It is a dry, 98 degree day in Namasuba, Kampala. The promised rainy season has yet to arrive in Uganda and no water flows through the township’s spotty infrastructure. But this place is far from barren.
Rhymes gush forth like a waterfall. Drum beats punctuate the dusty air. And throughout it all, camera shutters are poised to capture the defining moment. Class is in session.
Welcome to the “Obumu Media Lab,” a digital storytelling workshop for the hip-hop youth of the Bavubuka Foundation. The five-day, immersive learning experience was crafted by Associate Director Scott Macklin and Comm Lead student Jonathan Cunningham and executed on a trip to Uganda last month.
Macklin laid down the foundation for this journey back in 2009. He just didn’t know it yet.
That year marked the release of Macklin and wife Angelica’s film, Masizakhe: Building Each Other, a documentary that explored Nelson Mandela Bay’s (Port Elizabeth) hip-hop artists and their mission to better South Africa’s ills through cultural activism.
Thousands of miles away, Silas Babaluku took notice. A tour-de-force in Uganda’s community activism and music scene, Babaluku has long advocated for the empowerment of Ugandan cultural identity through hip-hop. Ten years ago, the multifaceted artist created Luga Flow, a rapping style that injected Ugandan lyrics and indigenous instruments into the English-language dominated genre. Then he founded the Bavubuka Foundation, a nonprofit organization that connects youth to the arts in hopes of strengthening native identity and uniting diverse communities.
Masizakhe’s community-centric message seemed a perfect parallel for his mission. So Babaluku contacted Macklin and invited him to Kampala to screen the film and lead a conversation on the subject.
Macklin knew he could do better than that. He contacted Cunningham, his student and the Manager of Youth & Community Programs at the Experience Music Project (EMP) museum, and began brainstorming. And when a fortuitous flight layover brought Babaluku to Seattle, the two presented him with a media production curriculum that would enable the youth of the Bavubuka Foundation to articulate their unique heritage and experiences.
“It went from just a screening to [creating] participation,” Macklin explained. “The activities we designed are rooted in what we teach and how we operate here in the Communication Leadership program. I wanted the students to come away with a fundamental understanding of how to craft an action idea, and how to have that focusing element drive their aesthetic decisions and production. We even wove in some readings from Rob Salkowitz’ book, Young World Rising, and Hanson Hosein’s Storyteller Uprising.”
The workshop would cover a wide breadth of material, from maximizing the potential of available technology (cell phones) and photo composition to interviewing skills and developing an engagement strategy for the final product. But no matter the lesson plan, the guiding principal was always the same—community-centric storytelling, or “deep hanging out” as Macklin likes to call it.
“The idea is to make stories with people, not about them,” Macklin said. “We’re not there to get the story, we’re not there to take your picture. We’re there to develop a story together—it’s a way to disrupt and challenge the co-optive, colonizing practices that a lot of the world has been run up against.”
Babaluku was sold, and on March 1st Macklin and Cunningham took off for Africa. Once there, the two set up shop at the Bavubuka Foundation, a learning facility (complete with computers and finicky WiFi) that doubled as an artists’ collective with a live-in crew of musicians, fashion designers and craft-makers.
In that dynamic space, Macklin and Cunningham welcomed a class of 20 energetic students, ranging from 12- to 22-years-old, ready to create. The mission of their media production was to explore and capture the meaning of “Obumu.”
“Obumu is an Ugandan word meaning togetherness or unity,” Macklin said. “It gets at community activism, cultural production and artistic activity that serves humanity. There’s no equivalent in English. But according to Silas [Babaluku], the word isn’t necessarily used in contemporary language. Part of the work was uncovering its heritage and tradition in a contemporary setting.”
To do so, Macklin assigned activities that challenged the students to explore their identities and played to their artistic strengths. Instead of writing papers, the musically minded were asked to compose lyrics about “Obumu” and then lay them down to Babaluku’s beat in an indoor recording session. The scripted performance was followed up with an outdoor freestyle session, accompanied by traditional Ugandan instruments.
The students’ diverse backgrounds played a huge part in the storytelling—each of the media lab members was a proud representative of the neighborhood s/he hailed from. Macklin asked them to create a multimedia Six Word Memoir that would reflect their upbringing. To accomplish this, they dedicated the latter three days of the workshop to on-site, district visits.
The first stop was Eye Ghetto, an area bisected by a murky water canal, with the modern architecture of the “haves” on one side and the piecemeal homes of the “have nots” on the other. Macklin’s students lived in the latter. But what may look like abject poverty to the uninitiated, was actually a center for creativity and commerce for Eye Ghetto residents. The crumbling wall that bordered the canal doubled as both a canvas for graffiti artists and a community gathering place. The tin shack beside it housed a TV, a PlayStation and an entrepreneurial young resident who charged visitors for game play.
Macklin and Cunningham witnessed an even more drastic repurposing at the class’ next stop—Kawempei. There, the group explored a half-demolished, old school building, turned sports and activity center. Its dusty field and wrecked rooms became the stage for the Galaxy Dance Project, a collective of break-dancers who regularly practiced and performed in the space.
“The big surprise was seeing what people did in these conditions and contexts,” Macklin marveled. “These guys and gals were some of the most amazing B-boys & B-girls that I’ve seen.”
Building robust creative and collaborative spaces out of little to nothing became the centerpiece topic at Macklin’s post-film discussion. The original goal of Babaluku’s invitation was carried out at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, which hosted the Masizakhe: Building Each Other screening. The event drew a crowd of 80 Ugandan influencers from all realms—from hip-hop to cultural affairs.
The film’s content anchored a dynamic conversation amongst the diverse attendees.
“You have all the industry stars, who get all the play on the radio, and then you have the community stars—the folks who have made a conscious effort to make a difference in their community through their art and activism, who don’t necessarily get the press or the headlines,” recalls Macklin. “So the question was how do you create a space for the pop stars and community starts to work together? It was really this exchange of how can we best utilize the limited resources we have in order to be a benefit to each other.”
Employees of the Embassy—who likely had never seen that many “hip-hop heads” in one place together—were wowed by the turnout and spirit of the screening.
“This is such a wonderful opportunity to bring everyone together,” said Lisa Larson, a Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy. “It’s so fun to see people’s mind blown.”
The full impact of the screening remains to be seen, but one thing is clear—the story of the “Obumu Media Lab” is far from over.
All the media produced by Cunningham, Macklin and the students during workshop week will feed into an “Obumu” documentary, a meta-film that will address both the implementation of the Lab and the deeper meaning of its moniker. The venture was so successful, that Cunningham will dedicate a quarter of Comm Lead independent study to make it replicable. He’s developing a curricular guide for the workshop so it can be implemented in new locations without Macklin’s or Cunningham’s oversight.
Now the two will take their Ugandan insights and educational formula to EMP’s Pop Conference (April 25-27th) with a “Hip-Hop, Digital Media and Social Change in Kampala” presentation. The Museum’s annual gathering of artists, educators and influencers celebrates innovation, creativity and music that puts the world in motion. Macklin’s mission to empower burgeoning, Luga Flow hip-hop artists with the digital tools to define and disseminate their cultural heritage was a natural fit for the conference.
“The ability to create, curate and share stories from whatever community you’re from is really important,” Macklin concludes. “Those stories become the bridges for understanding for folks from other communities, the footsteps to finding common points of interest and working together. The amazing commitment and energy exemplified by the ‘Obumu Media Lab’ participants can be an example for us all. The hope is that their stories will have a ripple effect here.”
You can watch Macklin and Cunningham’s presentation at the Scene Shifters panel, along with stunning footage and photography from the trip, below: