Meet Kampire, the Ugandan DJ bringing new rhythms to dance music

By Selim Bulut

On a Saturday night in Black Flamingo, a cramped basement venue in Brooklyn, New York City, Kampire is blasting out a set of body-shaking, high energy African electronic music. The DJ, who grew up in Zambia before moving to Kampala in Uganda, has built a reputation for her energetic DJ gigs, which are filled with the most innovative sounds from Africa and beyond: Afro-house, Latin bass, St Lucian soca, Congolese soukous, baile funk, kudoro, gqom, and other, currently nameless and undefinable genres coming out of studios in Kampala.

The high octane tempos and twisting polyrhythms are a far cry from the familiar four-to-the-floor pulse of house and techno, but the crowd is up for it. “It’s always a big surprise when people respond well to my music,” Kampire tells me a day before the show. “I started out playing for my friends in my city. Seeing that the music translates across borders is really cool.”

It’s Kampire’s first ever gig in the United States, organised for the New York City edition of Red Bull Music Festival. The party at Black Flamingo is a showcase for Nyege Nyege, the Ugandan festival and arts collective that Kampire is a member of. Over the past couple of years, Nyege Nyege (whose name comes from a word in Luganda for ‘the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake, or dance’) has become a vital component in the international underground electronic music scene: besides the festival, they have two record labels to their name, and they’ve helped break cutting edge talent from across the African continent. It’s been a whirlwind ride for Kampire herself, having played everywhere from Stockholm to Shanghai, and recorded mixes for agenda-setting outlets like Resident Advisor, Boiler Room, and Dekmantel festival – not bad, considering she only started DJing in 2015. Tonight is a triumphant moment for Kampire and for Nyege Nyege at large, showing just how much their hard work has paid off.

Or at least, that’s what it was meant to be. In the end, Kampire was the only ambassador for Nyege Nyege playing on the night. Her labelmates, Tanzanian artists Duke and MCZO, were also booked to perform, but they were denied entry into the US, their month-long visa application rejected at the last minute. “In the end,” they wrote in a statement, “nothing could prove that we did not intend to run away illegally once checked in at our Holliday Inn.” A day before the gig, I met Kampire at Red Bull’s offices in Manhattan, where she dropping in for a guest slot on Vivan Host’s Peak Time show on Red Bull Radio. She expressed her frustration over Duke and MCZO’s visa situation: a white DJ can freely travel the world and play African music to club audiences; meanwhile, the actual artists who created this music face numerous impediments, unable to reach a global audience even as the appetite for their music grows.

Still, Kampire remains optimistic about the future of her scene, even though she is acutely aware of the restrictions increasingly being placed on the movement of people. “In five years, I would love to see many more African acts and artists getting booked,” she says. “I hope that this attention opens the door for a lot of artists, rather than being a flash-in-the-pan thing where it’s trendy for a little bit and people say it’s the next big thing – and then it’s over. Hopefully this is not a case of that, and people are paying more attention to African music, and wanting to engage equitably rather than exoticising it.”

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get involved in your local underground electronic music scene?

Kampire: When my friends put on the first Nyege Nyege festival, they asked me and a couple of friends to help them, and through that, I got involved in both planning the festival and meeting a bunch of underground African artists. I’ve always been into music. Around 2014, just before Nyege Nyege, I went to Sauti Za Busara, which is a festival in Zanzibar, with a friend. I think that was the point where I thought festival people are my people, people who want to travel the African continent and follow musicians and get really excited about music. So I kept going to festivals after that, but really, it all started with Nyege Nyege, and going to those parties. My friend was like, “Oh, you should DJ at one of our parties,” and it just expanded from that.

What was missing in the Ugandan scene that the festival needed to fill?

Kampire: I think that in Uganda, Nyege Nyege was the first multi-day festival with camping and 24-hour music. I think in east Africa, we hadn’t really had anything like that before. There was one festival in Kenya that used to happen, called Rift Valley, which had one or two editions then stopped. So there was definitely a community in east Africa of people – artists, and also music lovers – who were looking for something like that, and really wanted to come together around another event. Because it’s a small community, everyone knows each other, so it’s an opportunity for everyone to put something into that.

What was your first DJ set like?

Kampire: It was great! I didn’t know how to mix at all, I was playing one song after the other. It was in front of a combined community of friends, or friends of friends, so a warm, welcoming crowd – but I was definitely shocked by how well people responded. I still remember that first set with everyone cheering and clapping. I thought, “Oh wow, people are actually into this.” I think that feeling, from the very first set, has kept me going over the past few years.

Kampire at Red Bull Music Presents: Nyege Nyege in Brooklyn, May 18, 2019Photography Anna Maria Lopez / Red Bull Content Pool

How did growing up in Kampala influence your relationship with music?

Kampire: In the 80s and 90s, Congolese soukous was very much the dominant sound of African pop. My dad was really into soukous from the 60s and 70s. When I was a little bit older, I got into the people like M.I.A., Buraka Som Sistema, and batida. People were remixing a lot of Afro tracks, and that was what opened my eyes to that connection between club music and the older music that I really enjoyed.

What was that feeling like, making that connection?

