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All clothing: Kasapio, Kuboraum
Hair: Fatima

“It’s very difficult for me to have one rapping style,” says Yallah Gaudencia Mbidde, a.k.a. MC Yallah, as we settle down at a table at Pan Africa, a restaurant in Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood. “Because I follow the beat; the beat tells me what to do. You have to have a relationship with the beat. Study the beat. Make it your friend.”

This intuitive, holistic credo is one of the first clues that Yallah has her own way of doing things; an approach to music-making carefully refined through experience. Speaking to her, you get the impression that this mindset, this wisdom, is what drives her to create, and to keep setting the standard for other hip-hop artists coming out of Uganda.

Yallah – Kenyan by heritage, but born and raised in Uganda, where she is based  – is an old-school presence and a fresh new facet of the East African hip-hop underground; a seasoned pro who has kept her sound vitalised by a string of tight-knit collaborations with international producers. A very early member of the now-legendary Kampala-based outsider music institution Nyege Nyege, with their much-lauded festival and community-focused studio space, Yallah has found a way to meld US rap, experimental electronic music and her East African heritage into something completely her own. Her upcoming second album, Yallah Beibe (released on Nyege’s club-focused sister label Hakuna Kulala), is poised to be yet another turnpike in her already storied career – a futuristic missive that covers everything from global politics and social upheavals to the everyday lives she encounters as a lyrical truth-teller in modern-day Uganda.

Back in the restaurant, a deep aroma of spices surrounds us. Yallah is concerned that the chef might use too many chilli peppers – she’s not too keen on spicy food, she explains. Our dishes arrive, and immediately she launches back into conversation as if we’re old friends, her metallic blue acrylic nails picking through chunks of saucy beef and fufu. Yallah has that way of talking where everything is presented as fact, not opinion, and with zero pretence. With this commanding yet affable aura, it’s easy to see how, starting out as a teenager in the 90s, Yallah was able to move up the ranks in the Ugandan hip-hop scene and remain one of its key players for over 20 years.

Photography: Ian Wainaina

“I started rapping when I was about ten years old,” explains Yallah. “My brothers loved hip-hop, and they would listen to Timbaland, Busta Rhymes, Tupac Shakur and the Fugees. When The Score came out, I fell in love with it, and started mimicking Pras – not Lauryn so much, but Pras. ‘Too many MCs, not enough mics,’ you know that one?” she says with a wide grin. “I would memorise lyrics and climb on top of the tables in class during break and start to rap the Fugees, or Ice Ice Baby. The other kids would love it – they expected it from me every day. Then, when I was 15 years old, I joined the industry.”

Back in the late 90s, Ugandan MCs would rap over US beats, either bootlegs or sourced from overseas producers. And while she was receiving praise at such a young age for her contributions to the local scene, Yallah was already thinking of ways to secure her identity as a real force to be reckoned with – but time, money, accessibility and public interest all became issues by the time she was out of school. “There was one local producer, one guy who had a studio, but it was expensive. It was for rich kids who could afford it,” she says. “But people loved hip-hop, venues would get packed.” Popular or not, the lack of a clear roadmap for success resulted in Yallah and many of her peers leaving the hip-hop game; some went to school, others got married. Yallah decided to start a family. All in all, she ended up taking an eight-year break from the industry, long enough for a new crop of artists to take over. “It left a gap in the scene, and a new sound came up that was less hip-hop and more dancehall, more pop.”

As these rappers gained popularity, Yallah challenged their claims to the Ugandan hip-hop legacy that birthed her. “In Uganda, people are still doing hip-hop, but the ones that are trending aren’t hip-hop to us,” she explains, referencing their more radio-friendly production style. “They call themselves rappers that are doing hip-hop, and we’re like, ‘No, you’re not doing hip-hop, you’re just rapping.’ Rapping is an element of hip-hop, but it’s not hip-hop. And it’s hard now for hip-hop to flourish in Uganda. Speaking personally, apart from Nyege Nyege, I’m not excited about the music that is being produced back home.”

