Porn or pop? Ugandan singer faces 10 years in jail

US evangelical preachers, rather than pop stars such as Jemimah Kansiime, receive rock star welcomes in Uganda. (AFP)

US evangelical preachers, rather than pop stars such as Jemimah Kansiime, receive rock star welcomes in Uganda. (AFP)

Bouncing and grinding singer Jemimah Kansiime’s music video was a hit among her Ugandan fans, but not for conservative politicians who say it broke a tough new antipornography law.

The 21-year-old singer, who uses the stage name Panadol wa Basajja – literally, “medicine for men” – has already spent five weeks in jail after her arrest for a music video that gives a lingering and generous focus on wet and soapy buttocks.

Now she faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty in the first full trial under the law, which took effect in February 2014, that critics such as Human Rights Watch say so loosely defines pornography it has encouraged public attacks on women wearing skimpy clothing.

Critics say it is part of a growing antiliberal movement that includes tough laws against homosexuals in Uganda, where religion-driven conservatism appears to be on the rise and where US evangelical preachers, rather than pop stars such as Kansiime, often receive rock star welcomes.

“I was aware that there are some sections of society that are conservative,” said the singer, smoothing her rainbow coloured hair extensions that always cover one eye.

But one thing she thought she had learnt from her idols, including Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, is that sex sells.

“I was just experimenting to see if I put on a short dress, will the audience like it?” said the singer.

She made the video that has placed her in hot water last year for her song Nkulinze – or “I am waiting for you” – about “a young lover’s intimate fantasies”.

It has proved popular and the video has been watched more than 140 000 times on YouTube. But Kansiime said she never dreamt that writhing in her underwear was breaking the law. She and her then manager Didi Muchwa Mugisha were arrested in November.

Mugisha pleaded guilty and was fined 200 000 Ugandan shillings (about R800), but Kansiime pleaded not guilty and was held for five weeks before raising the cash bail.

“When I was making that video I never intended it for children, I intended it for adults.
I did not sell or distribute the song,” said Kansiime, wearing a short, leopard-print dress with tiny straps, revealing a push-up bra underneath.

“My rights have been trampled upon, my freedom of expression has been trampled upon,” she told AFP in her tin-shack home in capital city Kampala.

Shocked minister
Her lawyer, Isaac Semakadde, argues that the case is a test for the right of Ugandan performers to “express themselves”.

“That right to erotic entertainment, there has to be a space for it in an open and free society,” he said, saying divisions must be made between entertainment and clearly criminal offences such as child pornography.

“To ban all forms of pornography, all forms of nudity, is outrageous,” he said.

Kansiime was tracked down and arrested after Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo was shocked at the video. Lokodo has recently boasted that he and his “intelligence team” of spies are “on the ground” watching such singers closely.

“That’s why Panadol was arrested,” he said, describing her videos as “very obscene and vulgar”, and warning of more arrests.

The former priest said singers such as Rihanna were “the type of people I’m condemning”.

“She’s a very provocative dancer ... there’s nothing at all good there,” he said.

In his continued crackdown on pornography, Lokodo has this year ordered police to arrest men who procure prostitutes and described a popular local television dating show as prostitution. Local media reported that he had confronted Uganda’s youngest MP when she walked into Parliament in a short skirt.

Semakadde has accused the ethics ministry of ignoring more pressing issues.

“The decadence in society does not start and stop with prostitution,” he said. “There’s corruption, but they have no answers to that so they go for the most vulnerable.”

‘Overbroad and vague’ law
Kansiime is due next in court later this month. But Semakadde said he will request that the case is halted while the Constitutional Court deals with a separate petition brought by activists against the law, arguing that it is “overbroad and vague”.

Amnesty International has called for the law to be repealed and Semakadde ultimately wants it scrapped, too.

Inspired by her struggle, Kansiime’s next song tackles unemployment.

As she awaits her next court appearance, she insists she has the right to film “whatever I want”, but conceded that she may need to cater for more conservative tastes if she is to make a living from her music.

“I have to do something that people like, I have not benefited from that video,” she admitted.

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