Beenie Gunter has no fear

January 09, 2020

In 2018, no Ugandan artist, that comes to mind, had more hit songs than Beenie Gunter. It was simply his year. He released Pon Mi (With Slick Stuart and Roja), Olina Work (with Skales), Sekkle Down (Terera), Watto, Dancehall (with Cindy and Eddy Kenzo), Tompaana remix (with Eddy Kenzo), Kill a man (with Navio) and others. In 2019, he continued his form with Commando (If you know, you know), Giddem (with Big Tril), No Letting Go (with Lydia Jazmine), By Now, Bomblast (with Skales), Hot Like Dat, Yes, Protect Wi Jah amongst others.

This is all from a man that already had chart topping anthems like Tubaayo, No Offense (with Sheeba), Nishike (with Pallaso), and John Paul. Prolific doesn’t begin to define the 25 year old dancehall artist, whose real name is Crescent Baguma. 

In July 2019, he released his debut album, No Fear. It has been four years in the making. 25 songs heavy, it is a project of diversity. He demonstrates his vocal and conceptual range with songs of different genres. 

In Ndibassa, By Now, Sekkle Down, No Letting Go, Oliwadala, Tick, Ntwaala and Tolinda Nkya, he tackles the topic of love in the sharp, melodic, high pitched tone that has endeared him to his fans nationwide. The melodies are memorable and the lyrics relatable. And yet no two of these songs are the same.  These ingredients are what have come to define Beenie Gunter’s long catalogue and help him stand out. Popcaan, Moze Radio, Sean Paul, WizKid and Alkaline all come to mind when one listens to him. So who of these had the biggest influence on him? “Me I respect talent. I listen to everything,” he responds.

He however admits that Popcaan is his best musician of all time. During the interview, an Alkaline playlist was playing in the background. How about Moze Radio? “In High School- St. Mary’s Kitende- the headmaster always brought artists and I used this opportunity to interact with Radio and Weasel and other artistes. Later in life, I had the opportunity to meet him when I played Chagga (Radio and Weasel’s manager) my music.” he says. “Moze Radio made me realize that songs should come from the heart. You can make music that can make people cry.” 

The soft choruses and rough verses are, even subconsciously, a testament to the impact that Radio and Weasel have had on the industry, ever since they broke out with Nakudata, a collaboration with Omulangira Suuna. A format of sorts was established and adopted by their peers and those that came after. It wasn’t the first time of course- Benon and Vamposs had preceded them. Internationally Chaka Demus and Plies had popularized and formularized the style. Hip Hop, Dancehall’s uncle, also relies on a similar pattern- many songs have a sweet melody for the chorus and raw vocals for verses. However, Radio and Weasal made it a requirement. It is effective and Beenie Gunter relies on it. 

Beenie’s choruses, just like Sean Paul’s, are heavily recitable. When Beenie goes on stage, he doesn’t have to do much jumping (even though he still does) because when the chorus drops, and the DJ mutes the audio, the audience sings along, word for word. The lyrics are simple and relatable. 

One of the fascinating things about Beenie Gunter’s sound is his vocal diversity. He reveals to me that he doesn’t use a background vocalist. All the harmonies that we hear in his songs are by him. He says he records in seven voices. 

In Saba, he ventures into uncharted territory. The song opens with a danceable beat fused with hip hop. Beenie weighs in with an intro and then the hook drops. “What do you do when you don’t know what fi do- Saba. What do you say when you don’t know what fi say- Saba. Inna my world Jah Jah handle my dealings.” The song is going to be a crowd favorite, and Beenie agrees. In the second verse, rapper Big Tril steps in to deliver a memorable melody- driven 16 lines.  “We had just finished recording Giddem with Big Tril. We were chilling,” he recalls, “Him and I were just talking about life, you know. Then I asked him. ‘What do you do when you don’t know what fi do? What do you say when you don’t know what fi say?’” Then he went back to the microphone and recorded it, immediately. 

Jah (God) is a strong theme on Beenie Gunter’s album and also when he speaks. “I attribute my success to Jah.” But it goes even farther than that. Beenie Gunter says that he doesn’t write any of his songs. He says he treats each recording as a prayer session. “I go to the microphone and just pray. My songs are prayers. It’s spiritual,” he says. For inspiration, he insists that he looks to himself but he also admits that his songs are inspired by the experiences of his friends and the people he meets. “As a musician, I deal with very many people. It’s not like an office person who only meets workmates and family. So that’s how I’m able to make music that many people can relate with.”

The core of his friendship is Guntalk, his management label. At his house, where the interview was held, four members of his band of brothers were posted at different points of the three bedroom house, doing different things. Ibrah Kats, his manager, offered me some soda, which I didn’t turn down. Beenie Gunter doesn’t drink alcohol. I was also offered a certain natural substance that has been found to help ease pain in cancer patients, and to generally facilitate meditation, and foster recreation. All this time, Beenie was in his room. The manager said he was “freshening up.” Another gentleman wearing a Guntalk T-shirt was seated in a corner with a laptop and headphones. Later, I found out that he is the GunTalk mixing engineer. The third gentleman was organizing the set (where the interview would take place) and testing his camera. The fourth was in the kitchen washing dishes (I think it was his turn). Ibrah, the manager, soon joined him in the kitchen, where he put on an apron and embarked on frying some goat’s meat. The process was still going on by the time the interview ended. 

I later inquire from Beenie how he has managed to maintain a good relationship with his management team, in an era where fights and splits are the norm. He says that the team is composed entirely of friends who he started with. Each one makes a unique contribution and shares the same vision of pushing GunTalk forward. He also mentions Dante Kazibwe, who has directed most of his videos- majority of which are currently in rotation on many regional TV stations. He says that he met Dante at a young age. Dante was interested in video and Beenie was interested in singing. They decided to work together and they are both thriving in their individual careers, and still work together. He then proceeds to mention the names of each of the core members, including Steyn, who produced most of the songs on the No Fear album. 

Why the name No Fear? He says No Fear is a mindset. Many people doubted him at the beginning. They also tried to box him in. “They said I wouldn’t (move) forward if I don’t sing in only luganda. Yet Luganda isn’t even spoken by everyone in Uganda. English is more accessible.” So No Fear is a statement, he says, to inspire young people to be fearless. This is consistent with his tagline “Bali abayaye tubasobola” which has become something of a mantra to many young Ugandans. 

He faced many challenges, he admits, but the lessons are what he chooses to dwell on. “It’s (the success) been a long time coming. We have to learn to be patient. Don’t ‘badmind’ people that are winning. Just wait your turn.” He advises.

Ibrah, his manager, attributes Beenie’s impact on Ugandans to hard work and prayer. “People don’t know this but Beenie Gunter is very hardworking, focused and prayerful. He leads us in songs and prayer.”  If Beenie’s track record is anything to go by, the future is very bright. Yet, one can still see the hunger in his eyes. He isn’t stopping any time soon. He isn’t satisfied. He has big ambitions and he will not be derailed. As they say in Jamaica, Jah Guide!

By Benezeri Wanjala