Look Out, Salt-N-Pepa: Rapping Female Journalists Are Pushing for Real Good
Zoe Kabuye has math classes and homework just like any other teenager, but her after-school activities are a little more surprising: At 14, Kabuye is widely regarded as the leading female teenage rapper in Uganda.
Don’t mistake her music for nightclub fodder, though. The young artist, known professionally as MC Loy, makes music that centers on social issues and children’s rights, including educational access and sexual abuse. She also made her television debut last year as the youngest rapping newscaster in Africa; she regularly appears as a guest anchor for NewzBeat, a popular Ugandan television show featuring hip-hop artists turned “rap-orters” and “newsicians” who deliver the news with what they describe as “rhyme and reason.”
“They say music is the food of the soul,” says Kabuye, a ninth grader at a Kampala high school. “Rap can attract somebody. You become interested in listening to the words.”
So, Why Should You Care? Rap music is becoming increasingly popular in the East African country, and Kabuye is among a handful of socially and politically conscious hip-hop artists employing the art form to get their message across in a region where the media is often censored. Unlike government-regulated news reports, rap is a rare medium in which free speech reigns.
In the song “Skool Revolution,” Kabuye addresses corruption and the widespread sexual abuse and corporal punishment that exists in Ugandan schools:
Defilement…I can’t imagine how heavy the case!
Keeping law and order ain’t a slogan for police to make.
You take ’em in and after a few days they are lousing out!
Allow me to extend this grudge upon the school staff.
You know you got foxes but you hide them in sheep!
What you do you pay bribes to let these teachers out.
Kabuye fell in love with rap as a child while watching her older brother perform at home. She later joined a crew that rapped gospel music and started writing songs in her spare time and performing at church functions. In 2012, she rapped for Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, at an event celebrating the country’s 50 years of independence.
Her success hasn’t come without guidance from seasoned pros. She was recruited to join NewzBeat by 28-year-old rapper Sharon Bwogi, professionally known as Lady Slyke, one of the most popular female rappers in the country and called the “queen of hip-hop” by one East African newspaper.
Bwogi’s music focuses on human rights, child abuse, youth empowerment, race, and peace and unity. In a song titled “Shakira,” Bwogi advises girls to pursue their studies instead of leaving school to pursue “sugar daddies,” she says. In “Nkooye,” she calls out corrupt politicians.
“[Government officials] say, ‘We’re going to make this road so nice, make sure you have clean water,’ ” says Bwogi. “But after getting votes, nothing happens. They just cruise in their big cars, their window screens up, dusting the roads.”
These days, Bwogi and Kabuye appear together as anchors on the NewzBeat program, which airs Saturdays on one of Uganda’s most popular channels. From Uganda’s “miniskirt law” to updates on Ebola in West Africa and the political situation in Ukraine, the show isn’t afraid to voice opinions and cover controversial issues. It’s gaining a loyal following among young viewers who feel an immediate connection to the musical format. “You can understand something better when you’re enjoying it with a beat,” says Bwogi.
Like Kabuye, Bwogi developed her talent at a young age and later went on to rap gospel in church. “Adults would be making a line to eat the holy bread, but some of us children weren’t allowed to join them, so we would wait in the pews,” she recalls. “I would be reading my hymn book quickly, twisting my singing into rap. It helped me develop my own style fast.”
When she started rapping professionally in 1999, Bwogi says, a male counterpart told her that rapping was “ ‘a male business.’ I told him, ‘Rap is a human business.’ ”
Since then, Bwogi has taken her performances across Uganda, to Kenya’s Rift Valley Festival, and to Denmark, rapping in both English and in the Ugandan language Luganda. She is also the first female artist to rap in “Lugaflow,” a term coined by fans to describe her style of mixing both languages while performing.
While Kabuye aspires to be a lawyer one day, the two agree that Uganda is “on a high” with rap, says Bwogi. Even Bwogi’s eight-year-old daughter, Zion Sheebah, recently made her NewzBeat debut reporting on youth issues.
“She rhymed for me her news about what goes on at home. I was like, wow,” says Bwogi. “I’m seeing more and more female rappers coming up, [and] I’m like, yeah, girls can rap.”