Kampire is one of East Africa’s most exciting DJs and a core member of Kampala’s Nyege Nyege collective. Her vibrant bass-heavy sets have transported her to clubs and festivals across the world. She was one of Mixmag’s picks for ‘Top Ten Breakthrough DJs of 2018.’ Her set on Boiler Room—broadcast from Nyege Nyege festival—was a legitimate ‘internet moment’; thousands of Facebook shares led to serious FOMO from electronic music fans watching online. Her DJ mixes have been featured on Resident Advisor, Dekmantel and Fact Magazine, and were chosen amongst the best mixes of 2019 on Pitchfork & Fact’s end of year lists. Her Rinse FM radio residency has spotlit other East African DJs and artists, including Hibotep, Faizal Mostrixx & Catu Diosis.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
The following conversation took place between the 18th of June and the 11th of July 2020, during which time all greetings, thanksgivings and farewells befitting two modern African women were exchanged (and at appropriate times, moreover) and, thankfully, no unicorns were harmed.
Davina: I was born in Lusaka, but my family moved back to Kampala when I was very young; effectively denying me the chance to cultivate a cool second culture kid accent. (Now I’m just one of several million Ugandans that pronounce bird as bad as bard as bud! Hah!) Aside from the odd photo here and recycled story there, I have no working memory of life there. My siblings loved to tease me; they liked to ‘loan’ me to one or the other tribe. But I really liked that, for some reason. I liked that I could simultaneously belong to the Bemba and Ngoni and Baganda and whatever other tribe they chose for me. Because Zambia is within a pointed-mouth distance, it technically isn’t as much of an outside country as, say, the UK, but I still took whatever bragging rights I could get. Maybe I just liked being different. Were you othered when you moved to Uganda?
Kampire: So, I lived in Ndola, Zambia, from the ages of 2 to 16. I haven’t been back to Zambia in more than a decade and having lived quite an ‘expat’ existence there I no longer have much connection to the place. Despite this, it had a big impact on my identity as a Ugandan. Even though Uganda is an incredibly diverse place, we still have very singular ideas about what it means to be Ugandan. Not being able to speak a local language well, not having typical Ugandan boarding school experiences, not feeling much of a connection to my parents’ villages, even having progressive ideas about gender, all of these things have led people to question my ‘Ugandanness.’
And I don’t want to sound like one of those ‘summers’ who only spend holidays here with their families and then say things like “Ugandans hate gay people”, because I have lived in Uganda now for more than a decade and it has been my absolute pleasure to find a community of open-minded and radical people who were born and grew up here. I think it does a disservice to us all that we are so quick to ‘un-Ugandan’ people who don’t fit stereotypes.
The National ID exercise of the past few years has been a real illustration of this. I once spent the early hours of a morning at Katuna border trying to convince an immigration official that I was not a Kenyan with a fake ID. She sent me to the border police post where I found young kids with ‘Rwandan-sounding names’ being aggressively interviewed about when their grandparents first came to Uganda. All of which is to say that I have a lot of thoughts about Ugandan identity.
Davina: As do many people! If it’s not the wrong-looking face, it’s either the wrong ancestors or the wrong-sounding name! The other month, I had to correct a friend who thought Okot p’Bitek was Kenyan.
“But if Ugandan, from where with such a curious name?” he asked. P’Bitek is considered THE quintessential Ugandan writer, remember. One could get sequestered just for un-Ugandaning him like that! So, I said, “You! People will come for you, if you’re not careful!” Then we talked a bit more about p’Bitek, his studies on Acholi and Lango oral cultures, his poetry, and his book, ‘Artist, the Ruler.’
In ‘Artist the Ruler,’ p’Bitek argues that “If there are two types of rulers in every society, those who use physical force to subdue men, and those that employ beautiful things, sweet songs and funny stories, rhythm, shape and colour, to keep individuals and society sane and flourishing,” then it is “the artist who is the greater ruler.”
