Robert Kyagulanyi Sssentamu, famously known by his stage name Bobi Wine (Bobi, a homage to his music idols Bob Marley and Bobby Brown, and Wine because he realized he only gets better with age), is a rapper/singer turned politician in Uganda. A member of parliament since 2017, Wine employs music to rally his People Power Movement in resistance to the autocratic, repressive, and corrupt rule of longtime President Yoweri Museveni’s government. In 2020, he became the leader of a small opposition party, the National Unity Platform, in order to run as a presidential candidate, challenging Museveni in the 2021 election.
Ghetto Origins and Rise to Fame
Wine was born and grew up in Kamwokya, a ghetto neighborhood in Kampala, well-known for its pivotal role in the rise of the Ugandan rap/music industry; some even refer to it as the Compton of Uganda. Although his family was once quite well-off and politically active before the Ugandan Bush War in the 1980s, his family quickly fell out of favor with the Museveni regime which quickly consolidated power and exercised repressive measures after promising to bring accountable and democratic governance to Uganda after many years of brutal dictatorship. Because of the damage that politics did to his family in driving them into penury, Wine’s mother advised him from a young age to avoid being politically involved. Although his brother, Yawe, a fellow rapper, did not heed these warnings and was arrested during the 1996 elections for releasing a song supporting Museveni’s opponent, Wine steered clear of politics for much of his early music career, focusing the content of his songs on themes of love, partying, and the braggadocio associated with the typical rapper.
While some of Wine’s music was educational and filled with social commentary on some of Uganda’s entrenched problems, such as poverty, sanitation, and AIDS, his lyrics refrained from associating blame with the political system that enabled them to persist. Through his blend of Jamaican dancehall and kidandali, a local Afrobeat style, Wine quickly made a name for himself in the East African music scene by the early 2000s. During this time, Wine gloated about his riches and enjoyed a life of decadence, becoming a member of the Ugandan elite and befriending the necessary politicians and businessmen necessary to maintain his status. However, he never lost sight of his ghetto roots. Because of this, when the Ugandan government began sweeping vendors and beggars off the streets of Kampala in November 2007 in order to polish the country’s image when hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, Wine changed his position on avoiding criticism of the government in his music.
From Party Music to Resistance Rap
In 2008, along with his longtime music partner Nubian Lee, Wine released “Ghetto,” his first song critical of the Museveni government. The song, which accused the government of betraying the ghetto and called on it to be accountable to the needs of the poor, was just the beginning of Wine’s transition to releasing anti-establishment music that specifically appealed to the young and poor. Although Wine did not set out to become a political revolutionary and activist when he first started creating rap music in the ghetto of Kamwokya, by the late 2010s, Wine had established a big name for himself in the political arena, replacing his easy-going love ballads with inflammatory disses of the Ugandan political establishment.
People Power and Parliament
Because of the release of “Ghetto,” President Museveni attempted to disparage Wine as a ‘ghetto president.’ The name stuck, but with a positive connotation that is exalted by Wine’s supporters who began to see in Wine a president-like political figure who popularized the interests of the ghetto in a country where the underserved are often ignored by the government. Wine wears the ‘ghetto’ label as a badge of pride and does not lose sight of the power of his music, which is responsible for allowing him to break into politics.
Although already known as a political opposition figure by 2016, Wine continued to avoid the entanglement of electoral politics. However, the 2016 presidential election represented a shift in Wine’s calculations. After rejecting $135,000 to participate in a song along other musical artists in support of Museveni’s re-election to a fifth term (representing the ubiquitous buying of support by Museveni), Wine realized that instead of only explaining the problems with Uganda’s politics, it would be more effective to demonstrate his vision of politics by running for office.
In 2017, Wine further elevated his political status by winning an open seat in parliament. Coinciding with his parliamentary campaign was the launch of People Power, a nonpartisan resistance movement. Lacking a strict ideological bent, People Power is characterized as populist, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption in orientation. Highly recognizable by its symbolism of red berets and raised fists, the movement has gained a substantial following, primarily among the young, urban, and poor. In a country where poverty runs rampant and 70% of the population is under 25 years old, bringing the young and poor into the political arena has the potential for substantial mobilization and impact.
Young, Poor, and Populist: Wine’s Appeal
Wine’s political music and movement tap into the growing discontent with Museveni’s political establishment, which is characterized as neglectful, autocratic, and repressive. In particular, Wine’s appeal to young people stems from the fact that Museveni has been in power since 1986, meaning that a vast majority of the population has lived under no other president than Museveni. By way of his relatively younger age (in comparison to Museveni and past opposition leaders) and his energizing music, Wine is able to more meaningfully appeal to large swaths of young Ugandans who are disenchanted by mass unemployment, widespread corruption, and growing authoritarianism attributed to the aging political establishment. Museveni, who retains some support from older Ugandans who fear a return to the instability they experienced before the liberation war in the 1980s, struggles to maintain his claims of stability and rule of law among the young people who have no recollection of such events. For the young, their memories of violence and lawlessness stem from Uganda’s unchecked security forces that show blatant disregard for the rule of law and possess the ability to detain, harm, and even murder citizens with little consequences.
In contrast to past opposition leaders whose elite statuses prevented them from connecting with poorer populations, Wine’s ghetto origins allow him to generate an appealing pro-poor, anti-establishment populist movement. By embracing the appetites for a change of the political establishment among the young and poor, and popularizing political protest through music, Wine has been able to clearly articulate the people’s frustrations more than any other opposition leader, past or present. This ability demonstrates the true power behind Wine’s movement, which has the potential to pose a legitimate threat to Museveni’s rule.
