Ugandan flavamasters, homegrown superstars and ambassadors of change in the making: Introducing Break-Fast Jam

When we star­ted this event, from day one we said that this event is not ours. This event belongs to the people, it’s for our com­munit­ies and every­body. I think it’s also that sense of com­munity that gave people such a strong reas­on to love it. When we gave it to the people, they then felt free with us, like this event impacted every­body so they could also make an impact.
– Joram Ssekit­oleko, offi­cial MC/founding mem­ber of Break-Fast Jam

12294817_1095941783756993_6874722896939451296_n

It all begun from a mod­est yet exhil­ar­at­ing idea of a small group of Ugandan bboys in their early twen­ties. Brought togeth­er by the power­ful work of Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda (BPU) and shar­ing the pas­sion for hip hop, but with next to no exper­i­ence of fund­ing, man­aging or pro­mot­ing big events, Joram Ssekit­oleko, Oscar Kibuuka, Mark Kaweesi, Felix Lutakome and Taye Mugizi-Atayeb­wa decided to take a step and provide a plat­form for the aspir­ing group of bboys birthed by BPU, to settle their com­pet­it­ive atti­tudes on the battle field. “Back in the day so many dif­fer­ent organ­iz­a­tions and groups star­ted beef­ing with each oth­er”, Ssekit­oleko explains and con­tin­ues, “say­ing how this com­munity is bet­ter than this com­munity, so we thought why don’t we start up some­thing really com­pet­it­ive, so that instead of these organ­iz­a­tions beef­ing it among them­selves, they’ll just come battle it out. So we came up with Break-Fast Jam.” The five bboys shared a vis­ion and felt like they owned their pas­sion, everything else could be learned later. As Kibuuka, a 24 year old self-taught pho­to­grapher, also act­ing as the offi­cial pho­to­grapher of Break-Fast Jam, puts it: “If there is a need for a change in our com­munity and you can see it, how­ever small it is, you just need to take a step. And if you suc­ceed… I mean look at what we have now, from the very, very scratch we now have an event, made from hav­ing 2–3 dol­lars, to what it is today, where we’ve even had a spon­sor­ship to bring Crazy Legs him­self on board.” He fur­ther adds how they were lucky to be chal­lenged without look­ing for it them­selves. As Break-Fast Jam has been organ­ic­ally grow­ing from a shar­ing circle in the back­yard into an annu­al break­dance event unpar­alleled to any­thing else with­in East Africa, with spon­sor­ing and impress­ive media cov­er­age, it so happened that the team had to learn to think about and man­age fin­ances to respond to more needs, with an actu­al team where people have dif­fer­ent aspects they work on. Along the years Break-Fast has been lucky to enjoy the input of vari­ous com­munity build­ers, from vari­ous Ugandan com­munit­ies, but in its cur­rent form is run by the core team of Ssekit­oleko, Kibuuka and the chair­man Kaweesi.

bfj1

Ssekit­oleko Joram, Kibuuka Oscar, Egesa ‘Full­moon’ Eric, Kiru­mira Issa and Kaweesi Mark — some of the faces behind the annu­al event.

“In 2011 we star­ted organ­iz­ing elim­in­a­tions, but by that time we were so few, and we only had them in Kam­pala, places like Nateete, Kawem­pe, Mulago… Places that were near us, since all the time we were using our own money, so we only went to places we could afford to and places we knew had break­ers.” As the con­cept of 7 to smoke battle was adop­ted as the key crown­ing battle, the next thing to do was to fig­ure out how to find the top eight break­ers from the whole of Uganda – thus the event star­ted trav­el­ing to eight dif­fer­ent com­munit­ies hunt­ing for their break­ing kings. “In prac­tice how it all happened was that many people had star­ted pay­ing atten­tion to the event, so they approached us and reques­ted us to come to them”, Kibuuka tells the story. In 2012, inspired by their Kenyan brother bboy Kamau, who “sur­prised us and came through to the finals after see­ing our posts on social media”, the idea grew to take the event to Kenya, too. “In 2013 we expan­ded to Mbale, Jin­ja, Masaka, Luwero, so many dis­tricts with­in Uganda, then Kenya, and also star­ted giv­ing dir­ect invit­a­tions to dif­fer­ent dan­cers with­in our com­munit­ies.”

