Hibo Elmi - who produces, raps, designs and DJs under the alias Hibotep - was born in Somalia and arrived in Kampala, Uganda in 2012. In the seven subsequent years, an electronic music scene has blossomed in the city, giving it a global reputation as an emerging underground hotspot. Hibo is a central figure in that scene, alongside her contemporaries she brings together East Africa’s musical and cultural heritage with contemporary technologies. In a country traditionally dominated by a religious conservatism, Hibo and her fellow female DJs directly challenge the roles played by women in society. We spoke to Hibo while she was on tour in Amsterdam.
Kampala sounds like a really exciting place right now, what’s the music community like? The music community has taken about five to build. People were extremely mainstream and if you weren’t playing Carly Rae Jepsen, they would be like “what the hell is this?!”
Now we’re in a state where people have accepted underground music and music which they’ve not heard before. iIt’s really good that we have created a new system for people to hear music.
There’s a club called ONE54, It’s the first place you can hear noise! Noise is a thing that most people in Kampala will never understand, they’ll be like this is not music.
So, imagine finding a place you can listen to reggae on Wednesday and on Friday it’s a noise club.
Why do you think it’s happening? I think people get tired of routine and hearing the same playlist, and just want to hear something different. And now they’re really interested in hearing new sounds from different places. The crowd is pretty cool, they don’t want to miss it.
“They take instruments from Kampala or even from West Africa and other different places and they combine it with electronic music, it feels very experimental and I’m like 'Yo, this is it!'“
Where do you get your music from? A lot comes from friends, things which labels weren’t interested in. My friends have lots of unpublished music which they’d just let go, and I was like “Yo, this has to be heard, this is incredible.” They were always waiting for labels to tell them it’s perfect and if they didn’t take it, so friends just dumped it and forgot about it.
So you’re recycling it? Exactly. Just using all the music that might never be heard, so it’s creating a platform which says “I love your music, I’m not looking for anything else, just good music.”
You play music from other places too though right? Yeah, I play a combination of both, and because of the internet, my friends are from different places, it allows me to play a bunch of things at once. Recently my friends have been making something like Gqom, the South African music. They take instruments from Kampala or even from West Africa and other different places and they combine it with electronic music, it feels very experimental and I’m like “Yo, this is it!” A bit like what Sleeping Buddha is doing, it’s incredible.
Putting the two things in conversation. Yeah exactly, creating a bridge.
Are there many other female DJs? So right now at ONE54, there’s a night for only female DJs, which is a big deal in Kampala. There were about four DJs and now we’re 8 or 9. We all know each other but and we’re training other women, so we can just be a part of something bigger. Now people are more interested in booking female DJs than male DJs, maybe because it’s like going to the zoo!
No seriously, I think as women we have a lot of pressure on us. If we do the same thing, they’re like, “Yeah whatever, she’s a woman and she’s doing the same shit”, so all the women are digging further and grabbing more and more skills, getting more music and bringing something new to the table. It’s incredible, none of the women want to chill and say, “I’m just gonna go and play”, they are more like: “What can I do next?” or “How can I do it better?” That makes it more interesting to come and see them, people are really into the female DJs, because you hear something new every time; it’s always evolving and changing.
How important is it that places like ONE54 function as safe spaces? It’s important that we curate the safe space. I’ve never felt threatened in a club but I cannot speak for the other DJs, because I really walk like, “Yo, I’m here, fucking listen to my music.” It’s all about confidence. But there’s been moments when men are sabotaging everything we do, saying “Get off the stage, and let the men play”, and we’re like, “Excuse me bro, do you know where you are?”
Now we’re curating the events so we have the power to say “Remove this person”. So we are the creators of the space and the governors, it’s much easier that way.
“none of the women want to chill and say, “I’m just gonna go and play”, they are more like: “What can I do next?” or 'How can I do it better?'“
Nyege Nyege festival has just happened - tell us about that? Ooft, where to start? Well i think the most incredible part is, for the locals and for the people who enjoy mainstream music or dancehall, there was a whole stage, so even though there was a bit of division, it was an open division. I spent most of my time at the Dark Star Stage because that’s where you hear the new stuff and the experimental music, the mind-boggling stuff.
When it first started it was just 300 artists, so we were basically supporting each other, but now we have people from all walks of life, which is fun, but scary at the same time. When you see one of your queer friends being transported to the stage by security, it is very intense, but powerful to be like: I’m going to stand in front of you and play and not hide who I am, that was a big deal for all of us.
There was a lot of backlash after the festival from the priests and from the preachers, newspapers saying that we’re the most blasphemous people on earth but on the comments section is was Uganda people saying, you have your certain beliefs, we have our own beliefs, and if we’re such a big problem, then why are people from your church going to the festival?
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Holly Herndon, Berlin-based electronic composer and musician on Hibotep