Like many relatively privileged Westerners visiting foreign lands I spend a lot of my time searching for something I already know about the place, rather than being swept up in the things I don’t. But the known “something” will be exotic, while the unknown “nothing” mundane. My emails home will be about famously strange customs rather than unexpected similarities, recognised examples of “the other” rather than common threads; my photos will be of red earth and barefooted children, not the bar where I sat and checked twitter.

If the country in question falls under the category of “developing nation” then it’s time to get on the trail of what one might call academic tourism, eschewing typical hotspots (like the source of the Nile in Uganda’s case) and going on the hunt for examples of poster-boy globalization, usually poetic juxtapositions that could double as a metaphor for our muddled era – the prize being a collection of smug little snapshots depicting rickety huts next to international logos, that sort of thing. It helps if you have one eyebrow raised when you take the photo, that way you can hide behind a veil of irony if questioned by the locals.

Coca Cola is, of course, a bulls eye in this game (after all it is the corporate equivalent of a global super power) but the second photo tells a more interesting story. Airtel is one of Africa’s most popular mobile networks. Originally set up in India, it is particularly famous in business circles for being the first mobile phone company in the world to outsource nearly all of its business operations (its network is maintained by Ericsson, Nokia Siemens and Huawei, its business support is provided by IBM and its transmission towers are maintained by Bharti Infratel Ltd). What it didn’t outsource, however, is its marketing. And, if you’re in Uganda, examples of its marketing are EVERYWHERE.

Airtel‘s advertising campaign is not, however, limited to making each roadside shopfront look like a scene from High Plain’s Drifter. They are now making a vigorous effort to hook the youth market. How are they doing this? With music.

Here is a recent television campaign for Airtel’s Friendzy (from neighboring Kenya):

The press release states:

This is not the first time the telco is using music as a key platform to connect to its youth market. In November last year, the company formed One8 – a musical supergroup that saw eight top artists from across the continent team up with international Hip Hop sensation R Kelly, who wrote and produced the group’s debut single Hands Across the World.
“We have always recognized the power music has to connect people all over Africa and, indeed, all over the world,” explains Andre Beyers, Chief Marketing Officer, Airtel Africa. “The youth in all our markets are an integral part of our business and, as a brand, we will continue to launch initiatives – such as Friendzy – that relate to and benefit them.” Africa is the home to over 1 billion people and is also the world’s youngest population. Under 25’s account for 60% of the total, compared with around 30% in developed countries.
The commercial is filmed over a jingle that was composed specially for the campaign. The music track is very upbeat in the currently popular house remix style and has the potential to be a big hit. The commercial is centered on an overall theme of ‘roping people in’ to encourage youth to strengthen their bonds with family and friends.

The most interesting thing about this campaign is that Airtel have only got it half right. The youth market is not being “roped in” by the use of a “currently popular house remix style” but rather the potential of using mobile phones to build personal networks with which to market their own music (much the same way as Myspace and Facebook grew out of the Friends Reunited phenomenon but soon became a platform to advertise creative projects). This comparison is not drawn lightly. The internet in most of Africa is not ubiquitous enough to be an effective distribution tool for artists – one look at the painted buildings above, however, illustrates the might of telecommunications at the moment. So that’s where we find the independent musicians, with phones stuffed full of audience members’ data.

Why am I talking about all this?

I was in Uganda with Un-Convention for a week long event/conference comprising panels, workshops and creative collaborations jointly set up by the British Council and DoaDoa East Africa Performing Arts Market. My role was to speak to local artists about building not only sustainable careers in music but also developing a sustainable scene in general.

So what did that first paragraph on preconceptions have to do with all the stuff about telecommunications and how does it fit in with this event?

Because, broadly speaking, when discussing the development of a sustainable and independently driven music sector in Uganda, cultural identity is half the issue and commercial reach is the other.

Many see Hip-Hop as a big problem, its rise and spread being a kind of musical Coca-Cola, all sugar and money with no nutritional substance. I spoke to one British Council staff-member who was worried that young Ugandan musicians were all being seduced by a specifically USA-inspired strand of aspirational rap so often associated with gangs and violence. Could this set Uganda back creatively?

