Are music battles a sustainable culture?

Musicians Cindy (L) and Sheebah (R) perform on stage during their concert at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala on September 15, 2023. PHOTOS/ COURTESY 

What you need to know:

Battle lines: The creative industry has always been oiled by some sort of rivalry. Movies premiering on the same dates or dropping albums on the same day. In Uganda, we have always taken it a notch higher with live stage battles. Is it a sustainable culture? Andrew Kaggwa explores.

You cannot talk about the Ugandan entertainment industry on September 15 without mentioning the music battle between Cinderella Sanyu, alias Cindy, and Sheebah Karungi.

The two artistes have had a long and documented feud that dates back to the mid-2010s. Then, they would throw subtle jabs at each other but always remained coy about whether they were friends or foes.

However, one time in a TV interview, Cindy noted that most of the leading female artistes cannot sing or write and are only being taught what to do by their management and labels.

“They are funded and being told what to do and how to do it, basically they are dummies,” she said.

Much as Cindy had been general with her words, one artiste mainly found the remarks offensive - Sheebah Karungi. She immediately took the opportunity in her next media interview to tell Cindy that dummies do not build houses.

Just like that, the battle lines had been drawn; it was no longer a situation of if it would happen, but when.

Sheebah at that time, under Jeff Kiwa’s management, had Ugandan music lovers eating out of her palms. She was a hot item. After a series of exchanges, Cindy asked Sheebah if she wanted a battle.

There was a promoter and a venue but Jeff Kiwa demanded for Shs1b if his artiste was to get involved.

Last week’s showdown was thus a culmination of a contest that has had five years of a build-up.

However, before this battle, Uganda has seen various musical contests, three of all these taking place between 2011 and 2013. It started with Bobi Wine and Jose Chameleone sealing their friendship with a show of unity; the Battle of Champions at Kati Kati in 2011

The next year in 2012, the hotly contested battle between Bebe Cool and Bobi Wine took place at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds. The same venue later played host to another Bebe Cool duel against Radio and Weasel in 2013.

Yet outside shows that have been baptised as battles, music contests have always been part of the entertainment fibre.

Part of the DNA

Music contests, according to seasoned media consultant Joel Isabirye, are part of the entertainment industry’s DNA. He says the history of the record industry has always moved along feuds and rivalries.

“Artistes will always try to prove that they are better than the others in the business and similarly, their audience will join the comparison. That happens everywhere,” he says.

Isabirye argues that the expression of supremacy among artistes is always part of their commercial viability. The bigger they prove they are, the more endorsement deals they are likely to get and the better the sales.

Indeed, feuds have proved to be lucrative marketing tools worldwide. For instance, in the US, when rapper Pusha T accused fellow rapper Drake of using ghost writers, their argument spiraled into recorded diss tracks.

Aptly titled The Story of Adidon, this was Pusha T’s verbal artillery towards the Canadian rapper.

Google searches for Drake roughly quadrupled during the height of the rivalry, between May 27 and June 2, 2018 while those for Pusha T more than doubled compared to any other week the year before. This enthusiasm was also reflected in sales and revenue streams. Pusha T’s Daytona released on May 25 is his highest-charting album on the Billboard 200. On June 29, Drake released Scorpion, on the album, were some songs that addressed Pusha T’s grievances. The album went platinum on release. Technically, the two made a killing out of attacking each other.

In Uganda, Both Bebe Cool and Bobi Wine released a slew of songs attacking each other for nearly five years. Within that period, the artistes always had their concerts set on the same day and would both record successful turn ups.

By the time the two had their battle, they had cultivated a fanbase that would do all it took to see their show successful.

Bebe Cool (C) with Radio (left) and Weasel in their hey days. The trio faced off in 2013.

Can battles rejuvenate concerts?

Confrontational shows or battles as they are known today are not an entirely new phenomenon in Uganda. Isabirye, for example, says in the 1990s, promoters used to stage Ani Asinga shows between Kadongo Kamu artistes.

“In one of the shows, two artistes sold out Nakivubo Stadium in the 90s,” he says.