Kampire: Yeah, I think that getting involved in DJing and electronic music events, particularly as a minority (in multiple ways), has shown me the ‘soft’ power of a rave. I believe in the power of a party to create acceptance and community in a way that is much different than passing laws or issuing decrees. Especially when you see how so many of the laws passed in Uganda end up completely ignored by policymakers and the community alike!
Davina: What, if anything, do you consider distinctly Ugandan about your favourite Ugandan art?
Kampire: Hard to say. Perhaps there is a common thread that unites artists like Wasswa Donald, Paul Ndema, Liz Kobusinge, Hellen Nabukenya, Martin Kharumwa, Ian Mwesiga and Charity Atukunda but I’m not sure I can name it.
Davina: But on second thought maybe we needn’t name it, that thing that’s supposed to be distinctive of Ugandanness.
Kampire: After a childhood of mostly reading books set in foreign places and seeing images that reference other cultures, there is a physical sensation involved in being met with art inspired by things you recognize. It’s almost a warm shock, even today when this art is much easier to seek and find. I’m so glad that younger generations will grow up surrounded by images of themselves.
Davina: I suffered a shock the other day, incidentally, but it wasn’t a warm one. It started when I logged into my Amazon account and entered ‘books’ into the search bar.
Apparently, ‘women’s fiction’ now comprises sub-sub-sub-genres like ‘contemporary,’ ‘domestic life,’ ‘friendship,’ and ‘single women.’ The short version is that I suffered through a long “Oh, for heaven’s sake, single women fiction? Come on!” moment. The long version is that since I’m supposed to be recovering from a tumultuous relationship with ‘chick lit,’ ‘single women fiction’ isn’t the kind of rebound I’m looking for!
Have you written any domestic life or friendship fiction lately? I feel as if you owe us a collection of travel-inspired fiction and poetry, what with all the cities you’ve been to these last few years.
Kampire: It’s been impossible to find time to write. I definitely haven’t done as much writing as I would like recently but writing has always been a real labour for me, and a lifelong preoccupation of mine so I have faith that I will come back to it eventually.
“After a childhood of mostly reading books set in foreign places and seeing images that reference other cultures, there is a physical sensation involved in being met with art inspired by things you recognize.”
My more recent efforts have tended towards nonfiction essays. One of the more gratifying projects I have worked on in recent years was editing a book on the experiences of Ugandan women in politics since independence. It was another demonstration of that fundamental idea that the personal is political, and that you can’t untie Ugandan women’s experiences at home—of being denied school fees in favour of a younger, less academically-talented brother—from their decisions to run for parliament or even become a guerrilla fighter in a revolutionary war. Obviously, we do a disservice to women’s stories by ghettoizing them to ‘single women fiction’ and other such categories. It’s just another example of the contempt that society has for women.
Davina: The experiences of Ugandan women in politics since independence. Brilliant! Where can I find a copy? And what was your editorial experience like, overall? Any highlights?
Kampire: I believe there’s a copy in the Women’s International Peace Centre (formerly Isis-WICCE) library, or one can be ordered from there. It’s called ‘Sheroes of Africa’s Political Movements‘ and features stories from Alice Alaso, Gertrude Njuba, Margaret Dongo and Jesse Majome. There’s a lot that can be said about it but mostly I’m struck by the fact that these women’s stories should be taught and known much more widely.
Davina: You spoke earlier about how ‘the personal is political’; for a long time, I actually actively resisted that idea. Maybe I liked to think that my resistance was an index of how apolitical, and therefore neutral, I was. I used to be the person that said, “Mmh, I’m not really into those politics things.”
At some point, I took said resistance to the other side of the normal distribution curve by refusing to write about politics. I suppose that when you’re enmeshed in a culture that often reduces ‘politics’ to ‘politicking,’ and to ensuring that what happens on campaign trails stays there, it’s easy to pretend that there isn’t more to making a political statement than running for chairperson of your village local council.