Her ears weren’t deceiving her – pretty much every note of popular music I heard while I was in Uganda was hip-hop influenced. I admit I’m not a massive fan of the genre but I don’t see it as a problem here. For me it is simple: those of us that want to pursue a musical career without a musical education tend to fall into two broad categories – those who rock and those who rap. These are two genres where amateurs can operate unchallenged – the crucial trait in both camps being attitude rather than ability. Once you find your feet you begin to explore different creative avenues within and without the confines of the original framework and that’s when things start to get interesting. Also one must not forget that Hip-Hop is a great vehicle for spreading messages, political ones especially. It is nothing if not direct.

For me the moment of clarity in all this talk of music vs culture came when I was helping field questions at a creative entrepreneurism workshop run by Jørgen Damskau (a fascinating and lovely man – if you heard about Norway’s ice concerts then you are already familiar with some of his projects). We had been discussing how to use one’s national/cultural/geographical identity (whichever felt the most apt) to inform one’s relevance in not only a creative context but also an economical one.

A furious debate started.

One side believed that Ugandan hip-hop artists should look to traditional sources to augment their sound (so instead of using electronic samples use local percussionists versed in long-established forms); the other side thought it better to build up a modern Ugandan style from traditional sources (ie rapping over folk songs). From an outsiders point of view it seemed like the difference between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

And while this argument was happening one man started talking to me about the perils of national identity: “When I was at school they taught me to suppress what it was that made me Ugandan, to behave more Western, more civilized… now we talk about what it is to be Ugandan, like it’s a badge we can wear. The problem with wearing a badge is that people then only look at the badge, not what you are making or doing.”

And that’s the problem. Who decides what a nation’s identity is? The people who create and populate the strongest cultural image? Or the people who consume it (and inevitably paraphrase it) in different timezones, economies and contexts?

I realised then that I had, much to my shame, brought with me a version of Uganda that fitted my world view. Before I set off I researched into Ugandan music and found lots of hip-hop and thought “Yes Yes, but where’s the real Ugandan music?” And so I asked Twitter and Facebook and got all sorts of enthusiastic responses saying things like “don’t know about Uganda but here’s a great South African band…” (which is basically the same as saying “not sure about Welsh music but here’s some Italian”).

There is not one single Ugandan Sound any more than there is one single English Sound. To imagine such a thing is like people in Surrey thinking everyone in Yorkshire wears a flat cap and mutters “Ee bah gum” in the ear of t’ whippet. Of course, if you listen to Radio 4 you’ll know that plenty of people still do think that. So what chance does Uganda have, carving out a modern creative niche, with its war-torn past shouting so much louder?

But spending a week in the company of all those musicians was an inspiration. No, not gap year inspirational (I didn’t “find myself”), it was properly inspirational. Because people were listening to each other. Attendees of music conferences in Britain tend to be split between loud people who want everyone to know how important they are and quiet people who think they can get all the answers from the loud ones and then creep off to become a success too. Here, however, everyone had ideas. Not only that, everyone had the patience to listen to the ideas of others and the passion to argue a point until the idea worked better. There did not seem to be the usual overwhelming sense that artists were driven by the bald ambition of dominating the market, but rather there was a palpable understanding that the best way to progress is to work together.

None of the artists present at DoaDoa needed a group of Westerners to fly in and tell them how to develop their music industry, they were already recording and producing professional quality stuff. All they needed was a high profile event with a few big names to catch the imagination of the press and entice a bunch of young creatives to be in the same space at the same time enabling proper, progressive discussion. Sure it helps to get an outside point of view – one cannot operate effectively in an international context from a purely localized perspective – but we learned as much from being there as the people we were supposedly giving advice to, probably more. After all, the independent music sector in Britain uses the internet as its primary engine and that’s a pretty effective way of filtering (if not completely warping) reality, the greatest problem being that it is all too possible to use the web as a purely one-way broadcasting tool (how many bands have you encountered who spend all their time on Facebook shouting furiously into the abyss?). It’s a lot harder to use a phone that way, let alone a face-to-face encounter.

Music has always been about communication. Writing it, playing it, marketing it – they are all just different conversations (or different strands of the same conversation). And the important thing about a conversation is this: being heard can only ever be half the process.

I wonder if Airtel would like to use that as a slogan?

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