Kampire: It was actually deeply meaningful for me at the time. I went to university here in the US. That feeling of homesickness when you’re an expat, you’d go on YouTube and get really obsessed with music from your home country. So at the time that I remember it being really emotionally meaningful for me, even though I wasn’t in any way thinking about DJing ten years ago. But ten years later, I was like, “These are the sounds I want to hear on big speakers in the club, so why is this not being played in Kampala?” In Kampala, we love to dance, and we love music that will make you dance – this music should be played out here.

“A lot of the representation of African music is from white dudes in tropical shirts – God bless them! It’s really important that Africans get to speak for themselves and represent their own music” – Kampire

Whereabouts in the US did you study?

Kampire: In Ohio. I was pretty much like, “I have to get out of here as soon as possible,” because it was in the middle of nowhere. I had a friend that had family in Ohio, so when I was applying to university, it was actually one of the places I knew somebody. When I was a kid, I always wanted to go to school in the US, which was probably just a response to American media propaganda.

Middle-of-nowhere Ohio doesn’t sound like it has much of a clubbing scene..

Kampire: No. It was just like a typical student town experience. I was always into clubbing, since I was a teenager in Zambia, so I kept doing it (once I returned to Kampala). I always say to friends how surprised I am that I ended up in this field, because I consider myself a bit of an introvert.

Kampire performs at Red Bull Music Presents: Nyege Nyege in Brooklyn, May 18, 2019 Photography Anna Maria Lopez / Red Bull Content Pool

It’s hard to guess why people react to things the way they do, but do you have any hunches as to why people were so drawn to the music you play?

Kampire: I think that there’s a lot more intentional interest in African music (at the moment), so that a part of it. I also think that there are not a lot of DJs who are African who are fronting African music. A lot of the representation of African music is from white dudes in tropical shirts – God bless them! It’s really important that Africans get to speak for themselves and represent their own music, and get paid and get booked to play their own music. I think people are looking for that kind of thing.

There’s a very European tendency to exoticise music coming out of places like Uganda, to not see it as a living culture but as this ‘pure’ folk music. Have you encountered that?

Kampire: Yeah. There are young, contemporary African producers that have the same diverse influences that someone anywhere else would. We have electronic music, and music that doesn’t necessarily sound like an outsiders’ idea of what ‘African music’ sounds like. We definitely have to be a little bit careful when people show interest. We always want to make sure they know what they’re showing interest in.

“A lot of the questions that are being asked of women DJs should be asked of male DJs and promoters. What are they doing about making the scene more inclusive?” – Kampire

Are there any other international scenes that you see yourself in conversation with?

Kampire: In the past year, being invited to play at these parties, I’ve been more aware of the scenes in the UK and in Lisbon. I played with some guys in Switzerland who make this global Afrobass, baile funk type of thing. I think this type of music connects with a lot of people around the world.

I do want to say that there are a lot of African festivals – smaller, more independent festivals  like Africa Bass Culture, which is in Burkina Faso, and Africa Nouveau, which is in Kenya – who are trying to take risks in terms of their programming. Because the music market in Uganda is much smaller, promoters feel less able to take risks, and therefore if there’s money anywhere, it’s going to be spent on mainstream, big stars, but these smaller festivals are really trying to create venues for wonderful African acts who a lot of times get booked more outside of the continent rather than inside where there music is from.

You’re often asked about subjects like feminism and homophobia in interviews. Do you ever feel like you’re being asked this more often than other artists because of where you’re from?

Kampire: The ‘female DJ’ question is a double-edged sword. It’s always nice to get attention, but sometimes it’s like… (sighs)

Reductive?

Kampire: Yeah. A lot of the questions that are being asked of women DJs should be asked of male DJs and promoters. What are they doing about making the scene more inclusive? At first, I was like, “It’s great that people are paying attention to this idea of inclusivity and diversity.” But if people are like, “We’re going to talk to Kampire, a woman DJ from Uganda!”, I want the conversation to go beyond that. Like, what does it mean that there are more women DJs coming up in Uganda today? Or, what does it mean to be a female DJ where women’s safety is more of a concern?

You’re gigging a lot more around the world nowadays. How are you balancing your involvement with things back in Uganda with being a front-facing international artist?

Kampire: It’s definitely something that’s been on my mind now I’m playing more outside of Uganda – even outside of the continent, rather than within Africa. I never want to be one of those DJs whose audience is completely outside, so it’s very important to me to remain involved in the scene there and to play Kampala as much as I can. (When I started) I wanted to travel to other African festivals, so it’s definitely very important to me that the scene there is being developed, and that my work internationally feeds in rather than takes away from its roots.

I’m going to ask the question that all DJs inevitably get asked, which is whether you’re interested in producing music yourself?

Kampire: I’m getting my toes wet in terms of recording. I’m starting to produce a little bit. That’s still very fresh and new. Kampala is full of artists, it’s such a fertile space that it would be stupid of me to not take advantage of all the talented and cool people who are there and collaborate with them. I don’t even know if I’ll be any good as a producer, but it’s something worth exploring. The fact that there are very few east African women producers make me feel like I have to at least try it out.

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