While in fact even the decision to dress a certain way, even one taken unthinkingly, can itself be a radical political statement. Because, oh, suddenly you’re usurping A’s claims to authority over you and lessening B’s power to make decisions for you and occupying a chunk of C’s space, and so on.
Kampire: Funnily enough one of the first jobs I had was working for a Ugandan women’s organization that worked to increase women’s participation in politics. Among other tasks we would travel to various rural districts and train women at the local council level on their roles as councilors. Many of them had not been educated past primary school, didn’t know anything about the constitution, and came to trainings with babies on their breasts, toddlers at their feet and girls not much older babysitting their younger siblings. It was great for me to travel so much of the country but also to understand the reality of this country. Like when we are asking women to get into politics in Uganda and participate on equal footing with prominent men in their communities, what are we really asking them?
Davina: Exactly. And especially in the context that you described earlier, in which ultimately not even policymakers feel obliged to abide by some of the laws they pass. Every time I travel around the country, I’m shell-shocked by the magnitude of work that remains to be done. In a way, stories, reading them, listening to them, thinking about them, re-telling them, keeps me sober.
Speaking of stories, in the spirit of full disclosure, and at the risk of pride coming before a fall, I’ve written one or two that have got me saying “Hmmmn, not bad. Not bad at all!”
What’s your favourite piece of writing by Kampire Bahana and why?
Kampire: Good question! Our relationship to our creative output can be so complicated. With both DJing and writing, it’s often hard to look back on a piece with any sort of kindness, let alone objectivity. I used to write poetry some years ago and when I look back on it, I don’t hate it, though I often hate other people’s poetry! Maybe this is why there’s so much bad poetry in the world…an inherent fondness for our own emotional ramblings.
Davina: Hah! I’m guilty of writing my fair share of bad poetry! It’s a good thing most of it ends up in its rightful home, a.k.a. The Recycle Bin. I only hate another person’s poetry when it’s condescending. I think I can suffer through almost any kind of writing, as long as it doesn’t patronize me. That’s my line, often drawn with a thick, yellow highlighter.
Where do you draw your line?
Kampire: In the spirit of supporting Ugandan art I have read some truly atrocious writing. So, if I have a line, I’ve definitely breached it many times.
Davina: Touché! There’s consensus that innovation lives at the boundaries between disciplines. Has this been your experience?—do you find innovative ideas for music mixes from your writing, for writing from your installation art, and for installation art from your music mixes, and so on?
Kampire: I don’t know that this happens for me consciously, but I do like my mixes to have a flow from beginning to end, which maybe you can think of as a sort of narrative. I think life is cross-disciplinary and it’s the other way of thinking about it that feels strange, trying to force things into one discipline or another.
Davina: I find it strange, too, how people somehow expect me to live my real life as if it’s divided into an arts and a sciences syllabus. You can’t be interested in gender studies because, wait, didn’t you do a science course at the university? And, oh, what do you think you’re doing reading a paper on environmental ethics, yet you studied industrial fine art?
Kampire: Yes, it’s only when I’m writing a job application or bio of some kind that I’m forced to try and consider my career in a way that fits expectations and looks good on paper. In real life I’ve been led by opportunity and emotion before anything else.
Davina: I like to think that we all have designated routines (and related paraphernalia)—whatever it takes to shift the creative mojo into overdrive. I sit on what I think of as ‘my special chair’ and religiously listen to music, when I’m writing, for instance. Although I suspect that ‘listen’ is the wrong word since after the first few minutes I forget that there’s even music on. Typically, it’ll be a dancehall or alternative rock or techno mix—one song set to replay anywhere between 30 and 100 times if I need, say, 3000 – 5000 words written.
Kampire: I actually tire of songs really quickly and haven’t listened to a song on repeat in the manner you describe in years. I’m the type to ration listening to a precious song because I want to hold on to the feeling I got when I first heard and loved it. One of the things I enjoy about DJing is that it extends my appreciation of a song, because you have to get to know the songs you play really well in order to do real justice to them.
