League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: A Tale of Two Princes.
A great man once said this. Every 10 or so years, a legend appears. Someone of a completely different breed. A luminary. An outlier. An outstanding person in whichever field. In our era in football, we have been lucky to see Christiano and Messi as well as Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho before them. In rap music we have been blessed with Kanye West and Lil Wayne as well as Eminem and Jay Z before them, and Biggie and Pac before that. And possibly, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole after that. Time will tell.
Closer home, we have seen Babaluku and Saba Saba plus Abramz and Sylvester. We have seen Klear Kut and Baboon Forest Entertainment. We have seen Navio and GNL. We have seen Keko. We have seen Ruyonga and BigTril. We’ve seen Gravity Omutujju. On a more technical and specialized level, we’ve seen Benny Black and Tucker HD.
Behold, a new breed of rappers is creeping into the spotlight of substance. A breed of rappers with both work ethic and soul. The urban singing scene has given us Abaasa, Body of Brian, JC Muyonjo and company. What do these great singers, all in their twenties, have in common? There’s a depth and organisation to their craft. They bring to the industry well executed concepts. The thought that goes into what they release is evident. Also, these artistes are highly skilled and have, for many years, honed their gifts on many stages in Kampala, providing a soothing relief to Kampala’s elite corporate class as the sun goes down, after a long day at work. They have mastered their instruments and it often seems like they are one with their guitar/ drums/ keyboard. These artistes are also apparently quite exposed. Such is their exposure to the different ways of doing things, thanks in part to YouTube, that they have refused to conform to the pop culture pressures of our industry that have entrapped one too many a musician. However, the most striking quality, or feat, of this new league of extraordinary artistes, is their ability to maintain a steady supply of high quality of work. The consistency with which they release songs and high quality EPs, is nothing short of impressive. The Ugandan urban music dream is more alive because these outliers have given and given, and allowed their hearts and souls to be laid bare onto beautiful tracks.
Back to rap music, there are two gentlemen that fit so well into this new fine breed. Both of these gentlemen are not even 24 yet, and they might not have built a long portfolio of live performances as multi instrumentalists, and yet their music bursts with texture. These gentlemen are none other than Malcolm X Kawooya and Lagum Owor, more commonly known as Mal X and Lagum. Both of these gentlemen are Christian, and this is obvious in their music. And yet this doesn’t act as a limitation to them. They wear their beliefs and values on their sleeve and go on to set the bar high for African rap music, in a way that’s never been done before. They both come from backgrounds of international schools, though Lagum’s is more pronounced. Whereas Lagum has been a Christian longer and spent his childhood getting grounded in the scripture, Mal X confessed to having been an atheist, until a few years ago, when he converted to Christianity.
Whether for these reasons or others, I can’t name many Ugandan musicians that are more introspective than this pair. And it’s at this point that I’ll diverge and talk briefly about each, individually.
Lagum is a super producer, by any Ugandan standards. He plays many instruments and is able to produce many different genres of music at a high level. In fact, for a long time, he was known mostly as a producer. He is also a distinguished singer, who comes up with beautiful melodies and sings them in the most urban way, reminding one of both The Weeknd and Travis Scott. Someone so gifted in these two disciplines should not be able to stand out as a rapper, right? And yet, in my view, apart from Ruyonga (who some say is the best in the region) , Tucker HD, and sometimes Big Tril and Benny Black, no one can match his technical ability and sheer depth of content. He comes in with that triple threat. He conceives the instrumental, creates a beautiful hook for it and sings it (he has a studio in his house), and then crowns it all off with Ruyonga level verses. And he’s just 22. I’ve watched him perform a number of times. The first time I watched him, he had on stage to back him, this highly talented posse, Hidden Empire, that he was a part of. The energy and hype Lagum inspired was out of this world. They were all behind him dabbing vigorously and leaping triumphantly, in a manner similar to Kanye West’s performance in the UK, about two years ago, when he mobilised Skepta and other British rappers to cause mayhem on stage.
The most recent performance I witnessed was at the Born Free concert at Lugogo. First of all, the sound and lighting and set up were already at a different level. Lagum was the first performer. Each of the 3 brand new songs he performed was a journey of incredible depth. It reminded one of both Kendrick and J Cole in 2011, at the peak of their mixtape era. Lagum just went deep into that part where the soul and the brain meet, and left the crowds dumbfounded and excited at the same time.
It’s only fitting that I introduce Mal-X at this point because I believe, nobody personifies that Kendrick, J Cole soul, more than Mal. For context I’ll add Kanye in The College Dropout and Chance The Rapper in Coloring Book. Add to that mix, a slightly more Ugandan accent, quite a bit of Luganda, beautiful jazz instrumentals and you have Mal-X. Whereas the aforementioned artistes are multi-instrumentalists, Mal-X is a spoken word performer. He knows how to evoke emotion with words, with ambient music serving as a backdrop. What I really wonder about, is how he is able to get the producer to perform at the same high standard as himself. I’ve always been aware of Mal-X, but mostly as a wordsmith, you know, rapper with dope punchlines, and I’d also heard that he was doing poetry and spoken word. I was unable to listen to his project that he dropped late last year, with Simon Elly and Suspekt 92. But my goodness, a few months ago, thanks to The Tribe UG’s commitment to cataloguing Ugandan rap music, I came across Who am I?. This was a song by 92XEl featuring Ruyonga and Sulphuric (download it here). Mal-X kicked the song off, and he managed to outshine this great selection of distinguished rappers, based off, not on technical prowess or braggadocio (infact one of the things that sets Mal-X apart is his ability to sound humble as a rapper, and yet move people), but pure soul and honesty.
Today, I listened to the Song of many Colors EP (download it here). I had to play it thrice. This is a carefully woven project inspired by, and referencing, the story of Joseph in the Bible. Each of the 6 songs, is named after a stage, highlight, or theme, in Joseph’s story. However the story is clearly Mal’s, and Joseph isn’t even mentioned until guest rapper, 1der JR references him in his verse on the last song. The six songs are Dreams, The Pit, Slavery, Free, Power and Fine Linen & Gold Chains. I’ve never been so moved by an East African project as I was by this one. The maturity displayed here is remarkable. The last time I felt like this after listening to a project was J Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive which had songs like Apparently, Love Yourz etc. On one of the songs, Dreams, Mal-X actually cries on the track. And you are forced to empathize, whilst fighting your own tears.
Thank God for these musicians, who like Prince, Whitney Houston and Bob Marley before them, have volunteered their hearts and souls, selflessly laying them bare onto timeless songs, for the benefit of their insatiable audiences.
This article was first published on Kampala Times.