The story of Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky’s rise from TV comedian to a headline-making political figure and hero to many is well known. But some 3,500 miles from Kiev, in Kampala, Uganda, and almost entirely out of the international media spotlight, there’s another entertainer-turned-politician fighting for democracy — and hoping the world pays attention.
Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his Afrobeats pop star handle Bobi Wine, was one of Africa’s most successful musicians and best-known celebrities — he even had his own reality TV show, Da Ghetto President — before a shift to politics turned the onetime “ghetto rapper” into the face of the opposition against Uganda’s authoritarian president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
Wine’s story is told in a new documentary, Bobi Wine Ghetto President, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival. Instead of the familiar rags-to-riches tale of a poor kid made good — Wine was raised in Kampala’s infamous Kamwokya slum, where he built his renowned Firebase recording studio — in Ghetto President, directors Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp focus on Wine’s political career.
Not that there’s an easy division between the music and the politics, between the campaigner and the entertainer. For two decades before he formally entered politics — in a successful grassroots run in 2017 for an elected seat in the Ugandan parliament — Wine has been using his music to address social injustice and push for reform.
His 2006 hit “Ghetto” was the opposition soundtrack for the elections that year. The 2014 reggae tune “Time Bomb” — with such lyrics as “I don’t know why corruption is too much/Why the price of electricity is too high” — is an unambiguous attack on government nepotism, corruption and the high cost of living.
“My music, my songs, have always been revolutionary, highlighting the plight of the people, calling out what’s wrong in society and singing it out,” Wine says in a video interview with THR from his home in Kampala. “Music is my biggest amplifier. If I have a political message, I’ll put it in a song, because I know many other people are going to sing that song, and that message is going to go out.”
Wine’s musical messages run through Ghetto President as the film traces his “people power” revolution from 2017 through 2021, when Wine ran against Museveni in Uganda’s presidential elections. Wine lost, though he and many international organizations and nations, including the U.S. (a major aid donor to Uganda), questioned the official result, claiming evidence of fraud and vote tampering.
The documentary draws a sharp contrast between the 77-year-old Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since coming to power in 1986 on the back of an armed uprising, and the 38-year-old Wine. The former is shown as the embodiment of the revolutionary turned dictator — “our mentors become our tormentors,” Wine sings in one of his songs — while we watch the reggae star turned politician dancing his way across the country for his 2021 campaign, speaking in front of wild crowds of cheering supporters.
Wine, like Zelensky, is also a master of social media, regularly posting videos and music clips to his followers and using online platforms to spread his political messages. Here his entertainment background comes in handy. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wine recorded a song that later went viral, outlining both the symptoms of a COVID infection and the recommended hygienic measures to fight the spread of the virus. Imagine a Dr. Fauci press conference you can dance to.
For those who fear the power of social media to distort and deform democracy, Ghetto President is a reminder of how valuable global online platforms can be in countries where, as Wine says of Uganda, there is “state capture” of the mainstream media.
“Social media is a lifesaver and a life changer for us,” he says. “Here in Uganda, without social media, you would only be seeing the picture painted by the authorities. With social media, we can show the real picture in real-time, unfiltered. Mainstream, traditional media avoids talking about cases of human rights violations, about the rape cases against the military. Mainstream media won’t air my words, or if they do, they twist them to make sure that they favor the regime.”
A sign of the power of social media in Uganda came ahead of the presidential election, when the government shut down the entire internet rather than let opposition messages get through.
Wine’s high profile has made him a target: In 2018, he was arrested and charged with treason. He says police beat and tortured him. When he was released, as shown in the film, Wine could barely walk and had to be flown to the U.S. for medical treatment.
The threat of violence is omnipresent. One of Wine’s drivers was shot dead by police in what Wine says was an assassination attempt on him. A bodyguard was killed after being run over by a truck belonging to the military police.
“There are security operatives that are planted on my door, and they follow me on motorbikes wherever I go,” Wine says. “I’m still under threat, which is why I move in a bulletproof car, and when I leave home I have my own private security.”
The results of the 2021 election, and the government crackdown that followed it, have made Wine skeptical about whether democratic change is possible in Uganda without major social unrest.
“As it is, elections can do very little,” he said. “I think the power transition may only come when the people rise up, non-violently, peacefully, but assertively. Unfortunately, we can only do this with the help of the rest of the world. If we try to do it alone, whenever we try to do it alone, the result has been a massacre.”
But Wine is not giving up. By making Ghetto President and traveling to Venice to promote the film, he says he hopes to focus the world’s attention on Uganda.
“I want the people in the international community to know that somewhere in the world, somewhere in Africa, in a country called Uganda, people are being massacred for what they think,” he says. “But most importantly, I want the people of the international community to know that their taxpayers’ money, their aid, is being used to undermine human rights and democracy in Uganda. But you can help us. You can help us by stopping the support for Yoweri Museveni. You can help us do the right thing by you not doing the wrong thing.”
Bobi Wine Ghetto President premieres out of competition in Venice on Sept. 1.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.