As is most often the case with hip hop-led events, the issue that also Break Fast Jam keeps stomp­ing on, is fund­ing. It is import­ant to note that Break Fast grew from its founders pas­sion and love for hip hop, with the first ever event being fun­ded through its organ­izers’ pock­et money. “It has been both easy and dif­fi­cult”, Ssekit­oleko admits. “I will say that it has been mostly through friends that we are what we are now. When we didn’t have money and found ourselves stran­ded we would write to friends, ask­ing to help us out with some money to be able to throw the final event. They always believed in the event and were see­ing where it was going. We’ve even seen so many inter­na­tion­al hip hop artists and friends of friends com­ing through for this event. People we would nev­er have expec­ted to have vis­it us”. Kibuuka talks about how the group has many times come across spon­sors, who end up not shar­ing the vis­ion nor see­ing the bene­fits for the coöper­a­tion, regard­less of the fact that in their events “there’s always some com­pany want­ing to throw their ban­ners out pre­tend­ing like they’re on board”.

Bgirl Loca from Switzerland teaching a workshop during the 2015 finals.

Bgirl Loca from Switzer­land teach­ing a work­shop dur­ing the 2015 finals.

At times the spon­sors have got­ten fas­cin­ated about what they are see­ing, ask­ing to get involved – only to then let the team down on the very last week. Strug­gling to find like-minded spon­sors, Break Fast Jam has for years relied primar­ily on dona­tions from indi­vidu­als and organ­iz­a­tions, while addi­tion­ally hav­ing sev­er­al Break-Fast Jam ambas­sad­ors on the field, pro­mot­ing the event free of charge in their com­munit­ies.  Indeed, as Kibuuka high­lights it, “what has built us are the people who believe and have always believed in the ideas and our vis­ion, not only break­ers but oth­ers who see this as a plat­form for youth empower­ment, expres­sion and for hav­ing fun.” To add to the mix, as a com­munity hip hop event it has been pos­sible to get many hip hop artists, DJs, rap­pers, graf­fiti artists and the likes to per­form, paint and play music free of charge. “It’s actu­ally funny”, Kibuuka laughs, “some­times people from out­side see the doc­u­ment­a­tion com­ing out from the event and they get the idea that it’s some big, sponsored hip hop event and write to us with enthu­si­asm, like ‘yeah I would love to come through if you just pay for my flights and hotel. ‘ And we’re like, dude, you know the money for your flights, money for one flight is basic­ally the budget for the entire event, so we can’t exactly facil­it­ate you.”

While many big steps have already been taken since the ini­tial one, many are still ahead, as the Break-Fast team dreams of reach­ing a status com­par­able to inter­na­tion­al bboy events such as Battle of the Year or Red Bull BC One. As Kibuuka and Ssekit­oleko both agree in the course of our inter­view, a very essen­tial driv­ing for­ce behind their work has been the desire to bring some­thing Afric­an-made to the Afric­an con­tin­ent, even in the hip hop world. As they were learn­ing more about the world­wide break­ing scene, it dawned on them, that although there are hot­spots for Afric­an break­ing in dif­fer­ent parts of the con­tin­ent, they lacked the loc­al essence – while East Africa seemed to lack the hot­spot all togeth­er. Ssekit­oleko explains: “We see ourselves as the biggest East Afric­an break­dance event now, but we hope that may­be in few years’ time we will also have some­thing even big­ger loc­ally, an Afric­an-man­u­fac­tured event being recog­nized in Africa. There’d still be BC One, but also have Break-Fast Jam.” While aim­ing high, Kibuuka men­tions smal­ler steps wished to be achieved on the way to the great­er hights, one of these being fea­tured in the annu­al inter­na­tion­al bboy­ing cal­en­dar.

bfj4

Fahad­hi Kiry­owa, three-time Sev­en 2 Smoke win­ner of Break Fast Jam, get­ting his groove on pri­or to the recent BFJ Kenya elim­in­a­tions

