Bobi Wine, one of Uganda's top artists, self-proclaimed president of the Ghetto
Interviewing the president of the ghetto is no easy task. Although I arrived at Bobi Wine’s office around 11 am, I didn’t leave until 5 pm. When I finished, I was so worn out I needed 2 cups of coffee to get back to office. I had little expectations of the man before I went to see him—though he said he was a man of the people, I had an open mind. His actions would show me, rather than his words. I came by boda to his office, which were a few rooms in an incomplete, under-construction building in Bukoto. Waiting for him, surrounded by dusty buildings, people living on what looked like less than a dollar a day, I saw a shiny black Ford Mustang drive up very quickly. Inside, was the president of the Ghetto.
Wine wore a large black studded cowboy hat, a black shirt with a white one underneath, black pants, a huge belt with a silver star, and large silver rings. He wore a huge metallic ring that looked like a small boulder on his pinky finger. His hair was dreaded, and there was a large black chain that hung from his belt, dangling off his hips. I didn’t know that I would have to wait for an interview from him for almost 90 minutes. I was led with another reporter from Sunday Vision, Moses Opobo, to plastic black chairs outside his studio to watch Pink and Mariah Carey videos. Bobi Wine chatted with a reporter from the Red Pepper for over an hour, and then two men from his village in Mpigi came with a proposal to ask him for money. Young kids, who looked like they belonged in primary school, walked around his office in metallic hip-hop gear.
The problem with getting an interview with Bobi Wine is that his mind can drift within ten seconds—one minute he might be reliving a moment from his time in exile as a child in Tanzania, the next minute he is thinking about ghetto youth who use ganja. Eventually, Opobo just wandered into his office, and Wine remembered that we were there. Come on in, he said.
Bobi Wine’s favorite president Wine’s office was tiny and plain, but decorated with some mementos. On his black desk was a snow globe of Dubai, a small flag of the Buganda kingdom, and the Ugandan flag. A huge painting of him, his son Solomon Kampala, and his wife Barbie hung on the wall, with a medium photograph of Ida Amin tucked inside, though he had no photo of President Museveni. Stickers for the Ghetto Republic decorated his door and refrigerator. The interview was not easy.
Wine has a warm, easy repertoire with Opobo, but with me, he seemed uneasy and skeptical of my motives. We started off the interview with the basics- what was he up to? Wine said he was working on an album for next year, and trying to sensitize the police about treating youth who use ganja with respect. “I support the use of ganja, but not the abuse,” said Wine seriously. “I want to work on the relationship between the police and the community, and the criminalization of youth who use ganja.” Wine said he was starting a foundation for ghetto youth, and working with Barbie on her campaign to promote healthy minds.
We then began to talk about Wine’s upbringing. “I have forty-three brothers and sisters,” he said. “My father was the richest man in his county, and he had seven wives.” Frowning, Wine then told me that his father was still producing at 69, and had a child that was younger than Wine’s kids. I asked Wine if he planned to have more than three kids. He looked at me in shock. “I am a strong. African. Man,” he said emphatically, pausing between words. “If I still have wealth, of course I will have more children.”Wine told me that although his father was a very wealthy man, he lost everything when Obote 2 took over. Under Amin, his dad prospered, but lost everything when the regimes switched.
“Do you know Idi Amin?” he asked, raising his hand to the photo of Amin he displayed in his office. “She’s heard of him, she knows of him,” Opobo told him. “Idi Amin was the greatest president Uganda ever had,” he said, gesturing towards the photograph. Wine said that his family went into exile in Tanzania before he was born, and kept returning to Uganda, then going back. His mom raised him in Kamwokya, and he told me that he was still traumatized by the scars of his experiences there.
“I don’t hate poverty,” Wine said, as if the word hate was not strong enough. “I. Fear. It.” The words seemed to tremble in his mouth. We then spoke about Wine’s death. According to our Kamwokya leader, he died at the age of eleven years. “I was reading Milton Obote’s writing, and he said it’s good to die a bit,” he said softly. “So you live longer. There was a time…when I never existed. I died—in poverty. I didn’t have slippers, breakfast or lunch. I had no hope.”