Davina: Having ‘to get to know the songs.’ Hmmmn. How do you mean, exactly? Structurally, lyrically, temporally?
Kampire: I still very much rely on my feelings and emotions when I choose the songs that I play. I trust my body and my intuition in knowing what will go down well on the dance floor, but yes, I have to know how long a song is and when would be a great part to cut out and mix it into the next song; if it has a section which is just percussion or a buildup that will fit perfectly with another song’s intro or if the highs in this one will clash badly with the highs in the next.
Davina: A friend who has watched and enjoyed your performances (I like to think of DJing as a performance) had this to say: “I first met Kampire when she used to host literary and other events at the Maisha Garden. She was cool, self-effacing and intellectual. An excellent convener. I suppose at the back of my mind was surprise at the transition from convener to DJ. But is transition the right word? Perhaps she has always played both roles and her dance style somehow confirms this.” He described your dance style as ‘refined and mindful.’
Kampire: Oh, my goodness! I’m so thrilled that anyone has such nice things to say about my work. I am amused at the description of my dancing because I am very much an anxious introvert, overly aware of and always trying to control the way I appear in spaces. DJing I guess is my aspiration toward the opposite; I want the music to make you dance with abandon, forget yourself and be taken to places without your conscious mind being entirely aware or consenting of the journey.
Davina: How interesting to learn that you think of yourself as an introvert. I actually meant to ask earlier if a board-certified introvert like me will make a great DJ in her next life but, well, there you go.
We’re often asked about people that inspire us but rarely about the people we inspire. You’ve toured extensively on and off the continent; there must surely be moments when people approach you to say “Kampire, you inspire me.” Or something similar. How often does that happen?
Kampire: It happens often enough that I am like, I really need to have a better response to this than stuttering something awkward and trying to run away. As much as it doesn’t feel like I am doing anything special, I do recognize I am one of very few Ugandans who gets to do what I do and part of a minority of female DJs. So, it’s a real privilege to meet people and say to them, “If I can do it, you can do it too.”
Davina: Stuttering something awkward and trying to run away?! Hah! Hard to picture that! As part of a minority of female DJs in Uganda, you ARE doing something special, trust me.
You’ve previously spoken about your appreciation of what other Ugandan female DJs are doing, whether they are doing it with mainstream or sidestream music. What do the above-ground and under-ground mixing scenes in Uganda sound like now? And what trends do you anticipate in the next ten years?
Kampire: The mainstream in Uganda is very much dominated by pop music (top 40), dancehall and Afrobeats. We have fantastic Ugandan pop music and great artists and songwriters who kept me on the dance floor for hours in my 20s even though it was and still is much the same playlists that can be heard from one club or bar to the next.
Recently, and I think Nyege Nyege (among other initiatives) very much both drove and benefitted from this wave, there’s been an impetus towards a wider variety of genres. 10 years ago, there was only Thursday Rock night at Steak Out. Now, if you look, there are a number of other regular events (at least pre-Corona) championing house and electronic music. Part of it is that young people are exposed to a much wider variety of music through the internet, and young producers and musicians are making all kinds of interesting and strange sounds that need and deserve an audience and outlet too. So, I’m hopeful that this will continue and that different kinds of music won’t just be seen as an elite or a white people thing, and that these independent spaces will be able to sustain themselves long-term.
Davina: I really LOVED the remix that you, Decay and Gan Gah made of Nyaruach’s ‘Gatluak,’ by the way. How do you decide who to work with, and what songs to mix?
Kampire: I’m only just beginning to explore music production, so still finding my way and voice. One of the reasons I feel compelled to attempt it is because I am surrounded by so many talented and experienced producers here in Kampala around the Nyege studios and residency, and also around the world that I’ve been lucky enough to meet touring. So that tends to dictate the who part of your question. My DJing career has been impelled by a need to hear the African songs that I love, often from the 90s and 80s, be referenced in clubs and by young Africans today; that has dictated the what, at least so far.