Largely due to the influ­ence and work star­ted by the Ugandan hip hop pion­eer Abramz Tekya as a ground break­ing hip hop act­iv­ist, the pres­ence of break­dance and hip hop cul­ture in Uganda has since its early years been rooted in and used as a tool for pos­it­ive social change. It thus comes as no sur­prise, that most hip hop events in Uganda today carry the mes­sage of social empower­ment, Break-Fast Jam being no dif­fer­ent to this trend. “We’re look­ing at this as a plat­form for edu­cat­ing. Also in explor­ing how can hip hop and this plat­form be used to inspire people, dan­cers and oth­ers to improve them­selves and their skills and through that fur­ther their goals and take them where they want to go. If a dan­cer from Mbale one day com­petes in BC One, we will see it as a col­lect­ive suc­cess for the East Afric­an break­ing com­munity”, Kibuuka explains. It is one thing to keep encour­aging a gen­er­a­tion of bboys inspired to win Break-Fast Jam, but to grow the event into its full for­ce, to com­pete with the likes of Red Bull BC One, you must also build the country’s repu­ta­tion more in the hip hop scene way bey­ond Uganda. That is most cer­tainly in the mind of Fahad­hi Kiry­owa, 23, a three time 7 to smoke Break-Fast Jam cham­pi­on, mem­ber of Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda and a movie star from Shake the Dust, doc­u­ment­ary that broke down bound­ar­ies and touched the hearts and minds of many hip hop heads glob­ally. For Kiry­owa, Break-Fast Jam has been a motiv­a­tion boost, a battle that taught him to push more in order to reach more goals – and to nev­er stop dream­ing and work­ing hard. “The first 7 to smoke I was in – I lost it. I felt like I need to step up my game. Every chal­lenge for me, is an oppor­tun­ity to step up more. When I’m bat­tling, wherever it is, I don’t feel like I’m rep­res­ent­ing only Break Fast Jam or Shake the Dust or so on — I’m rep­res­ent­ing my own coun­try, Uganda. So when I was train­ing for the battles my focus wasn’t only in the battles here, it was to battle and to rep­res­ent more, in BC One, IBE…” Kiry­owa and his close friend and a fel­low bboy from BPU, also one of the cur­rent organ­izers of Break-Fast Jam, Eric ‘Full­moon’ Egesa, have already got­ten a taste of what it would be like to show­case Ugandan break­ing to the world bey­ond their home corners. “We were rep­res­ent­ing in Free­style Ses­sion (LA, USA) in 2014, and it was really amaz­ing, bat­tling again­st Sup3r crew. All these fam­ous bboys and bgirls were there, and I was think­ing how this is really one of my dreams, to rep­res­ent Uganda in oth­er battles out­side Uganda.” Hav­ing achieved all he could pos­sibly hope to achieve com­pet­i­tion-wise as a bboy in his home coun­try, what is it that he would say to any­one aspir­ing to be the next Kiry­owa of Uganda – or any oth­er break­ing com­munity? “Some­times they don’t see you per­fect­ing your craft. One of the things you should think about – noth­ing. Don’t think about people judging you, may­be you lost your battle, well that’s that day, there’s another day. You can change it, just keep prac­ti­cing. And keep feel­ing. Whenev­er you’re plan­ning on mak­ing some­thing, reach­ing some­where, you always got to work hard for it. Know your weak­nesses, and make it a big­ger dream.”

