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Whereas some people argue that they are essential for keeping the music industry vibrant, others contend that the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.
A top official from the apex body that encompasses all associations in the arts industry has stopped short of describing so-called musical battles in Uganda as a marketing gimmick.
Charles Batambuze, the vice chairperson of the National Culture Forum (NCF), believes that battles hold significant appeal for the market, which primarily comprises music fans, as they tend to respond positively to the controversy associated with them.
“Since the market resonates with such content, it bestows upon art a rightful share of public opinion and talkability in the public domain, ultimately elevating art to the forefront,” Mr Batambuze says.
The comments come after the latest battle between songstresses Cindy Sanyu and Sheebah Karungi drew a huge crowd at the Kololo Independence Grounds this past weekend. While Batambuze is guarded with his comments, Diplock Segawa, a veteran artiste, makes it abundantly clear that the battles do not necessarily promote the music industry in a constructive manner.
“Although their respective fans relish this spectacle and often add fuel to the fire, it’s disheartening to witness two seasoned artistes embroiled in a war of words over trivial matters. Issues like property ownership, marital status, car ownership, and age differences,” Segawa notes.
The phenomenon of musical battles began in Uganda in January 2011, when two heavyweight artistes at the time, Joseph Mayanja, alias Jose Chameleone, and Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, squared off in a musical showdown at Kati Kati Grounds in Lugogo, Kampala.
Subsequently, Moses Ssali, alias Bebe Cool, and Bobi Wine clashed in May 2012 at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds, followed by another memorable battle between the Goodlyfe crew (Radio and Weasel) and Bebe Cool in December 2013, also at Kyadondo.
While these events undoubtedly attracted large crowds and generated substantial income for the participating artistes, they have also been marred by controversies and have been a breeding ground for rivalry and division within the music industry, both among the artistes and their fans alike.
One of the most pressing concerns raised by these battles is their impact on unity within the Ugandan music industry. At a time when the industry is striving to achieve international recognition and address pressing issues such as copyright laws and the establishment of a separate ministry, among other interests, the battles seem to exacerbate existing divisions.
Fans passionately support their favourite artistes during these events, often resulting in heated arguments and disputes that linger long after the performances have ended. Additionally, the organisers frequently fail to announce a clear winner, leaving fans and artistes alike unsatisfied and adding fuel to the fire of contention.
The competitive nature of these battles can sometimes overshadow the essence of music as a form of expression and creativity.
The debate over the worthiness of musical battles in Uganda’s music industry continues to rage on. Some argue that they are essential for keeping the industry vibrant and engaging for fans, while others contend that the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.
Experts say it is essential for industry stakeholders, including artistes, fans, and organisers, to engage in constructive dialogue to find a balance that promotes unity, celebrates talent, and advances the industry’s interests on the international stage.
Emma Carlos Mulondo, a renowned artiste manager and music business consultant, nevertheless, emphasises the positive impact of these music battles on industry advocacy. He contends that these battles have propelled the arts industry into the spotlight, garnering substantial publicity.
“Everybody now understands the influential and powerful nature of the art industry,” he asserts.
The widespread viewership of these battles has shed light, Mulondo reckons, on key issues that the arts leadership has championed, such as copyright amendments and the necessity for increased public investment in the arts.
Music battles have consistently drawn large crowds and yielded a substantial returns on investment for promoters. Promoting shows with an element of conflict piques fans’ interest, prompting them to come out in droves to support their favourite artistes.
Consequently, promoters reap financial rewards, while on battle days, taxes are collected, vendors thrive, fans rejoice, and artistes, along with their associates such as choreographers, dancers, and backup singers and designers, all prosper.
Following last weekend’s battle, Sheebah was quick to label it a resounding win for women in what has previously been perceived as a bastion for men. Sheebah reckons doors will now be flung wide open for women in the industry.
Isaac Katende, alias Kasuku, a media personality who played a role in organising the Cindy-Sheebah battle, noted another triumph—the influx of new investors into the music industry, notably exemplified by Victoria University’s involvement. He expressed optimism that this would encourage more institutions and businesses to invest in the industry.
Kasuku, who also meant to announce the battle’s winner, revealed that it ended in a draw, leaving the final verdict in the hands of the fans. This decision-making process, Batambuze believes, is a testament to the fact that in such battles, it is art itself that emerges victorious, rather than individual artistes. In the midst of battles, all sides are deemed substantial and are winners in their own right.
The bad, ugly
While the intent is always to create an atmosphere of heightened intensity, it is imperative, experts say, that situations never spiral out of control. Recent battles, particularly the one featuring Bobi Wine and Bebe Cool, have witnessed instances where the participants almost engaged in physical altercations.
The most recent confrontation between Sheebah and Cindy, both before, during, and after the battle, was marred by an overflow of verbal skirmishes, most of which were vulgar.
Solomon Starboss, an ardent Ugandan music fan who has attended all four recent music battles featuring modern-day artistes, points out a consistent issue that has marred these events and ultimately affects the overall quality of such musical shows.
“As fans, we yearn to hear the artistes at their best through the sound systems. Unfortunately, we have been consistently deprived of this experience, making it challenging for us to assess the vocal prowess of the battling artistes,” he says.
Given that these music battles are often marked by high egos and intense rivalries among artistes and their fans, Charles Batambuze, the vice chairperson of the National Culture Forum, suggests that participating artistes should always strive to bury the hatchet post-battle.
“It’s not about inciting conflict but fostering unity. It would paint a positive image of what art should represent,” he opines, adding that a zero-sum game that merely looks at the bottom line is pernicious in its consequences.
Emma Carlos Mulondo, a renowned artiste manager and music business consultant, observes a growing trend among Ugandans to emulate specific aspects of the industry, with musical battles now topping the list. He notes that several artistes have already expressed interest in challenging their peers, citing King Saha’s open invitation to Eddy Kenzo for a battle. Fans have also initiated battles such as the one between Rema Namakula and Winnie Nwagi.
Additionally, promoters are rumoured to be organising battles between top stars such as Jose Chameleone and Bebe Cool to conclude the year. Mulondo acknowledges that while these ideas and suggestions are commendable, the essence of the battles should remain authentic and natural.
“Battles will lose their significance if they become overdone just like music awards lost their appeal due to excessive organisation by almost everyone,” he concluded.