Last week I was blessed to have been invited out to Uganda, East Africa, where I was one of 4 judges for the Club Video Music Awards, (the country's premier annual music awards ceremony), which takes place in Kampala, in September later this year. I was invited by my one time MTV International colleague Jandre Louw, who is doing extremely well out in Africa with his own company and is now a player and leader on their music scene. Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa and it certainly lived up to its precious name.
In the past 5 years, the exodus of British people to Africa for business has been huge. The continent is an untapped industry that's ready to blow up in media, arts, culture and business, and many are getting on the bandwagon early, to make the most of an opportunity much of the western globe seems to be oblivious to. Even Chinese business out there, are taking over, in droves.
Every silver lining has a cloud. Our cloud on this trip was flying Dutch airline KLM. The European leg of the trip is akin to many an airline carrier, but once on the African leg it's a whole different story. The aircraft are old planes in dire need of updating. The staff and air stewardess are in urgent need of a grooming expert. All our crew looked like they had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Perhaps a hairbrush brand like Mason Pearson can lend them a helping hand. Their gate protocol was also unnecessarily unorganized. Each flight had huge queues for no apparent reason. Security for baggage at the gate meant that even water bottles bought from departure shops have to be confiscated, and left you parched and thirsty for 2 hours at the gate. A fellow African passenger shared ''yes its always this way, they have no respect for African journeys, we are always treated this way, we are used to it''.
However, that was the only cloud to an otherwise glorious experience. On landing at Entebbe airport, we were greeted on arrival by a protocol agent, and hurried to our waiting car, which whisked us off to our hotel- the Kampala Protea. A very efficient hotel, in the heart of Kampala's business district, where the rooms are absolutely huge, and decorated in a unique minimally stylish manner. The staff couldn't do enough to help in their very welcoming, friendly manner, and it's the first place we noted, just how softly spoken the Ugandan people are. It's also the first hint of the influence of the Asian community, once upon a time in Uganda (before Idi Amin took offence to their presence). Their teas are 'chai spiced', and their hotel room service menu's sport many an Indian nod, from samosa's to chicken tikka's.
3 days of work were followed by two days of pleasure. For three long days, my fellow judges and I were to narrow down hundreds of submitted music videos to just four in each of the 13 categories. Categories included the usual big ones like best male, best female, best video, best newcomer and so on. More technical categories included best cinematography, best special effects, best choreography and more.
My fellow judges were manger of Channel O (most widely distributed channel across African households), Leslie ''Lee'' Kasumba, talent and music manager for Trace TV (the no.1 pan African music TV channel) Phillip Nwankwo, and South African film maker and very highly regarded video director Matthew Stonier.
The thinking behind having judges that were not connected deeply to the Ugandan music scene was so that there were no bias or unfairness in the initial voting process. Not knowing who was already big in Uganda, meant that we could judge the videos purely on the art of their visuals, as opposed to being swayed by the artist's personal brand. I was the only international judge, so came with no pre conceptions at all.
Daytime's were spent viewing hundreds of videos; evenings were spent seeing live music at venues like Cayenne, a Maurice Kirya gig and more. My favourite evening was at The Emin Pasha Hotel, which is set in Two Acres of Peaceful Park-Like Tropical Gardens. Big Mature Trees, Flowering Shrubs and Scented Vines surround guests. We ate a delicious dinner and took over the outdoor poolside house band as they sang, with the men in our group showing off with a bit of karaoke!
As with any judging process, the debating was intense and at times heated. We laughed, acknowledged talent, froze at videos that made us sit up for a multitude of reasons, debated authenticity, accents, quality of filming, originality and more. I noted that most of the videos were in need of Ofcom style compliance rules advise, so that product placement, dangerous and imitable behaviour, smoking, drinking and soft porn during daytime playlists could be avoided.
One thing that intrigued me was that it seemed that 99% of all music videos submitted, seemed to come straight from Jamaica, such is the passion of Ugandans brought up on dancehall music. With full patois accents and dancehall dance moves, it was like judging a Caribbean set of acts, as opposed to African. It reminded me of the early UK urban music scene when we imitated American hip-hop videos and accents before finding our own voices. Leslie informed me that in fact, dancehall is deeply entrenched in Ugandan culture. (This means that if you love reggae and dancehall culture then Uganda is the perfect spot for your next vacation as the music and food is very akin to Caribbean).
Another observation was that like many new acts around the world, their videos highlight sexy, scantily dressed girls gyrating wildly and rappers surrounded by their version of material wealth. All understandable, as this is what success looks like from many viewers points of view, I was eager to point out that this isn't always what playlist managers are looking for though. After all, is it still sexy after your 1000th booty shot? Do we care about rappers that continue to tell us about their material wealth purchases? It was good to note that UK acts played in Uganda included Chip, Tinie, Estelle, Rita Ora, Skepta and L Marshall. #TeamUK!
Considering how young the Ugandan music industry is, I can see that the passion and D.I.Y attitude of the artists and filmmaker's means that this is a market that will grow rapidly with increased reach of their acts the same way west African artists from Nigeria have broken into international music playlists recently.
The work being done in Uganda to give these acts a platform via the CVMA team is sure to develop, nurture and grow the local music industry to build a lasting legacy. Right now it may seem that only West African music and culture have infiltrated our shores, but after this trip I can confidently state East Africa and Uganda are getting ready for their take over!