Kiryowa’s words ring true to the many times proven real, yet con­sist­ently battled, poten­tial of hip hop as a unique and a remark­ably effi­cient tool to empower youths and make them see bey­ond their struggles. As much as Kiryowa’s mind has been in win­ning more battles and improv­ing his craft, as a side effect he, among many oth­er fel­low dan­cers, has become a home grown Ugandan super­star and an object of admir­a­tion. By win­ning titles and scor­ing jobs as the backup dan­cer of some of Uganda’s most cel­eb­rated artists, he has been able to inspire a gen­er­a­tion of bboys and bgirls alike in Uganda, to believe them, too, can achieve suc­cess, no mat­ter what their back­ground, level of edu­ca­tion, or income. While Break-Fast Jam for the time being is unable to reward its cham­pi­ons with a thou­sand dol­lar cash prizes,  Kibuuka high­lights the import­ance the won titles play in the every­day lives of their receiv­ers, har­ness­ing the youth with more power and respect both at home and at school.  “What we’re cre­at­ing now is our own role mod­els, her­oes we can actu­ally touch and reach and relate to. The event has cre­ated people who you can admire and yet meet in your day to day life and talk to, and get inspired from everything you can learn from them. We have our own super­stars and cham­pi­ons, I think this has been one of those very power­ful things that came to us along the pro­cess. It also pays a role in their per­son­al lives and in their com­munit­ies. For their fam­il­ies it’s show­ing some­thing is com­ing out of all this when their kids are com­ing back home with a trophy. It shows them they’re not just fool­ing around.”

Hit the beat crew, bboy Bbosa, bboy Erick Sama, bgirl Key and bboy Cizza - 2015 BFJ Finals Champions.

Hit the beat crew, bboy Bbosa, bboy Erick Sama, pop­per Uncle Wal­ter, bgirl Key and bboy Cizza — all the 2015 BFJ Finals Cham­pi­ons.

On the oth­er hand, Break-Fast Jam along oth­er hip hop ini­ti­at­ives has been able to equip youth with skills and know­ledge that has in return res­ul­ted in means of employ­ment in sev­er­al cases. As Kibuuka puts it, “Uganda, being a very young coun­try, needs its youth to work on improv­ing our cur­rent situ­ation. With our rate of youth unem­ploy­ment (eval­u­ated as high as 75–85% depend­ing on estim­ates) we have a lot of work to do on that area, but also a lot of power. Break­dan­cing is an uncon­ven­tion­al prac­tice that does not really belong to any par­tic­u­lar entity of power, like the gov­ern­ment, and is really explos­ive and attract­ive to the young people, also giv­ing them a voice.” Indeed, Uganda’s unem­ploy­ment rates are stag­ger­ing, and with little sup­port from the gov­ern­ment and poor levels of edu­ca­tion, many young Ugandans find them­selves idle and without a focus, even hope­less. In such a set­ting, activ­at­ing youth to change things for them­selves, is more cru­cial than ever. Kibuuka con­tin­ues, “I see through Break-Fast Jam we can get a lot of employ­ment for the youth in many dif­fer­ent aspects. You see a lot of youth that are into music engin­eer­ing, sound pro­duc­tion, graph­ic design, pho­to­graphy, but are lack­ing a plat­form to show­case this. With our plat­form there are also many oppor­tun­it­ies to gain exper­i­ence in their interests to then gain a liv­ing through that.”

Bgirl Shar­on from Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda, dur­ing the bgirl battles of the 2015 finals.

The talk of employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies brings one out­stand­ing indi­vidu­al to Ssekitoleko’s mind, Kat­abira Den­nis, a Break-Fast Jam Cham­pi­on from 2012. “Break-Fast Jam has been a tool for us to dis­cov­er break­ers. Den­nis is a good example that we found to be a very good break­er in his com­munity, and ever since then he didn’t stop prac­ti­cing. He won the Break-Fast Jam 2012 and many oth­er battles. Cur­rently he’s liv­ing in Kenya and work­ing as a dan­cer with his crew FBI dance crew. There are so many people in com­munit­ies out­side Kam­pala that have come to sur­face thanks to Break-Fast Jam that people have got­ten to know about through our events.” Kibuuka con­tin­ues to remind how the examples of pos­it­ive role mod­els and employ­ment also include the mem­bers of the core team: “As a pho­to­grapher I know I can count on these people, whenev­er I have an idea I want to work on I can reach out to these bboys, and I’ve gained a repu­ta­tion as an action pho­to­grapher. If someone needs dance pho­to­graphy they’ll have Oscar at the back of their mind. As far as it comes to host­ing events you can­not ima­gine any­one bet­ter than Joram, he knows how to work the crowd and he’s spent years doing that now. It’s been like free school­ing for us.” The offi­cial DJ of the event, Kiru­mira Issa, also a mem­ber of Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda, has become big­ger in the wider DJ scene of Uganda also thanks to the plat­form gran­ted to him through Break-Fast Jam. Another story of empower­ment is the chair­man Mark, who at the time of the inter­view was attend­ing a pro­gram for Young Afric­an Lead­ers (YALI) in the Wash­ing­ton DC. “All of us have bene­fit­ted from this pro­cess”, Ssekit­oleko closes.

