Rumors buzz throughout the urban slum of Kamwokya on a recent summer evening: a VJ show might go down. The electricity just turned back on and four teenagers hurriedly drag plastic tables and chairs across a dirt soccer field in Kampala.
Pius, Venas, Bashir, and Shafic are the first local video jockeys, or VJs, on the Treasure Life Youth Center (TLC) lineup—and they’re about to deliver.
Uganda’s VJs are at once stage performers, voice actors, and film editors. They crank down the original audio in pirated Hollywood, Bollywood, and Chinese kung-fu movies and insert their own vocals in Luganda, one of the local languages. But it’s not the typical movie dubbing with word-for-word captions. They invent their own interpretations of the plot and inject their personality into the dialogue.
VJs rip their vocals onto DVDs or perform live. At a VJ show, rather than let films play through in the typical ‘hush-hush’ theater settings, the VJs constantly mute the film’s audio to act out character dialogue and invite the audience to participate. The crowd makes a ruckus, and nobody sits still.
Ugandans first began overdubbing films decades ago with the intention of literal translations. But they soon found reframing the film’s action and dialogue in a Ugandan context captivated local audiences. This created a new form of oral storytelling, allowing VJs to break the boundaries between foreign and local productions in their own language and style. They subvert the mainstream rules held tightly by Hollywood—let the movie stars do the talking and sit quietly in your seat. In turn, VJs create a media culture that is distinctly their own.
“VJing is Ugandan,” says VJ Jingo, one of the country’s most popular performers. “We are finally being recognized.”
The four teens at TLC are creating a commotion: unplugging wires from the TV set in the cafeteria, running a long extension cord from a cargo freight, and testing the microphone sound from subwoofers. All this happens while kids play soccer and boda-boda taxi drivers park for the night next to the field.
Pius brings out the single-most important piece of equipment needed for the show: the homemade electronics they’ve created to VJ. To protect the circuit board’s dangling wires and jutting components, it’s enclosed in a Splash mango juice box.
The teens use this palm-sized, handmade electronic circuit—part audio mixer, part preamplifier—to VJ anything from soccer matches to Nike advertisements. They’ve made this circuit using materials from a local electronics shop and with the help of its manager, Sherali.
Beyond Kamwokya and across Uganda, male celebrities and professionals like VJ Jingo dominate the scene, using their lucrative earnings from DVD sales and live performances to buy impressive audio equipment.The artists burn their versions of the Jason Bourne and “Twilight” series onto hundreds of DVDs that are bought, sold, and exchanged around the country, and even in Rwanda and South Sudan. Video libraries on nearly every corner in Kampala’s slums sell or rent copies for about 1,000 shillings (USD 0.20). Duck into a video hall—small shacks dotting every nook and cranny—and watch and socialize with neighbors for a few hundred shillings.
For VJs, breaking into the scene is difficult without the cash for recording equipment and a flashy style. So Pius, Venas, Bashir, and Shafic must hack their way in as a team.
They’ve worked hard to build the circuit over a couple of weeks. During the day, it’s difficult to solder and test connections with the slum’s intermittent electricity. A few team members no longer attend school, since their families can’t pay the school fees. Nonetheless, the youths helped build what is known in Kamwokya as The weDub Project, a local design initiative started at TLC. The teens are experimenting with electronics and defining the cultural interactions that come from using technology they made themselves.
Pius sets up the tech. One end of the box connects to a subwoofer, another to the DVD player, and the other side to a microphone.
Venas opens the show mimicking VJ Jingo’s signature call-and-response routine: “TLC na ki!” (“With what?”). The kids yell back, “Na lo!” (“With all our hearts!”). He goes straight into an improvisation of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, playing to the audience with alternating tones of the bird’s famous “Beep! Beep!”. He renames Wile E. Coyote as one of his friends in the audience. Laughter ensues. Sandals and shoes shuffle on the dirt as kids get closer to the VJ, as if trying to touch his energy and charisma.
But Venas doesn’t have the spotlight for long. Faima, a girl who looks about six, grabs the mic and starts her own narration. Minutes later, eight-year-old Lawrence is holding the mic and, although it’s his first time, he eases into the persona of a VJ.
The night is just warming up in Kamwokya.