Davina: I don’t remember who it was that said one should write the kind of stories one wants to read but suffice to say that I’m always my first intended reader. If I don’t enjoy reading something I’ve written, it’ll never leave my desktop or get shared. So, it makes sense to me that you are your first intended listener.
Kampire: A lot of times when I make a mix I at first feel like I never want to hear it again, so I’m not sure that’s true. A few weeks later though I will listen and think, “Hmmm, I don’t actually hate that.”
Davina: Aside from the Nyege residency, what other initiatives, fellowships, movements exist to encourage girls and women to produce and mix African music?
Kampire: One of the first spaces I participated in when I started DJing was Femme Electronique, which is run by DJ Rachel. Other young women DJs like Mdnytt Tsunami and Catu diosis have created platforms for other young women like themselves to get behind the decks and be heard. Antimass is another wonderful platform for women and queer people to get together and play the music they want to hear.
Davina: Mdnytt Tsunami? Catu diosis? Triumphant! At this rate, I must also get myself a cool DJ name. It’ll have to be an elaborate pun, of course; something like ‘Venus Wry-Trap!’ Heh! But, meanwhile, tell me more about the freshness that is Acholitronix.
Kampire: I love Acholitronix for a number of reasons, firstly because it sounds amazing and is great to dance to. And yet 5 years ago in Kampala you would only hear it at Acholi functions. Ugandan music is so diverse but we only hear the same dancehall/Afrobeats-influenced, Luganda pop on the radio and in clubs.
One of the things I am proud of Nyege Nyege for doing is giving it an audience outside of the context of Acholi “traditional” events. Acholitronix is both entirely African and also defies outsiders’ expectations of what African music sounds like. You know us Africans are always fighting Western definitions of ourselves. And then I Iove the story of how it came to be; out of necessity, following war and extreme hardship in communities in Northern Uganda, forcing them to downgrade from large troupes of musicians and dancers at weddings, to one or two dudes with a mic and a laptop.
The Acholi community have been deliberately marginalized by our current government, and subjected to the worst forms of dehumanization a people can go through, and I do not want to romanticize that, but we look for the stories of triumph and beauty where we can.
Davina: I like that—looking for the stories of triumph and beauty where we can. It seems as if with each passing day my cynicism intensifies, so I’m in constant need of such reminders. But I really should be getting out of your hair now, so I’ll round this off by re-calling something you said earlier—how we are always fighting Western definitions of ourselves. That’s true on so many levels. But what also interests me is how, ironically, we seem quite eager to reinforce some Western definitions of ourselves.
‘Africans don’t read’ is still a common way for even Africans to define Africanness; I actually swore by that definition for a very long time, never mind that I’ve always been an African who reads. I’ve since repented of all that, and for a while now I’ve assumed that it isn’t fashionable anymore to repeat that allegation in polite company. But the other day someone said the same thing to me, although she, too, is an African who reads.
Kampire: Yeah that’s something I heard a lot too. But I also heard (and hear) people don’t read, black people don’t read. And growing up in a home where reading was considered extremely important and was probably one of the first things I remember being praised for, I guess I’ve always been skeptical of that take. I think the best thing we can do is to challenge and just stop repeating some of these redundant and clearly untrue stereotypes.
Davina: Well said!
Davina is a reader who happens to like writing. She writes in several forms (including poetry and essays) but is for some reason most drawn to the short story. Stories are how she makes sense of the world, and of her (imagined or otherwise) moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical place in it. She’s committed to the creation of a legacy that equalizes the telling of stories. Her range of interests include [eu]social media, the mothering of the tongue, and English which, despite our sincerest efforts to preserve it, keeps breaking (sometimes into more pieces than we can pick up).