Kampala – Orphaned and homeless, Eddy Kenzo used to struggle to persuade DJs to play his songs, but Uganda’s first Grammy contender said his success offers hope that even the poorest person can triumph.
Nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance, Kenzo – whose real name is Edrisah Musuuza – said the news left him “speechless”.
“I can’t express my feelings. It is like I am dreaming,” the 33-year-old told AFP during an emotional interview in his studio in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
“This nomination should give hope to the underprivileged,” he said.
“Even the poorest and the humblest can make it… if I made it, they can make it as well.”
Born to a Ugandan father and a Rwandan mother whose family were among the victims of the 1994 genocide, Kenzo’s childhood was scarred by tragedy after he lost both his parents to illness.
He was just four years old.
By the time Kenzo was a teenager, he was sleeping rough on the streets of Kampala, often going to bed hungry.
“I suffered as a kid,” he said.
His love of sports and music kept him going and by 2008, he had scraped together the funds to get off the streets and release his first song – “Yannimba” (“Deceived me” in the Luganda language).
‘Make people happy’
But he continued to face an uphill battle, with no financial backing and radio DJs scoffing at his requests to play his tracks on air.
Two years after his debut though, he struck gold with the single “Stamina”, which grew to dominate airwaves and became a staple at private parties and discotheques.
In 2011, he won the Best New Artist award at the Pearl of Africa Music Awards.
His global profile rose with the release in 2014 of “Sitya Loss” (“I Don’t Fear Loss”) – a peppy number that harked back to his traumatic childhood and trumpeted the power of resilience.
“My dream was to make people happy, when someone dances he or she becomes happy, feels good, laughs, feels loved, shakes off stress and forgets depressing issues of the world,” he said.
“I also wanted to become a beacon of hope for those in despair that regardless of their current predicament, anyone can make it in life.”
In the intervening years, he went on to win several prizes for his blend of dancehall and Afrobeat, including a Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award in 2018, a BET Award in 2015, and multiple All Africa Music Awards.
And now he could take home a Grammy for “Gimme Love”, his 2022 Luganda-English collaboration with US musician Matt B, when the winners are announced on February 5.
He is facing off against Nigerian Afropop musician Burna Boy among others for the prize.
“If I win, it is an honour to my fans, my culture and all those that have touched my life,” said Kenzo, who is looking forward to attending the star-studded ceremony in Los Angeles.
Despite his meteoric rise, the father of two hasn’t forgotten his humble beginnings and said he is keen to pave the way for others like him.
As founder of Big Talent Entertainment, a studio located in a densely populated and poor Kampala neighbourhood, he trains and mentors boys and girls from nearby slums to develop their musical talent.
On the day AFP visited, around a dozen children on a break from music practice helped themselves to rice, beef, green vegetables and groundnut stew, wheeled in on huge metal platters.
It’s a long way from the glitz and glamour of the Grammys but Kenzo said he is determined not to let international success change him.
For one thing, he plans to keep producing music in Luganda, despite English offering a wider audience.
“I want to promote my culture and country through music,” he said.
“Not that I can’t sing in English but I want to be who I am.”
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