Nsasi recalls their reaction when the law was passed. “It was at first hard to believe — is this really happening?” the Ugandan DJ and producer says. “It has never been easy being queer in Uganda, but this was intense. I felt stripped. It changed everything for me.” Now the ANTI-MASS member shares temporary accommodation in a cramped London flat with the Ugandan DJ collective’s founder, Tayo, otherwise known as Authentically Plastic — and Nsasi is unsure of what the future holds for them. “While I was in Uganda, I was trying really hard to get away. But once I got away it was like, what now?”
In March, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill into law that calls for life in prison for those caught engaging in same-sex relations, and potentially the death penalty for those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality”. It was quickly decried by human rights organisations as one of the harshest anti-LGBTQ statutes in the world. Its effect on the Ugandan queer community has been devastating. In the lead-up to the law’s passage, LGBTQ shelters and organisations were raided or shut down, and more than 100 instances of personal attacks were reported. Now, queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming Ugandans, feeling hunted, are fleeing into migrant camps and unstable living situations beyond the borders, or hunkering down as refugees in their own country.
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023 is one more in a series of recent blows against LGBTQ rights, in a global backlash that has seen repressive laws and crackdowns from China and Russia to Italy and the United States. The Ugandan law has been directly traced to the influence of US religious evangelists in the country, and fundamentalism is fuelling the rising hysteria against queer people worldwide. A 2020 report by openDemocracy found that one particular US group spent over $20 million in the country alone between 2008-18, pushing its conservative, anti-LGBTQ agenda. As outspoken queer Ugandan activist and artist Papa De told journalists earlier this year, “Queer people don’t owe anyone anything, but we also deserve to live just like everyone else. You can’t strip all our rights. This is a world emergency.”
“We need people to be active in their own communities, to figure out how to help in their own space. The West is the driver of these laws in our country and elsewhere. Organise and be deliberate about fighting back, starting with where you are.” – Decay
Expressing queerness was already an underground phenomenon in Uganda, and the new law essentially wiped out the country’s miniscule queer nightlife — a frail compact of house parties in the capital, Kampala, and safe spaces carved out of the larger scene — leaving its rising stars in disarray at crucial junctures. Nsasi had been touring and working on an album for the Kampala-based Nyege Nyege collective’s label, which is slated to be released early next year. Now it will be finished on the road. Through a network of friends, they eventually found their way to Berlin and then on to London, where Tayo has been helping to secure artist visas for ANTI-MASS members.
“Fortunately, we started on visa applications late last year as the anti-gay rhetoric started blowing up,” says Tayo. “My visa was approved, and I was preparing to go on tour in late March when things started going south very quickly. Those few days after the law passed were very emotional and disorienting. Relationships were suddenly dissolved as partners moved away. Some people went quiet. We didn’t know what would happen next. I decided it was time to be based somewhere else. I wasn’t ready financially for the move at all. I gave up my apartment, put my belongings at my dad’s house, and decided what to carry with me. Fortunately, I don’t have a complicated setup to make music. But for others, you can’t just carry your gear around when your housing is unstable.”
Both producers are hyper-vigilant about making noise while working on tracks in their dense London neighbourhood, as complaints could affect their visa status. “My creative process has been directly affected, living out of a suitcase,” Nsasi says. “It’s difficult to evolve as an artist in this situation. I have to find my soul. I love creating in Uganda, going out of the city for inspiration, meeting up with people in an intentional way, getting together for studio sessions with the Nyege Nyege community.” The situation in Uganda has disrupted Nsasi’s evolution as a queer person as well. “All of this unfortunately came at a time when I was creating space to discuss my sexuality with my family, to set some boundaries about who I am,” they explain. “Now I feel with everything going on, the distance may be good.”
“I feel personally really sad and deflated,” says Tayo. “In the time when we started our ANTI-MASS parties, there was this feeling that something was possible. That was a real window when the culture was ‘indifferent’ to queer people. There were times when the government tried to use us, but the people were bored and said, let’s talk about real issues. From 2016 to 2021 there was a real period of creativity, creating our own world, our own subculture. It had never been like this before. Now you hear ridiculous stories about someone being stopped while driving and arrested under suspicion of being gay, based on their appearance. We had a glimmer of what can be and for this to be suddenly taken away... you always assume that history is going to go forward. And with what is happening all over the world, this shows that a very rapid regression is possible.”