The said concert was organised by Bakayimbira Dramactors as a way of reuniting Livingstone Kasozi and Herman Basudde after years of feuding and abusing each other through music.

During the pandemic, producers Timberland and Swizz Beatz created a virtual DJ battle on Instagram. The battle would later programme songwriters, producers, vocalists, keyboard players and instrumentalists.

That idea would later come to be known as Verzuz, with appearances from Brandy, Monica, Nelly, Ludacris, Erykah Badu and Jill Scot, among others. Unlike the Ugandan version of the battle, Verzuz did not come with artistes calling each other out. In fact, they would even complement each other.

The shows became the biggest thing in show business at the time, especially considering the fact that industries world over were still under lockdown.

Some people have argued that battles could rejuvenate Uganda’s concert scene.

“Battles break the monotony of our predictable concerts. Those days, artistes would release just one song and then promote it for a concert,” Isabirye says, adding that battles came with something that clamoured attention towards the artistes.

“Even after the concerts, there is a lot of talkability, which the industry needs,” he says.

James Kaliisa, alias James Propa, says at the moment, battles are once again that element that can bring people to a concert.

“We should not forget that concerts have been struggling of late, people had stopped going for shows,” he says.

Kaliisa, however, says Sheebah and Cindy’s have been long awaited since 2019 and it makes sense that it was very successful.

Tshaka Mayanja, one of the brains behind the annual All Music Safari concerts, says the spectacle that was involved in the previous battle was incredible and a huge advert for the entertainment scene.

Others, however, believe artistes could follow a more friendly approach without dividing their audience.

Artiste Rowland Raymond Kaiza, alias Big Trill, says this generation of the industry should be the last organising battles.

“While Nigerian acts are dominating the world and winning Video Music Awards and filling stadiums, we are out here battling each other,” he says.

The artiste argues that in 2023, local artistes should be collaborating more than they are fighting. 

“Within a couple of months, no one will remember or care about the Cindy and Sheebah battle. But if they did a song together, that would last forever and change the landscape of the industry. Let us get back to what is important – the music,” he says.

What Big Trill suggests has actually been tested before. Artistes have collaborated on music and gone ahead to bring their audiences together for mega tours.

In 2010, for instance, two established artistes; Damian Marley and Nas joined forces on a collaborative album, Distant Relatives. The album was a crossover success among both reggae and hip hop music lovers.

Because of the album, Nas ended up performing at a number of Caribbean festivals he may not have been booked for if he was by himself and in the same way, Marley headlined hip hop culture events he would never have headlined without Nas.

Besides Nas and Marley, there are many artistes who have used their star power to bring different communities to celebrate music.

When the two artistes were touring, they often performed songs from the collaborational album and a number of songs from their individual catalogues.

But bringing artistes together could be valid for one reason or the other. Some people have argued that Ugandans love chaos.

But are battles sustainable?

For a battle to happen in the Ugandan style, two artiste must have had a well-documented feud. In the same breath, each of them should have a passionate fanbase.

For instance, even when people feel like they can pair Kenneth Mugabi and Maurice Kirya, a battle between the two could hardly have the tension such as what Cindy and Sheebah had, considering the fact that the two technically share an audience.

Isabirye says battles are not very sustainable.

“It is not everyday that you will have artistes that are at the same level of development and indeed deserve a comparison,” Isabirye says, adding that the battle that took place at Kololo was a mismatch in many ways.

“Cindy and Sheebah are in the same age bracket but by the time Cindy was at her peak, Sheebah was still a dancer, so this was more of a situation of a teacher and their student,” he says.

He also says battles cannot displace the spirit of collaboration since putting the show together is already a collaborative effort.

“Battles happen the same way boxing matches are organised; there is banter and an exchange, which is all part of the build-up and most of the time the two parties agree on them,” he says.

Kaliisa says going forward, many battles may be organised, especially many engineered by artistes to make money, “but the audience is not stupid, when they see people battling and then recording a collaboration after that, they may be disgusted by the idea all together.”

He also says if artistes over organise battles, they will lose value.