Ghetto Kids: The art, talent, and the mechanics

The Ghetto Kids in London. There have been mixed reactions to their performance at Britain’s Got Talent. PHOTO/ COURTESY OF GHETTO KIDS KAMPALA TWITTER

What you need to know:

Performances - in the real sense of it - not only involve actions aimed at achieving some result on the stage, but they must also be open to public scrutiny and assessment.

At the last edition of the World Cup tournament in Qatar’s capital Doha, the Triplets Ghetto Kids made a clear statement of what they can do when they showed ex-Manchester City striker Kun Aguero and former Manchester United superstar Rio Ferdinand how to dance the ‘Ugandan’ way.

  And until the Golden Buzzer spectacle in April, many Ugandans had just been following the Ghetto Kids’ performances online, oblivious of their global prowess.

 However, the exit from Britain’s Got Talent show at the weekend has got the majority of the public sending the littluns flowers, but with a few throwing mud at them.

 To understand performance, according to scholars of art, requires a critical look at the popular culture, history and tradition of dance and the overlying thematic undertones of such shows because they don’t happen in a vacuum. 

For purposes of this article, we will dance towards academia (performing art, literature, poetry, etc.), wiggle into philosophy, but understandably dwell on the layman’s understanding of what makes a performance tick.

To bring it closer home, many of us have encountered dance early in our lives through various artistic performances in school. The orientation into the discipline gets many nervous and unable to remember what line to sing or what dance stroke they were taught a few minutes earlier. And even when they go through the trainings, when it matters most they fumble, stammer, and hang dry in front of audiences larger than a classroom.

And when we fail – with two left feet - we are relegated to the usually less heady role of spectating and criticising those on stage, and with an insatiable appetite for excellent works of art.

Those who emerge unscathed from the introduction to such performances go on to scale the heights in their career, making excellent performing artists or musicians themselves. They are the ones who feel the heat for doing things.  

As William Shakespeare put it in “As You like It”, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players; they have their exits and their entrances. 

In order to wean ourselves off the immunity to criticism and possible heartaches, we should understand that performances - in the real sense of it - not only involve actions on the stage, but they must also be open to public scrutiny and assessment; as is the case of the Ghetto Kids.

 In the world of literature – or art for this matter – style, diction, flair, presentation, and all manner of aesthetics play a huge role in appreciation of a work of art.

Take a real-life example. If an old man used a walking stick conventionally - that would be a normal sight. But if he used the same walking stick to whip the air, toss it up and down, sideways, and accompany the motion with his body movement, then it would attract onlookers – qualifying it as a performance of sorts.  

And if another man did the same thing, it would be upon the spectators to compare their style, swag, and all manner of checklists.  We must, therefore, pay much more attention to the nuances of the movements of performers and their appearance to tell apart good performers from terrible ones. 

But before we look at the Ghetto Kids’ performances it is instructive to digress into the age-old concept of performance and the basic tenets of such. 

In “Ars Poetica”, or “The Art of Poetry”, Horace urges artists – dancers and poets in particular – to keep their audiences in mind at all times, and for writers, he asks them to “either follow tradition or invent such fables which are [in harmony] to themselves.”

To him, art needs special care – as to character drawing, representation, length of a play, number of actors, and use of music, and that it needs unity, to be secured by harmony and proportion, as well as a clever choice of diction. 

This also demands that we look at aspects of beauty – or sublimity of art - as expressed by Greek philosopher Longinus. Longinus defines sublimity in literature as “the echo of greatness of spirit” and a style of writing that elevates itself “above the ordinary”. 

To him, artists need “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement” if they are to achieve beautiful pieces because it gives audiences “joy and pride, as though [they] had [themselves] originated the ideas”.

But he warns against false sublime where artists intend to produce beautiful work but achieve terrible pieces, which would get a backlash and distaste for artwork. 

Yet in judging dances such as that of the Ghetto Kids, we look at many aspects including choreography, their African print attire and stage presentation, performance quality, technique, message, and overall impression. 

Ms Lillian Mbabazi, a lecturer of performing arts at Makerere University, says: “They [Ghetto Kids] had admirable stage presence, sustained energy levels, impressive confidence, and variety and contrast weaving traditional dance motifs from Uganda and contemporary styles in the performances. The choreography, costumes and set illuminated the African and Ugandan identity and underscored the aesthetic appeal of their dances.”