Although Wine maintains a level of formal political power as an MP, the most effective vehicle for political change lies in his People Power movement. Given that Parliament is dominated by Museveni’s NRM party and is often curtailed by the executive when Museveni sees fit, Wine’s true power lies in his ability to mobilize the young and poor into political consciousness and engagement. At the core, Wine’s resistance strategy is to pull back the facade of legitimacy surrounding the Museveni regime, both domestically and abroad. Wine’s domestic strategy involves raising support for his movement, primarily through music and social media, where government repression is less organized in comparison to formal protests (although Wine has held many protests, rallies, and concerts). However, as of recently, this strategy is being curtailed as the Ugandan government has asked Google to remove at least 14 YouTube accounts linked to Wine, citing ‘sensationalist’ broadcasts that operate without proper licensing. At the international level, Wine regularly engages with Western media to delegitimize Musveni’s repressive regime, which receives tacit support and funding (military and humanitarian) from Western countries for its role in combating terrorism and accepting refugees. Such use of music and media reflects a 21st-century-style revolution, which is evident in other countries across the continent and world.
While Museveni is able to curtail some of this resistance, especially through rigging electoral processes, the occurrence that could force Museveni from office is an Arab Spring-style uprising by the young and poor. Wine clearly recognizes this potentiality, focusing much of his resistance on mobilization (instead of formal processes as an MP), but so does Museveni. As a result, Museveni’s government has consistently exercised backlash against Wine, but avoids killing him out of fear that such action would lead to the type of uprising it wishes to counter.
Since running for Parliament, Wine has been arrested more than 20 times, often on dubious charges. Such arrests represent Museveni’s strategy of fear and intimidation against Wine, an attempt to test Wine’s conviction for his movement. During some of these arrests and detainments, Wine has been beaten and tortured. In addition, the government has often banned Wine from holding performances and rallies, citing that such events incite violence, lure young people into violence, and thus constitute a form of treason. At some of his rallies that were not shut down prematurely, civilians have been tear gassed, beaten, and arrested as well. Notably, in 2018, Wine’s driver was shot dead after Wine participated in a rally for an opposition parliamentary candidate. The same night, Wine was tortured and beaten unconscious, but maintains that while the event left lasting scars—both physically and psychologically—it strengthened his conviction to oppose the government that would sink so low to maintain power.
Presidential Run: The Power is in the Process
In late 2019, Wine announced his candidacy for president in the 2021 election, challenging Museveni’s run for a sixth-term. Museveni’s candidacy was made possible after Parliament removed constitutional age limits for presidential candidates in 2017, an action that Wine heavily opposed both within Parliament and throughout the country (known as the Togikwatako campaign). While Wine’s bid for president is unlikely to translate into victory—given Museveni’s ties to business and the military, buying of votes, and election rigging—Wine’s campaign has further raised his profile and given more credence to his People Power movement. As expected, this increased profile has led to more backlash by Museveni’s government in a variety of ways. The government has consistently tried to complicate his candidacy by accusing him of falsifying information and stealing documents (such as signatures) necessary for his nomination. In order to more easily attain a nomination, Wine decided to align with a small opposition party, the National Unity Platform, which already had the infrastructure necessary to nominate a presidential candidate. However, Wine maintains his avoidance of a strict ideology, focusing on the respect for democratic institutions and rule of law, fighting corruption, and addressing poverty and unemployment. Throughout the campaign, Wine has continued his focus on providing opportunities to the young and poor, releasing more political music along the way.
Over the past few months, the Museveni government has increased its harassment of Wine. In early November, just moments after Wine was officially certified as a presidential candidate, he was pepper sprayed by police, forcefully removed from his vehicle, and temporarily detained, supposedly for planning an illegal procession. Police claimed that such demonstrations disturbed public order. A few weeks later, in late November 2020, Wine was arrested again and accused of violating the country’s Covid restrictions on large gatherings, even as Museveni held his own political rallies. This arrest sparked violent protests in Uganda, in which 577 people were arrested and 37 people were killed. Although responsibility for the deaths—many of which were caused by gunshot wounds—is disputed, the fact that Uganda’s Security Minister authorized police to shoot protesters if demonstrations reach a certain level of violence demonstrates a high likelihood that the government is responsible to a large extent.
Music’s Political Muscle
The protests that occurred in response to Wine’s arrest demonstrate the significant influence that Wine, through music, has had on mobilizing political resistance throughout Uganda. Recognizing the political power of Wine’s music, Museveni has increasingly attempted to utilize music to strengthen his own support. Museveni has bought off several prominent musicians to serve as presidential advisers and support his campaign over the past year. But, while music is certainly a powerful tool in politics, the tunes appear tone deaf when they lack any semblance of truth. What Museveni has failed to realize is that the power of Wine’s music lies not solely in the lyrics and rhythm of his songs, but in the real appeal that the meaning behind his music has in the political minds of the marginalized. Above all, Wine’s music is powerful because it informs the political consciousnesses of the young and poor. Wine’s lyrics allow the young and poor to make connections between their struggles and their political decisions, while the upbeat rhythms of his Afrobeat songs spur them into mobilizing for a better Uganda. Amid Museveni’s political strategy of pitting Ugandans against each other, Wine has used the energy and power of his music to unite an opposition movement, giving disenchanted and marginalized Ugandans, especially the young and poor, the ability to not only call for change, but sing for it.