Speaking her truth, with compassion and care
Usually finding yourself admitted to a Brooklyn hospital in the middle of the night would be a grim way to finish your Saturday night out. Although, being put there because you danced so hard at a DJ set that you dislocated your own knee puts a different spin to it. Thankfully my insurance-less self was not the person in question who ended up with a busted knee being cracked back into place in the early hours of Sunday morning but the person in question who sent the other travelling Brit there was DJ Kampire.
“I like it when it’s sweaty and people are into it,” she had told me a few hours earlier, before her set in a basement Brooklyn venue as part of the Red Bull Music Festival in New York. The inaugural UK version of the festival begins on August 20th and will showcase over 100 artists across 16 events, featuring the likes of Aphex Twin’s first London club show in a decade. Much like the New York festival, it spreads across the city in unexpected places: the day before Kampire performs the jazz collective Onyx Collective play an amphitheatre set on the waterfront whilst a week earlier FKA Twigs launches her comeback in an old drill hall. Back in the basement Brooklyn venue Kamipre got her wish as the air hung thick and sticky and the dance floor remained ever-shifting as she played a set of thumping pan-African sounds, spanning traditional Congolese rumba to African pop underpinned by a bass-heavy electronic stomp. DJ Kampire is from Kampala in Uganda and is a key part of the music collective cum music festival cum record label Nyege Nyege. The collective are proudly promoting the sounds stemming from east Africa, combining spinning polyrhythmic rhythms often blended with western techno beats and house grooves.
Music and dancing became an early and inherent part of Kampire’s life. “I grew up in Zambia for a while but my parents are Ugandan so we’d have these east African expat parties,” she recalls. “With lots of TPOK jazz, Franco and Kanda Bongo Man playing. The adults would get drunk and call the kids to come and dance for their entertainment. They would then pay us money to whoever won. I don’t think I overtly considered myself musical necessarily but there was plenty of appreciation for music in my household.”
Years later as a young woman Kampire found herself slipping into the world of DJing by accident. Roped in to help out organisationally at the first ever Nyege Nyege festival, she was suddenly asked to play out. “I began DJing by mistake entirely,” she says. “I was DJing off my laptop and I couldn’t really mix, so it was just one song after the other, but I knew that I wanted to play these bass sounds that are great to dance to but I wasn’t hearing in Kampala at the time; to play a lot of older African music. People responded so well to that set that I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Kampire’s sets have not only taken her across the world and landed her the title of one of Mixmag’s breakout DJs of 2018; her music comes with a form of political activism in tow. As a queer woman herself, Kampire and several other DJs have been going out of their way to throw a variety of parties back in Uganda that act as safe spaces for women and LGBTQIA people, as well as encouraging more women to DJ, which is still a relatively new occurrence there. “It’s a very diverse group of people that come,” she tells me. “It’s about creating spaces where people of different classes can get together – it’s also a city of refugees so you have real diversity of culture, as well as gender. It’s an open space where any type of person can come and party.”
Whilst in the west this may seem like a fairly standard and comparatively easy task to undertake, in Uganda homosexuality is still illegal and until a technicality annulled the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, it was punishable by death – a law that was nicknamed the “Kill the Gays bill”. As a result, the LGBTQIA community still face serious danger and prejudice in the country and throwing a party that acts as a safe space for such people is a radical move. On top of this, violence against women in the country is also on the rise, and during 2017 and 2018 there was a spate of women who were murdered, many of whom were kidnapped from the street and sexually assaulted before being killed.
“When we throw queer parties which are outside of the Nyege Nyege festival, we definitely have to be more careful,” she tells me. “We can’t necessarily label them as queer parties because you might draw the attention of the wrong sort of people. Even when we are doing parties just for women – like the Pussy Party’s we throw – we are making sure that women are safe and looked after, so no straight male shenanigans are taking place. But if you advertise it that way then to an extent you create a backlash and attract those people who just want to come and fuck it up.”
It’s a juggling act for Kampire and her collective; creating a welcoming and inclusive space but also making sure it doesn’t encourage those who could wish harm to those in attendance. “We have different levels of parties,” she says. “So you might have an intimate house party where you have to be on the guestlist to come and there’s a password and you have to know what the party is there for. You want to make sure it’s a safe space for minorities but you also want make it more open to people, so keeping that balance has definitely been very challenging.”