He told me that most kids in schools who are bright are the one with the best backgrounds—the children of prominent doctors or lawyers. “I was the brightest kid in my school,” he said. “God gave me brains.” The bright kids stuck together, but Wine felt so much pain. He had to stay around school late in the hopes of getting free food, while his friends “moved around in cars.” Speaking about it, Wine shuddered, as if feeling that feeling of death again.
“It is better to be dead than to be poor,” said Wine emphatically. “A dead man doesn’t have to beg. A dead man can’t feel hunger.” He told me then not only did he die in poverty, but he was resurrected in poverty, when he began to work to feed his sisters and family. “I began to rise up through singing,” he said.
We talked about his relationship with Bebe Cool and Chameleon. Wine said he would have never built him and Barbie a mansion if it wasn’t for Chameleon’s teasing and boasting. “You see, if I began teasing that small man, Chameleon, for his size, do you know what he would he do?” he said. “He would begin eating a lot of food! Well, Chameleon kept teasing me about where I lived, so I had to build a huge mansion for me and Barbie. Now I don’t know what to do with it. Me, I’m comfortable with cheap things. The food I like is cheap. The cars I own? They are for Barbie, so that she, this daughter of a rich man, can have this image that she is married to a superstar.”
The interview was intense. At times, Wine would get up and move around. His face was filled with emotion. Sometimes it would crumble in agony, and then he would begin laughing like a boy. When he smiled, his grin seemed to take up half his face. But mostly, his mood was dark. His phone rang constantly; he took over twenty calls during the interview. He offered me lunch, and a waitress came to the office to take our orders. I tried to order chicken and posho, but the waitress then refused to take our orders and left his offices angrily. Apparently, Wine had racked up a large bill at her small restaurant that they didn’t want to serve him and his crew anymore, before they cleared it. He didn’t want to give her cash, so the waitress stormed off.
My stomach growling, I went to use the bathroom before I ventured to Bukoto on a food expedition. There was a pool of urine on the floor, and the bathroom had a bad scent. I chatted for a bit with Wine before leaving, but it was clear his mood was terrible. He invited me to the beach the next day, but everything I said seemed foul to him, judging by his expression.
“Have you met Barack Obama?” he asked me, and I shook my head. “What about Arnold Schwarzenegger?” “No,” I said. “I haven’t met the governor of California. America has 300 million people.”
Shocked, his eyebrows furrowing, Wine asked me if I had ever seen Chris Rock. “No,” I said. “I could probably pay a $50 entrance fee and go to one of his shows, but I’d rather just download them onto my laptop, and watch from there.”
“You live in America,” Wine said, as if I was a four-year-old child. “And you’ve never met Obama, Schwarzenegger, or Chris Rock?” Annoyed that Wine seemed to think the U.S. was a place where you could walk your dog and stumble upon Will Smith (there are eight million people who live in New York City alone), I changed the subject and asked him when he would visit me there, since I was heading back to New York soon.
“I go to New York all the time,” he said. “I like being anonymous. In Uganda, everyone knows who I am, but no one in New York, except the Ugandans there, who make too big a deal out of me.”
“Do you visit the parks or museums?” I asked. “See our culture?”
“No,” he said snarkily. “I like to shop there. When I want to go shopping, I fly to New York.” He then asked me how long I had been with New Vision, and in Uganda. I told him I originally came to Uganda in 2007 as a student, and he cut me off with disgust.
“So you’re here illegally?” he asked me snottily, and then looked away.
Feeling irritated, I went to get some lunch next to his office with the reporter, relying on our own cash, and then said goodbye to the ghetto president. His mood seemed warmer, and I could hear him laughing as he watched music videos on TV. He invited me to his beach, One Love, the following day, and I caught a taxi back to town. Although I had grown to adore Wine’s music, which seemed to capture the literal heart of Kampala, the man himself seemed emotional and troubled.