St. Nelly-sade: Luga-flo lyricist, emcee, poet and thinker
When I listen to his latest album, I can’t stop but muse that, by and by, future Ugandan hip-hop critiques, collectors, practitioners, etc. will reflect upon his music as a one of a kind archetype and use it to school and inspire the coming hip-hop generations in Uganda.
Written by Lutakome ‘Felix’ Fidelis
Recently I had a very interesting discourse with Nsubuga Nelson, also known as St. Nelly-sade (quite a long name—rappers usually have one instead of three). It was a lengthy one, mostly about the consummate artiste’s rap career.
Our conversation constantly fluctuated within the different levels of developments he has encountered as a hip-hop artiste, along the path to his craft mastery and his role in Uganda’s hip-hop scene.
Nelly-sade’s paradoxical character is quite intriguing: The contrasting mixture of his extremely humble disposition when outside the music studio booth and his deliberate aggressiveness and lyrical assertiveness displayed over a hip-hop beat, rather renders him a complex, but simple, remarkable person. And he houses a lot of surprises that he only seem to release on special occasions.
However, what really beat my mind was the mere fact that, when you’re talking to him, he can’t really elaborate on even half of the things that he raps about in some of his songs. Perhaps it was me who kept my expectations too high, but before the interview I had really anticipated some really deep conversation from the brother. But—tout ensemble—it was really good chatting with him.
I have known emcees to be very talkative (meaningful talk, of course) people, especially if they’re conscious emcees. To express some deep rhetoric even outside the booth, and yeah, I personally feel it shouldn’t stop in the studio. A lot of emcees do/say things differently outside the booth, but I feel if you choose to call yourself something it also usually makes a lot of sense to live it. And that also brings draws out hip-hop’s 5th element (knowledge) in you. I’m just saying.
An underground rapper
I asked him about how and when he got into rapping: “I started rapping in 2004 when I was still in S.2, so it’s like now 8, 9 years.”
To which he added, after I asked him if he considers himself mainstream or underground, that:
“I’m an underground artist, because I don’t usually play on the local stations, I don’t do music shows. Those are some of the elements of an underground artist. Once in a while, you can hear my music on one or two radio stations, but people usually get my music from the internet.”
The brother apparently embraces his underground status—during the interview he assured me that he is proud to be underground.
And that reminds me; I really don’t understand if being underground is cooler than being exposed or whatever the antonym is. I mean … for me the confusion comes from rappers self-proclaiming how underground they are, with a lot pride, and then come round and complain about radios refusing to play their music.
If you want your message to be disseminated to a wider audience, how do you expect that to happen, if you just sit back and embrace your musical status?
I mean, it fully makes sense if that’s what a rapper chooses, but—to all rappers out there—don’t call yourself underground just because the media is not yet agreeably receptive to your work. Call yourself underground because that’s what you want and because you are confident about your skills.
And personally, I think you should leave it to the audience to name your category.
A reincarnation of your grandfather’s wisdom
Today, when you listen to him rap, you notice experience, maturity and deep subtlety. He is a prolifically consummate lyricist, thinker and poet who, from the dexterity and novelty that he displays, is actually among the short list of Ugandan rappers.
“I didn’t just wake up and started rapping, but I loved hip-hop even when I was young. I used to listen to people like Tupac, Nas, Scarface and Dilated people, so (with those people) I got an inspiration to start rapping.
On the other side, I was also touched by the Tanzanian hip-hop industry. Those days, in early 2000, I started listening to people like Juma Nature, Professor Jay and the likes of A.Y. So that also added some inspiration towards my career.”
His distinctness is mainly plunged by his artistic Afro-centrism. And style—Luga flo—which is elementarily centered in his native language, in which he employs complex Luganda syntax and diction characteristic of the traditional usage of the language and uses it to deliver his gospel.
So when you’re listening to him the feeling and mood evoked are a bit nostalgic, because they are similar, or so, to what you would experience and feel while listening to an elder who is enthusiastically proud of his native culture and traditions.
In other words, it’s like a reincarnation of your grandfather’s mind or wisdom—or something of that sort. But despite of all this, he never loses his impulses of wanting to impart constructive knowledge and entertain at the same time.
Social values and moral behaviour
Among other songs on his latest album, Tula twogele says it all. The way he comes across on this opus is a bit nativistic, but that’s also kind of what guarantees the qualities of one’s artistic identity and unparalleledness in Uganda’s hip-hop scene today. This exquisite opus is a self-proclamation of his extensive knowledge and comprehension on his native-cultural norms and values. Quite distinct, because that’s a dangerous stance to take, especially if you’re not really what you claim to be, like a lot of Ugandan novice mainstream commercial rap artists do nowadays. On this same track he also muses about the various social values and moral behaviours in everyday life.
His distinct traits have evoked a somewhat substantial stature for him in the Ugandan real hip-hop elite inner circle, that mainly involves real hip-hop artists and fans who strongly acknowledge and appreciate the true essence of rap music and hip-hop in general.
Yesteryear’s hustles and milestones
The track Nzijukira, which translates as “I remember”, is mainly retrospective; he chews over his personal history from the time he established himself as a rapper till present day.
Still on this track Nelly-sade lyrically gives you a ride through his yesteryear’s hustles and milestones, however, what not to miss is his subtle form of lyrical delivery and factual treat. It makes the song quite an impressive rhapsody, and also, due to its elemental portrayal of the recent average “Ugandan hip-hop/rap reality” and a bit of its “historical norms”, it denotes quite enough about the rap scene in Uganda. Its allegorical and allusive quality bespeaks a keen mind to be ascertained.
His brilliant usage and infusion of anecdotage makes the track appealing, not solely to the rappers and hip-hop fans but also to anyone who appreciates the art of storytelling. At the same time it does retain and convey homage towards some of Uganda’s long-established hip-hop veterans and up-and-coming novices.
The quality of the sounds on his latest album embodies some poetic elements of a typical real hip-hop opus, such as rhyme, metaphors, allegory, wordplay, allusion etc. Reason and purpose are evidently present behind his music, and they can be felt when one listens and internalizes the ideas, philosophy, enlightenment and reality that he projects to his audience.
A growing industry
I always like to hear people’s thoughts on Uganda hip-hop, so asked him in which direction he thought the industry will go:
“The scene is growing because right now people are appreciating even the underground voices. People (emcees) do different languages, and they’ve started to appreciate where they come from. A lot of native languages are coming on the scene—languages like Lusoga, Rukiga, Runyankole, Luganda—I mean, name them!”
He further alluded and contrasted Ugandan hip-hop music now with for instance 2005: “At that time people were only appreciating English; even Luganda could not get that enough radio airplay.”
He says things are changing to the better because “people are also representing Uganda internationally. It’s really dope”.
Indeed it is—but that change is also bilateral!
How? On one hand it does create more opportunities for more hip-hop artists in Uganda and stature for the scene, which is terrific. But on the other hand, it can also choke the same scene if the “international representatives” are keep getting it wrong and end up creating a fad instead.
My hypothesis, however, is that what Ugandan hip-hop needs to grow is not an “American feel”, as it is currently being adopted by many Ugandan rappers, but rather a “real hip-hop feel”. Period.
When I listen to the latest album of St. Nelly-sade, I can’t stop but muse that, by and by, future hip-hop critiques, collectors, practitioners, etc will reflect upon his music as a one of a kind archetype, and use it to school and inspire the coming hip-hop generations in Uganda.
Lutakome ‘Felix’ Fidelis is a Ugandan freelance writer who mainly writes about hip-hop culture. His major focus is to create awareness of underground hip-hop artists and events.