“Rapping is an element of hip-hop, but it’s not hip-hop. And it’s hard now for hip-hop to flourish in Uganda”

In the global west, unless one has a depth of knowledge around African music, we can lose the nuance and complexity of the sounds of particular African nations. Yallah is quick to point out that, in her estimation, Uganda has some catching up to do, musically speaking. “The thing is, Uganda doesn’t have its own sound,” she explains, a twinge of frustration mounting in her voice. “You’ll find that Tanzania has bongo flava, Kenya has genge. But in Uganda, if a Nigerian artist is trending, for example, they will start singing like them. All their songs have the same message, same beats. Everyone has their tastes, but I’m not impressed.”

As the old adage goes, if you want something done well, do it yourself. During an audition for Newz Beat, a Kampala TV show where news anchors rap the news, Yallah had a chance meeting with Derek Debru, the eventual co-founder of Nyege Nyege who, on the strength of her freestyle flow, who asked Yallah to be one of the label’s inaugural artists. It wasn’t long before she found herself surrounded by like-minded artists who were similarly driven by the idea of pushing Ugandan music beyond its stagnant limitations. What became her first full-length album, 2019’s mind-melter Kubali, was born out of this collaboration when Nyege co-founder Arlen Dilsizian introduced her to a French-born, Berlin-based producer named Debmaster.

Photography: Michelle Isinbaeva

“The first track we did together was Ndi Mukazi in 2018,” says Yallah. “When I first heard his track, I had to take a step back. I was used to these old-school, American beats, but when I heard [the track], I wanted to run away. I was like, ‘I don’t get this.’ But I wanted to experiment, so I listened to the beat for a long time, and finally, it entered me.” Her choice of words is exact here, because it does feel like the track enters you: the instrumental is sombre, driving, all-enveloping, while Yallah’s hypnotic flow attacks the beat at double speed. It’s like Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes spitting bars over a Coil B-side, which is to say, unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

The immediate success of Ndi Mukazi spurred Yallah and Debmaster to record Kubali together, with Deb sending beats to the Nyege headquarters in Kampala and Yallah becoming more and more engrossed in this trippier, darker sound. When the pair finally met for a concert at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Yallah was relieved to find out that they immediately connected on a deep, personal level. “When I met him, I had another picture in my head,” she admits, laughing at the fact that such intense music could come from a skinny, moustachioed Frenchman. “I entered the room like, ‘Yo, where’s Debmaster?’ When they pointed to him, I was blown away. Our energies connected, like we’d known each other for ten years.”

Photography: Ian Wainaina

Along with Japanese beatmaker Scotch Rolex, and Yallah’s Hakuna Kulala labelmate and Congolese producer Chrisman, Deb is one of three principal producers on Yallah Beibe, which is an even more eclectic, genre-pushing opus than Kubali. Yallah speaks four languages, and raps fluently in all of them: Luganda (Uganda), Kiswahili (Kenya), Luo (another Kenyan dialect) and English (though rarely these days). With her producers sending her experimental, electronic beats, she chooses a language based on the sound and how many syllables she can fit in a bar.

“When I listen to a beat, I write the first few lines in every language,” she says. “I try Luganda and I feel immediately if it doesn’t fit on that beat, and so on.” Perhaps some artists might see these technicalities as obstacles, but for Yallah, it’s just another challenge she takes on gladly. “A lot of rap tends to keep the same BPM. Think of trap, which is pretty much the same beat from beginning to end,” she states. “These experimental beats have helped me sharpen my rapping style. How am I going to tackle that part that just changed completely? You have to be sharp.”

“These experimental beats have helped me sharpen my rapping style. How am I going to tackle that part that just changed completely? You have to be sharp”

This evolution is apparent in tracks like the lead single Sikwebela, which sees Yallah deploy her signature machine-gun flow over a pulsing, industrial electro Debmaster beat, with an ease that would cause even the most lyrically dexterous to trip over their words. While Yallah is more than able to stand on her own, she’s found in these collaborations the space to do something unique. And in doing so, she’s discovering facets of herself she didn’t even know were there.

“I want people to hear music, not just rapping,” she says, enthusiastically. We’ve long finished eating now, and there are just a few clumps of fufu left at the bottom of her bowl. “I always tell people that I have many personalities in me – there are many Yallahs. Scotch Rolex revealed a Yallah that I didn’t know. Deb brought out a Yallah that I didn’t know. I believe I have a lot in me,” she says, with a confidence that can only come from the total assurance that, after years of hard work and ups and downs, you are not just leading the field, but way out in front. “I can do a lot.”

Yallah Beibe is out now via Hakuna Kulala