Grat­it­ude for the guid­ance of both Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda and its founder Abramz, in nur­tur­ing a gen­er­a­tion of cre­at­ive and act­ive Ugandan youths to be change agents in their com­munit­ies, is expressed sev­er­al times in the course of the inter­view. Kibuuka explains how the sup­port and les­sons learned from BPU have been a life­line in the work they are doing now as an inde­pend­ent entity: “We came to learn and see how much power we have. With our uneducated skills, being organ­izers with our own power, just hav­ing the pas­sion we had and a few people believ­ing in us, espe­cially in BPU, that was our big source of know­ledge and resources. Infus­ing our pas­sion and power, we were able to spread it more.” Stay­ing innov­at­ive and con­stantly keep­ing an eye open for more pos­sib­il­it­ies of improve­ment in their sur­round­ings is another trait left as a leg­acy from years of work­ing with BPU. Ssekit­oleko reminds how they didn’t include a bgirl cat­egory in the battles ini­tially, until one year “we felt like girls need an equal chance to show­case their skills. And cur­rently it’s one of the most power­ful battles that so many people want to watch.  There’s people in Uganda who nev­er thought girls could do this, only boys, and now when it’s there, the whole Uganda wants to come and see it for them­selves. Now girls are also being respec­ted for some­thing they want to do, in their homes, schools, even in social media”. Sim­il­arly, kids’ battle was intro­duced after the team real­ized how many eager and tal­en­ted chil­dren were part of the Ugandan break­ing com­munit­ies. You can cer­tainly hear the inspir­a­tion gained from the BFJ battles in the words of two young BPU bgirls, Shar­on, 10, and Sanuy, 13. As Shar­on describes it, “in Break-Fast Jam I see all these people doing their moves and it makes me do bet­ter in the kids battle. When I see those moves I take them in my brain and I train a lot so I will also get it.” Sanuy fur­ther adds how many of the bgirls and bboys that she gets to see in Break-Fast Jam “do a lot of moves and are so much bet­ter”. How­ever, the 13 year old com­munity lead­er no longer shines away from such a chal­lenge: “But even me I believe in myself, in one Break-Fast Jam I came second but I know if I go again in kids battle I will be the first, I will be the win­ner. A bgirl also can be the win­ner.”

Abdul Hadi Naleh

Abdul Hadi Naleh frm Jord­an was show­ing what he got in his show­case battle again­st Ugandan bboy Bbosa, last year’s 7 to Smoke Cham­pi­on.