Many queer Ugandans, both inside and out of the country, are receiving some support from a Uganda LGBTQ Emergency GoFundMe, started by activist and arts organisations including #Hashtagwhatnext, Ugly Duck, misery, and Kallida festival, the last two of which threw a fundraising party in April featuring DJs from Africa and the UK. And there are other ways to help combat what’s happened in Uganda and around the world as well. “We need people to be active in their own communities, to figure out how to help in their own space,” says Decay, a DJ, artist, and Nyege Nyege and ANTI-MASS affiliate who is staying in Uganda. “The West is the driver of these laws in our country and elsewhere. Organise and be deliberate about fighting back, starting with where you are.”
Decay holds a full-time job and recently helped build a new contemporary arts centre to support the Kampala scene, things that make it difficult to pick up and leave. She does tour outside the country often — “It’s not like I am booked in my own city every week,” she says with a wry laugh — playing a mix of dancehall, ballroom, Naija tracks, and the “swankiest twerking music”. After the law was passed, she left on tour to get away from “the animosity and ill-feeling”, bringing her girlfriend along for a month to take a break from the heavy atmosphere at home. “It was scary; people were given permission to be assholes,” Decay says. “People were evicted from their offices and homes. But unlike the previous times when this type of thing has happened, I feel something different in the queer community. A bit of defiance, which has crept into my work as well. We’ve seen how different life can be. I still see other queer people on the street, which is a good sign that they haven’t been forced into hiding. Things have been pushed back underground, and I feel it’s time to focus on each other for a minute.”
“I realise my decision to stay has layers of privilege — what class and tribe I’m from, how straight-passing I can be, what I can get away with. I don’t want to leave Uganda indefinitely. There’s a lot of work I still want to do here,” Decay says. “The future is going to be difficult. This has never been a place for people in the margins. All my work has been focused on connecting people with that special joy in themselves and each other. I’m more determined to continue focusing on this connection and this community, until I’m forced to stop.”
“I just want to remind everyone that our struggles are connected. Western conservatives are exporting their culture wars to the global South even as they target trans youth and drag queens in their home countries" - Kampire
Also still based in Kampala, but strongly considering leaving is core Nyege Nyege member Kampire. “Things haven’t been the same on the alternative party scene since the pandemic, and seem unlikely to improve,” she says. “The crackdown on minorities is all tied up with a clampdown on dissent, increasing economic inequality, and continued degradation of public resources, so it often feels like things might just be easier elsewhere. Two or three years ago, it felt like our parties were building solidarity and resistance. Now, on my more cynical days, they just seem frivolous.
“It’s deeply disheartening to see how quickly this law has turned people into spies and collaborators. Even though many people do not support this government and have protested the disappearances and torture of its political opponents, they are fine with giving the same government unlimited powers to do the same to people whose sexual identity they disagree with. The political solidarity is near nonexistent. We really are on our own.”
Defiance has become a bigger part of Kampire’s expression as well. “Not so much in obvious ways, but I’m definitely playing more joyful and defiant queer music wherever possible. I got to play a couple of queer events in London and Montréal on my last tour and made sure to wear my rainbow flag Uganda shirt that I can’t really wear at home. When I played at Fierté in Montréal there was a traditional drum ensemble from Burundi — they share a lot of cultural similarities to Western Uganda, where my father is from. It made me think back to the last Nyege Nyege festival, when the Burundi government issued a condemnatory statement about women playing their sacred drums, because someone photographed a woman whose boob had fallen out of her shirt while playing the drums.
“It’s beautiful when African culture is a celebrated, living, embracing thing, not a dead stick used to beat people with.” Kampire agrees with Decay, however, that the anti-LGBTQ wave is not specific to Africa. “I just want to remind everyone that our struggles are connected. Western conservatives are exporting their culture wars to the global South even as they target trans youth and drag queens in their home countries,” she says.
In London for now, Nsasi and Tayo don’t know when they’ll return to Uganda — they will eventually want to see their families, and Nsasi still wants the country to remain part of their art. “There’s a difference between the Uganda I know as a wonderful, beautiful place and the hate that’s being institutionalised now at this level,” Nsasi says. “I would go back, but wouldn’t feel free, knowing I am a criminal because of my queer identity. I think by the time things play out, people will realise it is not the gays, the problems are political. We are poor, we have no money. Don’t divert our attention to this little box. This will become boring to them, and maybe there will be a scene again.”
For their part, Tayo regards the scattering of their ANTI-MASS crew with a glow of possibility amid the horror. “I’m trying to see that we are in different locations as an opportunity instead of an obstacle, a way of reaching more people, for more collaborations to be possible in different cities with different collectives. I’m considering our situation as more generally diasporic. We are looking for a new sense of home, and seeing what can be done. I don’t know what it means for throwing parties, as we can’t all be in the same space right now, but there will be more artistic output coming out of the collective. “Both as a movement and as individual artists, we are right now just concentrating on finding stability, and making really sick work out of this situation.”