resources have been making noise. I’d say that one of the notable examples was Zulitums serving back-to-back songs you just couldn’t hate on.

There were (have since been) many others like Dre Cali, Victor Ruz, An Known, Liam Voice, Chembazz, Mark Stel, Vyroota, Brian Weiyz, Kohen Jaycee, Lucas Blacc and, of course, Joshua Baraka. I could list ten more for everyone I’ve mentioned, but I’m trying to keep this short. The last time I saw an underdog apply this much pressure on the Ugandan music scene with undoubtedly good music was when A Pass was coming up, which was long ago.

Not everything sounds the same

Don’t get me wrong. There’s always been considerable versatility within the Ugandan music industry for a while now. But personally, I’ve always felt like whenever someone comes up with something nice and unique, many people want to jump on it without adding any spice to it. The person who did it first is also usually desperate to repeat for the same success.

And while this happens in just about every market across the planet, a nation trying to break through may do it with one sound, but it probably won’t stay there with just one. You need many people keeping each other on their toes with different ideas. Nightlife was great when Fik Fameica dropped something, then Suspekt Leizor and VIP Jemo followed through.

Suspekt Leizor
Suspekt Leizor

But when Zex had two contrasting hits in the form of “Ratata” and “Nalinda” while university kids were rapping Denesi and Chenkobe’s “Tip” bar for bar in the bar, it felt a bit different.

I’m glad this has continued across the industry. To me, “Nana” is its own thing, Ivan Clean and Shwento are in a different lane with “Confessions,” “My Guy,” and “Money” give me similar bouncy vibes, but there’s enough of a difference, “Njagala Party” is not the same as “To Party” even though the message overlaps, and BentiBoys Africa’s “Wana wankya,” Omega 256’s “This Year” and Omutuume Planet’s “Chai We Njaye” can all stand alone.

But if you are still not convinced, then I would say the best example is when Mudra did wonders with “Muyaayu,” doubled down with “Onkosa,” then did a total 180 with “Kimuli Kyange,” then back to “Balo Balo” and “Shabada.” And how about the fact that the guy who did “Mpulira Bibyo” is the same one behind “Babandana” The last time I saw this captured was Kent and Flosso going from “Pull Up” and “Stamina” to “Byafaayo” and “Squeeze.”

Of course, artists like A Pass and many others in the Ugandan music industry always do this, but some would rather not. That’s why it’s always great when someone risks taking a different direction, whether chasing their breakout hit or the next one in a line of many.

The visuals are crispier

Getting mad airplay on the continent’s biggest TV channels without a solid video is nearly impossible. We all probably know a few songs that shouldn’t be in rotation, but the artists somehow found a neat side hustle to get video money from (or some other source, I don’t know where they get the money from, but I know good videos are rarely cheap).

Our Ugandan brothers and sisters spent the 2010s trying to improve their music videos. Many were hit-and-miss, and some even couldn’t wait to tell us how they flew out and used foreigners to do stuff that turned out not to be that memorable, apart from looking lavish. But after all the trial and error, there’s finally a decent mix between money and artistry.

That said, you can now watch something that’s clearly low-budget and say, “Wow! They did a lot with the little they had” I remember when some artists would sink money into a concept, then have to shelve the results and pour money into another. I can also recall when artists would shoot with one director, then tell another director they hired for a different concept to merge the two when it was clearly like mixing peas with toothpaste.

People are more professional now

It’s hard to put just three massively talented people in the same room and not have at least one who’s very egotistic with a propensity for making bad decisions. But now that many Ugandan artists can appreciate the high stakes, they move with much more wisdom lately.

They are surrounded by people with unique value propositions, whether directing their art, marketing their work, keeping their bodies and minds healthy, running basic errands for them, and keeping them out of trouble. You can see artists being more organized in how they release songs, who they collaborate with, how they present themselves online and more.

Swangz Avenue artists: Winnie Nwagi, Vinka, Azawi and Zafaran
Swangz Avenue artists: Winnie Nwagi, Vinka, Azawi and Zafaran

Many no longer buy into the idea that any publicity is good publicity or that scandal sales (scandals are a dime a dozen, you’d need to be very outrageous to get attention). If they keep having their brands managed well and get represented by people who know what they are doing, it won’t be long before they cement themselves in markets beyond our borders.

Live events are massive

Not so long ago, many artists and promoters were just trying to manage costs and keep things as simple as possible. Most events were just karaoke (the DJ plays the artist’s track, not even the instrumental or performance track and the artist just shouts over it with entitlement). Now, so many bars across Kampala have a weekly live band night.

It’s much harder to charge people money without enhancing the audio side, and many artists have gone even further with mega live event productions (stage design, pyrotechnics, lighting, etc., s/o to Fenon, Talent Africa and more). I also have to commend whoever does Kataleya and Kandle’s sweat-proof foundation. All-in-all, there’s plenty to celebrate about Ugandan music today, and I can’t wait to see how much further each generation advances.

Duncan Ngabirano aka ThaDropout is a former assistant producer for the Saturday Night Mix Show on Radiocity 97FM and the 2017 MTN Uganda Hiphop Awards Deejay of the Year. He’s all about finding the next great song to share with another music fan.

Duncan Ngabirano Aijuka