Debut vibes

Ugandan singer-songwriter Awori touches on living in exile and taking a stand in new album

By Eva Sauphie

Posted on March 20, 2021 12:22

In her debut release titled Ranavalona – after the last queen of Madagascar, Ranavalona III – the Ugandan artist Awori sings and raps about cultural dislocation and state violence.

Awori’s voice is soft and smooth, even when she’s rapping and even though the lyrics of her debut album Ranavalona (released via Galant Records) call on listeners to remain resilient. Born on 8 March, International Women’s Day, the 32-year-old singer pays tribute to the last queen of Madagascar, who ruled the country from 1883 to 1897.

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“We don’t hear enough about this resistance figure who was forced into exile as the French colonised Madagascar. Her story also echoes the forced migration our African brothers and sisters are facing today all over the continent,” says the Kampala-born artist.

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Nostalgia for Uganda

Awori was 11 when her parents decided to move to Switzerland, where they hoped a brighter future awaited them. “I couldn’t speak a word of French when we got there. I had to adapt to the new surroundings and learn the country’s social codes,” says the artist, who grew up listening to Miriam Makeba, another prominent exile figure.

On several tracks, Awori sings in her mother’s native tongue, Luganda, allowing her to reconnect with her cultural roots – a necessity seeing as she currently splits her time between Geneva, Paris and Lyon. In the song “Nkomawo”, which means “I’m coming back”, the singer grapples with cultural dislocation and her nostalgia for Uganda.

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But geographic distance hasn’t kept Awori, who was raised on Congolese rumba, hip hop and R&B beats, from maintaining ties with her home country. Her tune “Cortex Luxta” was played at Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival, one of the largest electronic music events in East Africa. “My dream is to perform there someday,” she says. For now, as the global pandemic runs its course, she has to settle for promoting her debut effort from behind a screen.

Taking inspiration from Bobi Wine

Over the electro-soul beats of French producer Twani, Awori also sings of the injustices, state violence and police brutality faced by Afropeans and Africans alike. “The track ‘Viscera’ is a call to action and a reminder of our collective power because change isn’t going to happen from the top down, but from the bottom up,” says Awori, who is persuaded that musical activism has an impact on audiences.

The artist is also a devoted fan of the Ugandan singer and opposition leader Bobi Wine. “Wine, much like the legendary Ugandan group Afrigo Band, is part of a tradition of activist musicians who communicate political messages through music. Having lived in a slum himself, he knows what it’s like to be a poor person in Kampala and has always been on the side of everyday people. But now he is being punished for his opinions and has become a constant target of the police,” says Awori, noting that living in Europe shields her from such treatment.

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That said, the singer knows the bulk of her audience is in the English-speaking world. Indeed, most of her lyrics are in the language of Shakespeare, while her music taps into British genres like dubstep and grime. “There’s a huge Ugandan community in the UK,” she says, “and I have high hopes of introducing them to my music.”

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