After a steady stream of phone-tag, Abramz and I finally found each other at Antonio’s – the closest thing I’ve seen to a local restaurant chain in East Africa. Sporting a hoodie, t-shirt, and baggie pants, I couldn’t help but feel immediately comfortable. It felt much more like talking to an old friend from Southern California than meeting a complete stranger in the middle of Uganda.
I didn’t know this when we met, but it turns out that Abramz, along with his older brother Sylvester, is one of Kampala’s premier hip-hop artists. Here’s their local hit, Lemarako, or “Hang On.” The lyrics are in Luganda, but the video is subtitled in English.
At just 24 years old, he’s already come a long way. And he knows it. When I was asking about his plans for the next year, an embarrassed smile spread over his face. A Danish organization has invited him to a conference next month. (It will be his first trip out of Africa.) A Dutch organization is seeking his help to set up a local radio station. And an organization here in Kampala is hoping to recruit him as their public speaker. Every week seems to bring a new opportunity.
Sitting across from Abramz this all makes sense. He waxes poetically about the potential of hip-hop and breakdancing to surmount Uganda’s many social divisions (tribes, classes, neighborhoods, languages, political affiliations) and its violent past. But 15 years ago, it didn’t seem like there was much to look forward to. Both of Abramz’s parents passed away when he was 8 years old. He and his three siblings moved in with their Auntie. Eight years later she too passed away and they moved once again; this time to their grandmother’s house. Four new teenagers proved to be a heavy burden on their aging grandmother. She was strict with them and didn’t have much money to help pay for their school fees, clothes, and books.
So Abramz – then Abraham – would use his artistic talent to draw charts and cartoons for his teachers and friends. It made him popular and he was able to earn pocket change. Using creative talent to hustle is a way of life in the ghetto, but Abramz had the smarts to look past the horizons of his neighborhood and the persistence to work his ass off. He also had a great love for hip-hop (Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, De La Soul) and started writing rhymes as early as 10-year-olds. His grandmother and extended family weren’t happy with his passion. They were sure it was the first step to a life of thuggery and drugs.
They were wrong. Instead, in February 2006, he formed Breakdance Project Uganda, which gives free breakdancing classes to young people in Kampala and, at times, throughout Uganda. If you’re ever in Kampala on a Monday or Wednesday night, stop by the Sharing Youth Center and there’s a good chance that some 10-year-old kid will teach you how to windmill.
We had already been talking for a couple hours at Antonio’s. I had some work to do and he had to meet with someone. We agreed to meet up later in the evening. As dusk descended and Kampala’s giant marabou storks took to their lamppost perches, I hopped on a boda boda – motorcycle taxi – to Abramz’s humble abode. In the US, even nominally well-known hip-hop artists tend to live as close a facsimile to MTV’s portrayal of life as possible. Abramz’s tiny one bedroom apartment is nearly empty save a desk, bed, laptop computer, and internet connection. In other words, everything you need to make it in the 21st century.
For the next four hours we watched video after video after video of the progress made by all the participants of Breakdance Project Uganda. The progress is tremendous, almost unbelievable. It even gave me hope that one day I too could breakdance. In total, I probably only saw 1/10th of the videos from all the CD-R’s Abramz keeps in a giant plastic bag. The giant collection of videos from Breakdance Uganda’s 18 month existence includes weekly practices in Kampala, a series of workshops in the violent north of Uganda, and free trainings at a juvenile prison, orphanage, and on the streets of poor neighborhoods. They’re all shot with a shaky, simple digital camera, but combined they are more than enough to produce a compelling internet documentary.
One of the first things that Abramz told me is what a difficult time he’s had believing in himself. Despite his obvious potential, he didn’t have the money to go to college. When he was younger he would sit nearby people he believed were inherently somehow better than he was and eavesdrop. “I wanted to know what they were discussing, I wanted to learn from them.” He still carries that spirit with him today. When he meets someone with skills he doesn’t have, he asks for help and learns from them. And, in return, he then spreads those skills to anyone who asks.
This is the same founding spirit of Breakdance Project Uganda. “Everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher” is a phrase Abramz echoes over and over when he talks about his project. He even modestly (and probably falsely) claims that he’s no longer the best dancer among the group and that he learns new moves from his former students.
Abramz has also had a lot of help along the way. Three volunteers, in particular have been instrumental in taking the spirit of Breakdance Project Uganda and spreading throughout the rest of the country: Gulu, Mbale, and a number of orphanages and schools inside and outside of Kampala. They are: Abdul Muyingo, Zziwa Hakim, Antonio Bukhar. Again, stop by the Sharing Youth Center and I’ll be they will be willing to teach you a move or two.
As the videos, one after one, played on the laptop, Abramz explained how breakdancing leads to social change. First of all, he insists that no one pays for classes, certainly not the poor kids, but not the rich ones either. He’s turned down several offers from wealthier families and students who offered to pay the rental fees where they practice and other associated costs. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they own the project,” he says. “I don’t want the rich kids to feel like they are any better and I don’t want the poor kids to feel like they’re relying on anyone else.”
The project began with just one student. Slowly the word got out, the culture of underground hip-hop grew stronger, and the dance studio began to fill up. “At first everyone was divided. You know, it’s natural. All the poor kids were in one corner, all the rich kids were in another. Kids from the poor school would be in one corner and kids from the international school would all be huddled together.”
“It was impossible to get them to work together,” Abramz says with a knowing smile. “So I said ‘fine’ and I divided them into the groups that they had already divided themselves into and I sent them to different corners of the room. But then …” (with his eyebrows raised and an emphasis in tone that is uniquely East African) … “I went around the room from group to group and I taught each group how to do a new move that they wanted to learn. But I taught each group a different move. And pretty soon …” (another big smile) … “they started looking around and pointing. They wanted to learn what the other groups learned. And that’s how they started working together and teaching each other.”
It’s truly Amazing – with a capital A – to watch the group’s most recent performances. They are now invited to theaters and clubs. They are getting paid for their dancing. In just a year and a half they’ve become semi-professional dancers. Young men from different tribes, different classes, different neighborhoods – individuals who would have never had spoken to one another two years ago – are now dancing partners.
And their passion for hip-hop has given them reason to network with other breakdancers around the world. Minneapolis rapper Toki Wright (now touring with Brother Ali) has come to give rapping workshops. Canadian hip-hop dancer, Jessica Dexter, has visited and helped coreograph a recent performance. Abramz’s charimsa is responsible for much of the attention, but the students-turned-teachers are the ones who are now starting to look for fellow breakdancers in Europe and the US to see what they are up to. And European and American tourists arriving in Uganda are starting to hear about the program and coming by for lessons. Abramz described the amazed expression of a young kid from a poor part of Kampala when he was told he’d be teaching a blonde European twice his age how to dance.
On the international stage it is almost always Westerners who are offering help, assistance, education, and skills to Africans. Offering help is obviously no crime. But Breakdance Project Uganda enables local – and often poor – African youth to be in the position where it is the Westerners who come asking for help. And that builds a type of self-confidence that most semi-paternalistic NGO’s couldn’t dream of. It also creates an international conversation between the West that is more than scambaiting, more than ‘show me your tribal tattoos,’ and more than ‘how can I help you/how can you help me.’
Abramz doesn’t want your help. Not from your wallet anyway. He wants you to come by Kampala. He wants you to take classes for free at Sharing Youth Center. And if you’ve got the skills – either in rhyming or b-boying – he wants you to share those skills. Drop by their MySpace page, give them a shoutout, and think about whether or not you really want to visit Hawaii’s crowded beaches on your next vacation.