But Mr Valentino R. Kabenge, a Latin Dancer and choreographer, says the performances – while impressive to watch - lacked the surprise factor that demonstrates a progression in their ability and capability of dance and storytelling over the duration of the competition. They focused on one aspect that was repeated in each performance”.

This almost ties in with choreographer and dance judge Elvis Elasu’s opinion. 

“In the semi-finals for me, they lost it when the scenography overpowered the dance. There was a lot of untapped creative potential in that piece. In the finals, every element almost dropped. Generally, the stage transitions were weak.

“Unique shapes, creative level changes and difficult moves keep judges in the wow!   Why do similar costumes touch throughout? Where is the difficulty of the routines? Where is the creative audience engagement?” he wonders. 

Arts and entertainment journalist Andrew Kaggwa thinks many experts are yet to fully appreciate the little angels. 

“Ghetto Kids have been largely misunderstood by dance purists. Of course, at the time we learned about them, they were largely known for comic, animated dance moves and exaggerated costumes to depict their poor background. Since their moves were rarely coordinated or choreographed, professional dancers have easily dismissed them, yet at the moment, their influence on the art can’t be underestimated.”

Impressively, Mr Batalo Abdul Kinyenya, an artistic director at Batalo East, gives the Ghetto Kids a thumbs-up for cushioning the pressure at such a global stage.

“The kids have broken the record in terms of going that far. This is one of the biggest shows in the world with a lot of pressure. These kids are extremely talented. Everybody can dance, but to do this art and make people’s hearts smile is something else. The execution, the humour, the approach to simplicity in terms of art is very powerful,” he says. 

Mr Bob Kisiki, a Literature in English scholar, sums it up: “My feeling of the Ghetto Kids performance in London is that whatever accolades and promotions (from one level to another) they got was mainly due to talent and spectacle, than skill. Skill is about training and deliberate execution of whatever you are doing. Talent is a natural endowment that needs training to give order. Spectacle is about design and setup. Costume. Expression.”

In David Davies’s book Philosophy of the Performing Arts, he critically explores the components of artistic performance, including improvisation, rehearsal, the role of the audience, and the nature of the artistic performer. All these components – he states - must be in sync if we must have a heartwarming performance of dance or any artistic element.

Involving us in this kind of discussion is a huge milestone for the kids, who are barely in their teenage years, in the first place. Secondly, the audiences they have wowed, and the appreciation they have received globally just tells what a marvel they are. 

And by all the checklists of performing arts, the kids have done their work. Whatever critics say is for the betterment of the already oozing talent among Uganda’s best exports this year so far.

 To the Ghetto Kids, you are going places. Roar on!


Ms Lillian Mbabazi, lecturer, Makerere University.

Getting the Golden Buzzer from BrunoTonioli during the performance at their first audition was no mean feat. The Ghetto Kids may not have taken home the prize, but their outstanding performance captivated viewers all over the world. There are certainly areas of improvement. The choreographers could have made the transitions from one motif to the next more fluid so that the dance develops naturally and the viewer may journey without being interrupted by abrupt changes.

Valentino R. Kabenge, choreographer,TV host 

“Congratulations to the ghetto kids on achieving the milestone of being finalists of Britain’s Got Talent. They did a great job as ambassadors for Uganda. Their exuberance and joy uplifted people’s hearts. The friendliness and hospitality that us Ugandans are known for was clearly evident through their performances and their engagements with the judges.  The courage and confidence they brought to the stage was so heart warming. They have done us proud in introducing millions of people to Uganda.

Elvis Elasu, alias Levy. A choreographer, dance judge, 

Ghetto kids are exceptionally talented. I love their comic dance approach, countenance and ghetto identity.  First performance at BGT, they put up great energy and stage presence. As a dance judge and choreographer, I know very well all judges love the element of surprise, which was lacking. However, we are proud and trust for better next time.

Andrew Kaggwa, journalist 

Their shows at Britain’s Got Talent have been an improvement of who they were when we first saw them in Eddy Kenzo’s Sitya Loss. They are more intentional than before and tried to combine Ugandan and African moves in their routine, which must have been key in them going as far as they went in the competition.