The Unprecedented Journey: How Ugandan Rap Has Created Entrepreneurs

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Hip-hop in Uganda was born in the early-1990s in impoverished areas of Kampala amongst rampant unemployment, drugs, and other social injustices. As such, it was an unlikely candidate to grow and permeate mainstream Ugandan society.

When hip-hop began in Uganda, people outside Kampala didn’t understand it. There was no demand for the “bizarre talking records,” as radio stations by that time used to call them. If anything, mainstream music institutions were hostile to Ugandan rap. Major music entrepreneurs did not spend any money discovering, recording, developing, or promoting rap artists like they were doing for established genres, because they didn’t believe it would sell. And there were no other hip-hop scenes in the country on which the Kampala scene could rely on for support.

In fact, early practitioners of Ugandan hip-hop were just like entrepreneurs in emerging industries. They were not only trying to establish themselves as professional musicians, they were trying to establish rap or hip-hop as a viable musical genre. They had to develop the market for scratching from scratch, as it were. And they had to do so without the support of existing institutions.

Entrepreneurs in any new industry suffer unique problems because they don’t benefit from the taken-for-granted nature of existing products. They have to gain acceptance and support from the relevant leaders and gatekeepers.

Take the cross-breed in Luganda which translates to “Maleeto” and dairy industry in Uganda. Thirty years ago, it was virtually unheard of. Only cattle ranchers and livestock commodity analysts even knew what the term “cross-breed” meant. In 2000, the total number of slaughtered cows who had been exclusively cross-bred was 65000. Yet by 2006, that number grew between 415,000 to 600,000. Now, cross-breed cattle and its dairy products are sold at a premium by high-end restaurants and exported to outside Countries.

Early proponents of cross-breed cattle in Uganda faced an industry environment that was baffled at best, and hostile at worst, just like hip-hop. They had to explain what they were doing, just like hip-hop artists. Similar to an American hip-hop trio The Sugar Hill Gang in 1979 when hip-hop had just began in the USA, they began their song, “Rapper’s Delight,” by making clear, “Now what you hear is not a test – I’m rappin’ to the beat. And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet.” As with the cattle industry, the power holders in the music industry—major music distributors like the Kasiwukiras, radio stations, music venues, TVs, and the music press—largely ignored hip-hop.

As a new genre with no institutional support, Ugandan rap seemed headed for obscurity. So how did it rise out of the ghetto and into the mainstream? In a paper on entrepreneurs in emerging industries, Makerere University professor of sociology Peter Atekyereza argued that new industry creators need to overcome the skepticism and resistance to obtain legitimacy and inclusion using their powers of persuasion. In other words, they need to rap. Which comes naturally to rappers.

In late 2000s, finally rapping made the transition to entrepreneurship easier for hip-hop artists in Uganda. It helped that they had honed their craft off the radar. Similar to the USA whose conditions were similar to rap acts when Hip-hop had just began, Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation, “You had to answer to no one except the others who shared your condition. It meant you became obsessed with showing and proving, distinguishing yourself and your originality above the crowd.” Ugandan rap artists in the 2000s were on a quest to prove that they were bigger, wilder and bolder than their circumstances would make possible. They took up the challenge to create something from nothing and rose to it with style and swagger.

Because they lacked institutional support, Ugandan hip-hop artists and their early supporters had to innovate. Some of their innovations include securing corporate sponsorship deals for hip-hop events and artists, inventing the concept of street team marketing, and turning artist merchandise into high-fashion clothing lines. By remaining entrepreneurial, Ugandan rap artists eventually attained unprecedented levels of ownership and control of the rights to their music and brands.

Uganda Entrepreneurship researchers have argued that the particular circumstances and events of the early founding period leave an imprint on the organizations that persist. They set a certain pattern, culture and mentality in place. In today’s hip-hop, you can still see the influence of the early days when rappers had to hustle to get their music heard. To this day, rappers lead the way in innovating and developing new ways to leverage their brand, product, and revenue stream.

In a 2021, GNL Zamba in one of his podcasts said that “If we don’t step up and realize that we have a vested interest in seizing control of this industry and take advantage of what we have to do right now we will be relegated to just being artists, entertainers, and actors. If you’re in the Rap game you should want to see the game elevated.”

By elevating their game from music to industry creation, Ugandan hip-hop remains entrepreneurial thirty years into its history.

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