In Uganda, the campaigns for the 2016 elections are on. On the 16th of October president Yoweri K. Museveni was the guest of honor at a dinner party comprising of a dozen of the country’s most popular singers, as they revealed their song Tubonga Nawe (luganda for We Are With You) supporting the president and his party The National Resistance Movement (NRM) for another term. Amidst intense press coverage, the president also donated 400 million shillings to a fund to promote the development of the music industry.

The song has sparked passionate discussions about the proper relationship between politics and popular music among media elite, the aspiring urban cool, as well as on the streets of Kampala. Are popular musicians obligated to praise the political elite? Or do they have a special responsibility to protest injustice because of their popularity?

Artists should be representing the political interests of their profession rather than signing praises, singer Maurice Kirya commented on Facebook only hours after the songs’ release. Others argued that artists should be critical of the government rather than praising it, as they are expected to be the voice of the voiceless. Some famous singers were prominently absent from the Tubonga Nawe all-star cast, and were pressed by the tabloid press to explain why they did not participate, thereby revealing their political standpoint. A young hip hop artist in the Diaspora recorded a reply to the NRM praise song entitled Tetubonga Nawe (We Are Not With You), with lyrics both criticizing NRM and the artists featuring in the Tubonga Nawe song. The song went viral when Kizza Besigye, presidential candidate and leader of the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change, shared the song on Facebook. Suddenly Bana Mutibwa who recorded the song was the main character of newspaper articles, radio debate shows and gossip pages, and the song spread on online music sites and whatsapp. In this way, Tubonga Nawe was an event that unsettled the relationship between pop music and politics, and continues to unfold as new spaces of expression, and courses of action. Music is “politicized” in new ways, as a friend in Uganda said it, disturbing and changing hierarchies within the community of musicians in Uganda.

To understand what is at stake for young people working in the Ugandan music economy, I think their ventures in formal politics cannot be seen only as either praise or protest, but also as peculiar tensions of paradoxical political agency concerned with crafting connections by which artists, and now also politicians, seek to capture fame, influence and wealth.

As in other parts of Africa, musicians in the central part of Uganda have over the centuries been considered largely as clients of the state, even if as tricksters and jesters. During the height of the Buganda kingdom, hundreds of musicians were employed by the court. Musicians had an important role in state-making in the early post-colonial era, and depended on the state – and at times individual politicians – for access to mass audiences, as media and distribution of popular culture was to a large extent owned by the state. With the privatization and informalization of media infrastructures in the 1990s, and more recently the online platforms, artists no longer conceive of themselves as clients of the state, but as entrepreneurs in a (global) market place. They seek out ways to sell their music and their personal brands, their “names,” to fans, consumers or companies. This is in large part the basis of both the burgeoning music economy in Uganda and the fame of the new generation of stars, coming onto the music scene from the early 1990s and onwards.

When musicians and politicians share the same stage, as they do in the recent electoral campaigns, these different ways of understanding relationships come into tension. In the 2011 elections many of the Tubonga-Nawe-artists also performed at president Museveni’s rallies, performing their own songs before huge audiences across the country. Singers and politicians were next to each other on the rally platform, but not necessarily “too close”. And the juxtaposition allowed fans-cum-voters in the audience to interpret the relationship in different ways. Staying within the logic of the market dynamics of the music industry, artists simply rented out their name and popularity to a politician for a couple of hours, but also used the opportunity to promote and perform their hit songs. Music fans and voters participating in rallies understood that the praise might have other meanings than the musician mindlessly endorsing a given politician; it could also be about winning the respect of the political elite, and their money, without committing to a permanent bond of support. This mutual kind of “hustling” going on between musicians and politicians kept the nature of these relations ambiguous – and a little mysterious – and the uncertainties was exactly what made them work. President Museveni even had his own hit song in 2011, and this peculiar mix of music and politics followed the same recipe. The song wasn’t explicitly praising NRM, but left listeners to interpret: what did he mean by “Do You Want Another Rap”?

If what makes the relationship between the new generation of Ugandan stars and formal politics work is ambiguity and apparent paradoxical forms of agency, then this is the problem with the Tubonga Nawe praise song: there is too little room for interpretation. It becomes a reminder of previous times when dictators had musicians singing their government’s praises everywhere they went. Back then, it seemed, politicians owned the singers. But the new generation of stars in Uganda are loved precisely because they are not subjected to the big men and women in society. They have been part of creating their own industry. They are “self-made,” as I know superstar Chameleone would say.

And so, fans and fellow musicians are disappointed and outraged when musicians suddenly seem to no longer seem to be themselves, and praise and kneel before the political elite. The Tubonga Nawe song too unequivocally links musicians and NRM, especially as it was accompanied by a public display of exchange between the president and the artists in form of food and money; traditional political currencies in Uganda.

This way of interpreting the Tubonga Nawe debacle seems to be underlined by Chameleone’s comments about his participation in the song. He argues that he remains as independent, as creative and as much himself as he ever was. He was quoted in one of the online tabloids:

“As a musician, I have spent 15 years singing about the problems in this country and I sing them as Jose Chameleone. (…) Don’t say that I betrayed you, you have never sent me. Am not a politician, I have just told you the side am on.”

On one hand musicians do not want to be framed as praise singers and dupes, repeating the political agenda fed by a patron. On the other, they also refuse to have to answer to “the people” for their actions. Chameleone exemplifies the new generation of artists, insisting that they are to be recognized as entrepreneurs, as creative people and as idols, while seeking to avoid the burdensome relations of obligation that the field of formal politics seem to imply. Yet by chanting praises for the establishment, hailing their own independence echoes increasingly hollow.

Nanna Schneidermann holds a PhD in social anthropology from Aarhus University where she is currently teaching students in anthropology and experience economy. Since 2004 she has worked with and studied youth, fame and life in Uganda’s growing music industry.