Another step up that Break-Fast Jam is hop­ing to achieve in years to come, would be to find more exchange on an inter­na­tion­al scale, with not only for­eign bboys com­ing to Uganda to share, but for Ugandans also to get more oppor­tun­it­ies to go learn, teach and inspire out­side Uganda. As Joram explains it, “exchange is there but not on the level we want it to be. Many inter­na­tion­al people have come here but on the oth­er hand the loc­al break­ers haven’t got­ten many oppor­tun­it­ies to vis­it over­seas in return. Reas­ons are often fin­an­cial, air tick­ets are very expens­ive, but we hope as the event gets big­ger we could see people learn­ing more from each other’s cul­tures and know­ledge.” Indeed, many inter­na­tion­al bboys and bgirls from around the world have made their way to Uganda to learn, share and get inspired by the East Afric­an break­ing scene, includ­ing the legendary Rich ‘Crazy Legs’ Colon of Rock Steady Crew and Ryo Anijha from the Mighty Zulu Kings. After his second, and latest vis­it to Uganda, dur­ing the Break-Fast Jam finals in 2015, Crazy Legs made a Face­book post describ­ing Ugandan break­ing scene as one to “have changed the game and raised the bar”, in the true essence of the hip hop philo­sophy ‘mak­ing some­thing out of noth­ing’. As he wro­te, “of all the places in this world that I’ve been to, no one has taken hip hop and used it as a tool for social change, uplift­ing, edu­ca­tion, peace, unity, love and hav­ing fun bet­ter than Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda. The world has a lot of catch­ing up. If you have doubts about wheth­er it’s pos­sible or not, come to Uganda and see how all odds are faced and dealt with.” A Jord­ani­an bboy, Abdul Hadi Naleh, vis­it­ing Uganda dur­ing August, to exchange with the loc­al scene after meet­ing Eric Egesa and Fahad­hi Kiry­owa dur­ing their trip to the US, shares sim­il­ar feels for Uganda: “I’ve been to many dance com­munit­ies, like France, Tur­key, United States, Nor­way, also in the Middle East, Dubai, Jord­an, Leban­on, but ser­i­ously I have not seen a hip hop scene like the one in Uganda. It’s really based on shar­ing and there’s no dis­tin­guish­ing in between the kids and the eld­ers. People are so respect­ful towards each oth­er – it’s not about the level here, it’s just about the par­ti­cip­a­tion. Also it’s not only a break­dance com­munity, but also a lead­er­ship and empower­ment com­munity.”

It is clear that Break-Fast Jam has already left an irre­vers­ible mark to the East Afric­an, if not the world­wide break­ing scene. Work­ing relent­lessly for your own com­munity is an art form that has gone lost on many inter­na­tion­al battle cats, who have got­ten so involved in their own pro­gress that they have for­got­ten to lead an example to the next gen­er­a­tion and to con­trib­ute their share in guar­an­tee­ing the sus­tain­ab­il­ity of the scene. Break-Fast Jam has des­pite its insec­ure fund­ing been suc­cess­ful in strik­ing a bal­ance between stay­ing true to your people and chal­len­ging bboys around the coun­try to push for more and be bet­ter, in the name of, as Kibuuka put it, birthing their own nation­al her­oes. But what is the secret for­mu­la behind their suc­cess? Ssekit­oleko quickly sums it up for me, “we nev­er stepped back. We’ve always been pas­sion­ate. At times we have to go the hard way, some­times it’s the only way, but we’ve always agreed on keep­ing going. There are events that have begun sim­il­arly to this, friends com­ing togeth­er but as soon as they face a chal­lenge they col­lapse. We’ve been mis­used and mis­treated by so many Ugandan cor­por­ate com­pan­ies more than once, but through that we’ve learned what to do and what not to do. Just trust and love what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it for.” Indeed, listen­ing to the story of Break-Fast Jam I can’t help but think about the accur­acy of the glob­ally trend­ing Ins­tagram hasht­ag – hip hop, once again, wins. With the 2016 finals on the way on the 19th-20th Novem­ber, let’s see who wins the battle.

image

 

Pho­to­graphy by Kibuuka Mukisa Oscar and Kibazzi Pius.

Fol­low @break­fastjam1 for updates!

 

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
Aino Lisma

Aino Lisma

Aino Lis­ma is a Finnish street dan­cer, dance teach­er and writer. She holds a BA in Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions and Peace Stud­ies from Lan­caster Uni­ver­sity, and has been a mem­ber of a Ugandan grass­roots organ­iz­a­tion Break­dance Pro­ject Uganda since 2011. Fol­low­ing her gradu­ation, she has been trav­el­ing to vari­ous com­munit­ies to teach, learn and com­mu­nic­ate about hip hop cul­ture and its power to empower and edu­cate, includ­ing Cam­bod­ia, Indone­sia, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. She is cur­rently based in Hel­sinki.

About Aino Lisma

Aino Lisma
Aino Lisma is a Finnish street dancer, dance teacher and writer. She holds a BA in International Relations and Peace Studies from Lancaster University, and has been a member of a Ugandan grassroots organization Breakdance Project Uganda since 2011. Following her graduation, she has been traveling to various communities to teach, learn and communicate about hip hop culture and its power to empower and educate, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. She is currently based in Helsinki.