It had been a difficult week for Lady Slyke, host of Uganda’s popular NewzBeat show. The crew was planning a multipart special on agricultural entrepreneurship, requiring additional rehearsal time, and the rainy season had descended on the lush country about 50 miles from the equator. The mosquitoes had already begun their assault. Lady Slyke was stricken with malaria, making it near impossible for her to “follow the beat, follow the beat … from the studio to the street,” as she intones on the show each week.
“I am a rapper, and when I get something written — even though it is in a news format — I read it in a beat. If the writing is not rhyming, we have practice and practice until it rhymes before we do anything else,” Slyke, still recovering, says from her office. Nonetheless, Slyke and a farm-costumed crew pulled together the show, informing viewers about potential careers in agribusiness.
Tuning into hip-hop news is fairly foreign to Western countries. However, in Uganda, where the press remains a state-run affair and fully half of the population is under age 15, a program in which self-styled “rap-orters” broadcast with “rhyme and reason” is hitting the right note. Formerly led by Daniel Kisekka, aka Survivor, who left last year to focus on his arts career, NewzBeat is now helmed by news veteran Lady Slyke (born Sharon Bwogi). Considered Uganda’s queen of hip-hop, the 31-year-old is joined by Jay Sentino and a cast of younger artists including Zoe Kabuye, age 18 and also known as MC Loy; Zion Sheebah (Slyke’s 10-year-old daughter); and gospel rapper MC Yallah.
With a female anchor, gender equality and women’s empowerment are at the forefront of the show’s editorial. NewzBeat also questions and counters harmful stereotypes and sociocultural norms around gender, highlighting achievements of women in typically male fields such as technology, science and business. A recent edition ran a segment on Africa’s first female disabled model; others have featured Nigeria’s first female mechanic, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and South African girls launching a satellite into space.
“I love knowing. I love teaching. I teach people what I know, and we’re exchanging views while rhyming the conversation,” Slyke tells OZY. “And we have to keep talking because the news in Uganda doesn’t hit the political issues like it should. Some of our leaders are liars, some are doing their jobs, and the people need to know.”
The power of music is that it sidesteps some of the censorship applied to traditional journalism.
Paul Falzone, founder of Peripheral Vision International
Although Bwogi has been rapping about current events as Lady Slyke since she was 13, hosting a national news show wasn’t in her playbook until 2013, when Peripheral Vision International (PVI), a nongovernmental organization that creates advocacy media, called for an audition. PVI was looking to combine the public service announcements it had been showing in local video halls with news and music.
“The power of music is that it sidesteps some of the censorship applied to traditional journalism. And hip-hop has a power and a clarity that is often overlooked,” says Paul Falzone, the founder and executive director of PVI. “When we knew we wanted to work with hip-hop, we went to the source.”
Lady Slyke and Survivor, who served as her co-anchor and NewzBeat’s former head writer, were among the first to create and popularize “Lugaflow” — a genre of rap blending English with Luganda, the native language of Uganda, to advocate truth and change for the future of the country’s youth.
“While many traditionalists may dismiss NewzBeat as purely entertainment, it is covering a wider variety of news stories in a less restricted way than what passes for national news on the major networks,” Falzone says.
NewzBeat first aired in 2012 on NTV (Uganda National Television) before the station’s regular Saturday news bulletins. It has since expanded to spotlight four local, regional and international stories per week; no subject is off-limits, and a recurrent focus is news on corruption, intolerance and reproductive rights.
“I grew up hearing people do rap music; it’s in African culture,” says MC Loy, who was just 12 when she rapped for Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, at an event celebrating the country’s 50 years of independence. “NewzBeat is an astonishing form of education — and it elevated hip-hop to the next level. A lot of people used to think it was from the ghetto. Now that we’re on TV delivering news, we’re respected.”
Like Loy, Slyke was spurred on to make music by a sibling after she started imitating a local DJ called Berry, who rapped and scratched records on the radio. “Whenever I heard him, I felt like rapping too,” Slyke recalls. “My sister kept on encouraging, and I kept on training until I started performing on different shows, including Berry’s.”
Slyke entered the Ugandan music scene — “a man’s world, for the most part,” she says — in the late 1990s, writing songs about her experiences, both social and political, and performing at festivals, including the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts and Breakdance Project Uganda. In 2005, when her song “Mother Africa” won best hip-hop hit at the Pearl of Africa Music Awards, Slyke was credited with being one of Uganda’s leading ladies of rap.
It’s a title she wears with pride. But these days the TV show is her main avocation. “NewzBeat is a voice for the people by the people to the people. It delivers conscious, social, educative and political news and much more.” What would she put at the top of the list?
“Eradicating malaria this week,” Slyke says, pausing for a story rhyme: “If you feel feverish, you had better get checked/ Because if it’s malaria, you might be wrecked/ This disease can still be deadly/ Your best bet is to catch it early/ And even if you don’t feel like it, take those anti-malarials to strike it … down.”
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