Pop culture | Uganda

Get up and dance!

In Uganda, even the dancefloor is politically contentious. The Nyege Nyege Festival and the Hakuna Kulala label provide the soundtrack for cosmopolitan Africa
A young woman with long, red-colored braids poses in front of a deep blue sky with few clouds. She looks into the camera from above and points directly into it with two fingers

Nigerian rapper Aunty Rayzor has released her latest album “Viral Wreckage” on the Ugandan label Hakuna Kulala

With her hybrid of hip-hop, afrobeats, and electronic and ethno sounds, the rapper Bisola Olungbeng, alias Aunty Rayzor, was a stand-out performer at this year’s Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda. Her song Doko, performed in a raspy hoarse voice, prompted many revellers to forget the terror alert and rush to the dancefloor.

Her album, Viral Wreckage, released on September 1 on the Hakuna Kulala label include songs such as Doko which could easily slot into a mainstream playlist of Afrobeats, popularised by mainstream artists from her home country, Nigeria.

“The economy of making music in Kampala is tight”

Aunt Rayzor’s Viral Wreckage and MC Yallah’s Yallah Beibe are two of the leading albums released by the Hakuna Kulala label this year. They have a lot in common; they are both rappers with a very experimental approach to sound.

MC Yallah, born Yallah Gaudencia Mbidde, is a Kenyan, Uganda-raised rapper. Her new album Yallah Baibe is a follow-up to Kubali, a collaboration with the Berlin-based producer Debmaster.

Recorded during the corona years, her album aims to spread love, calling on people to care for each other. In one of the songs, Moss, she uses two voices - creating an imaginary conversation between a young Yallah and her older self.

“We noticed that it was easier to introduce our artists internationally than locally”

MC Yallah was rapping the news for the TV programme News Beat, a weekly hip-hop news bulletin, when she met Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian, co-founders of the Nyege Nyege label and festival as well as its offshoot, Hakuna Kulala. They swiftly signed her up. She has gained fame locally and in 2022 was named Best Female Rapper at the Ugandan MTN Hip Hop Awards.

Debru welcomes the fact she is finally getting recognition but points out that Ugandan stations are still not playing her music. “The economy of making music in Kampala is tight,” he says. “To work in Kampala, you have to spend a lot of money on pushing the music and paying media.”

Uganda is a one-city country, with all the nation’s rich citizens and businesses based in the capital, Kampala. 

In a dark room with reddish light, a young woman poses on a chair and looks to the side. Her hair is carefully styled and she is wearing large gold hoop earrings. She is wearing a black dress, fishnet tights and sandals with high heels and platform soles

Rapper MC Yallah


Uganda is a one-city country, with all the nation’s rich citizens and businesses based in the capital, Kampala. He says that the music business is competitive, with everyone working to get at least 30–40 shows, often targeting the same market.

“That’s why we chose to work differently; we noticed that it was easier to introduce our artists internationally than locally,” he says.

Hakuna Kulala currently doesn’t have the financial muscle to hire a team to market their artists locally, though through their festival connections, they often secure international breakthroughs.

“But in the long run, we want to create a local fan base,” Debru says. “When you look at MC Yallah, for instance, she has been around for some time, and we had to find a sound that could work. We ended up with a niche—her sound is in between Europe and Japan,” he says.


“We ended up with a sound in between Europe and Japan”


Most of the artists on Hakuna Kulala perform at international Nyege Nyege parties or festivals - as well as the Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda.

“Of course, the festival is one way we get the artists heard, though here people tend to appreciate artists after the West has embraced them,” he says.

Nyege Nyege has its roots in 2013 when Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian were both teachers at the Kampala Film School. They began curating underground dance music events, featuring alternative genres, as opposed to mainstream dancehall, reggae or afrobeats.

The two organised Boutiq Electronique, a party at Tilapia, then a famous bar in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Their events became so popular that they went on to open a recording studio.

In 2015 they held the first Nyege Nyege Festival at Nile Discovery Resort in Njeru, bordering Jinja City in eastern Uganda. It introduced many Ugandan revellers to music they had never watched or listened to on radio, including kuduro fusions, Acholi electronic music, Bakisimba electronic fusion, and much more.


“British music magazines have declared Nyege Nyege to be one of the best electro festivals in the world"


To create a support system for some of the artists they had worked with during their parties and the festival, Nyege Nyege Tapes, a record label, was co-founded around a year after the first festival.

Hakuna Kulala, a sub-label of Nyege Nyege Tapes, was launched in 2017. Since its inception, it has released more than 50 records in digital, vinyl, and cassette formats.

This year, the Nyege Nyege Festival was held at a new location in Jinja City and sealed its  legendary reputation among young Ugandans. But local opposition is rife. For religious leaders and some politicians, Nyege Nyege symbolises all that is evil.

The famous Ugandan preacher Martin Ssempa, for example, aimed to ban the festival for its satanic practises, as well as for promoting homosexuality in Uganda. 

In 2018, the festival was briefly banned by the former minister of ethics and integrity Simon Lokodo, a devout catholic and former priest. In 2022, the festival was again threatened when the speaker of parliament vowed to stop it to protect the country.