Bobi Wine’s heroes share a single trait: “They are people who stood for what was right, regardless of what kind of terror they were faced with,” he says in a telephone interview.
Wine is speaking from the United States, where he fled to seek medical attention for injuries sustained while in detention at a military barracks.
Nelson Mandela. Fela Kuti. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. Wine rattles off the names without thinking — this is a question he has thought about. Their inspiration is obvious in Wine’s startling effective challenge to the status quo in Uganda.
Already, his political activism has altered the country’s political landscape, bringing disaffected youth onto the streets and into the ballot boxes and forcing violent overreactions from a panicked ruling elite.
Wine has been tortured —although President Yoweri Museveni has dismissed these reports as “fake news”—and earned a treason charge for his troubles.
Wine names one more hero but this one is a little more surprising. “It’s unfortunate that among my role models is the young President Museveni. At my age he used to say exactly what I say, he used to stand for human rights and he detested dictatorship. It’s just unfortunate that he probably got drunk on power and changed his course.”
Look back and the echoes of history are obvious. Take this: “Freedom of speech is a right of the people and not a favour from the government,” said Museveni in 1980. And, from the same year: “Even leaders can turn into bad people. If something falls in milk, you must not let it stay there —but remove it before the milk gets bad. We should be careful. We must not only praise ourselves, but critic[ise] ourselves too or, the movement fails.”
But the milk has long curdled, says Wine, and Museveni —in power for more than three decades —has overstayed his welcome. Uganda needs change and Wine has put himself at the forefront of making that change.
“I was just a musician, doing my music and having fun. But I saw that the situation at my home was only getting worse. One of the reasons it was getting worse was because of my silence and the silence of many people who are blessed with a voice to speak out.
“I decided I’m not going to keep quiet about the injustices, and maybe by speaking out I will encourage other people to get confidence and also speak out, and it happens to be happening that way,” he said.
Born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, Wine —now 36 —grew up in a crowded Kampala slum before breaking out as one of Uganda’s most famous reggae stars.
“Wine is a nickname I got as a musician, it means the older I grow the better I become,” he said.
Wine’s musical career may have been the perfect introduction to politics. As he sang on his 2012 hit By Far: “My father said there’s more politics in the music industry/ Than in the Parliament.”
Wine argues that his humble roots, rather than his celebrity, is key to his success —both in the pop charts and in politics.“My message has resonated so much with ordinary Ugandans because I am an ordinary Ugandan, personally. I don’t come from any of the upper classes…I’ve been a musician but even when I became a celebrity musician, I was only representative of the common life. That’s why they nicknamed me Ghetto President, because I’m a ghetto musician. Even when I became a star I did not stop identifying myself with the people where I come from.”
As his own political consciousness grew, so his lyrics became more combative, tackling issues such as corruption, bad governance and social justice. Last year, he ran for parliament, and won.
Subsequently, two other independent candidates have won parliamentary by-elections after receiving a Bobi Wine endorsement.
The ruling elite is seriously rattled, and has responded with disproportionate force: security forces have attacked several demonstrations inspired by Wine and dozens of his supporters have been arrested.
Despite the violence of the backlash, Wine insists that he remains undeterred.
He is scheduled to return to Uganda this week and is unsure whether he will be arrested or worse.
“I will just continue what I have been doing, encouraging Ugandans to get involved in the leadership of their country, to play their part, to stand up and demand their rights.”