Kemiyondo Coutinho is a highly regarded actress, writer, producer and director from Uganda. She has been performing from the age of 17, receiving multiple awards including OKAYAfrica100 Women of Africa and Forbes 30 under 30. Her latest venture, A Ka Dope, highlights new voices in Ugandan music. R:Ed met Kemiyondo at the LSE Africa Summit in London.
R:Ed: Please give us a short bio of your life and work
Kemiyondo: So I consider myself an entrepreneur. I have different art, platforms, I write, I direct, I act. I also started a platform called A Ka Dope, which is basically a platform for fresh faces in the music industry.
R:Ed: Your first show was a one-woman show. How come you decided to work alone? How did this play into your ideas of representation?
Kemiyondo: Actually, I fell into it. I’d seen someone do a one person show and it was the closest thing to magic that I’d seen: someone changing into all these different people. It was a purely selfish artistic venture. And then I knew that I wanted it to be an African story and I realised there were no one-woman shows about African women at all. And so then I thought: I guess I just have to write it, and so naively, I did. Now retrospectively I look at it and I think that was the genesis of wanting to give different stories different platforms because I physically had to embody these different lives and different women. I think it may have ignited the need to keep telling these stories.
R:Ed: Your art can be described as very multifaceted. Did you see multiple angles within yourself you wanted to exhibit?
Kemiyondo: I think being an actor makes you multifaceted because you have to understand things from another person’s eyes because if you’re playing what the people would deem a villain, you can’t play them as a villain, you’ve got to play the villain as a hero. That’s why people related so much to Black Panther, with that villain that made us understand the character. So I think that kind of training of having to understand why people do the things they do and their justification, allows for me to be multifaceted.
R:Ed: You say you dislike people saying you giving a voice to the voiceless. Could you expand a bit on that?
Kemiyondo: I think a lot of people who say that I’m giving a voice to the voiceless are just trying to hide their privilege, and I think they do it in a way to make themselves feel better, like ‘oh, I’m bridging the gap.’ I think those people don’t need your voice, they need ears. All you can do is change the ears that the voice lands on. So instead of saying ‘I’m going to tell you a story because I can’, make a piece of art that will allow that person to tell their story and allow it to be received. So even with A Ka Dope, I don’t sing, I have no musical training, but it came from seeing talented artists not get a platform unless you were like a top artist. And I thought new fresh faces need to be heard and so I’m not telling their story, they are. I think people need to just create more platforms, otherwise you become your own barrier, you become your own gatekeeper.
R:Ed: In terms of artistic independence and funding, what do you wish people knew before applying for grants?
Kemiyondo: I think no money is free. Everything has an agenda. And it’s okay, but just make sure you know what their agenda is. Make sure it matches with yours, or be willing to compromise, but know from the beginning what it is. Don’t be blindsided because there’s certain stories I could tell just fine with the grant, and there’s certain stories I cannot. And I think knowing the differences and doing research on what those organisations have funded before you will give you insight.
R:Ed: You claim all art is political. What do you mean by that?
Kemiyondo: I think anything that changes the status quo is a political act. I read this quote about how loving yourself is the most rebellious act you can do in a society that makes money off your insecurities. And I thought that was so fantastic because it’s not a protest, but that is a political act to say, I’m not a size four and I want to love myself anyway. You’re disrupting what people are telling you to believe. And so I think that the artist’s job is to do that is to get people to re-question and re-see life, and relearn and unlearn and I think that in itself is a political act.
R:Ed: What role do you think art will play in Africa’s development on the global stage in the next ten years?
Kemiyondo: I think definitely the front runner is music. I think music is the most powerful art because it’s so easy to consume. You don’t really need to understand the language, it just hits you. I feel like it’s instant. Everyone loves music. I think music is followed by film, because people love stories. I think if we’re able to harness that to tell our old stories. What we will have is then these companies who have the money to entrust us to tell our own stories, in contrast with hiring Hollywood come in and tell our stories.
R:Ed: You speak a lot about women in your stories. What made you decide to focus on them?
Kemiyondo: So actually I wasn’t trying to do that in my one-woman show. I was interviewing women, because I knew I was going to play women, mostly. Then I started to learn all the issues are coming from being a woman, like HIV is a direct relation to the fact that she was a woman. Her not going to school, was a direct translation to gender inequity, her being beaten up. It was my first time to understanding the role equity plays in terms of gender, and then I think from that point I always wanted to speak to that lens.
R:Ed: Would you consider yourself to be an activist, an artist or somewhere in between?
Kemiyondo: I used to say I was an activist but I don’t say so anymore, just because I feel like activism is so much more than what I’m doing that I would feel like a fraud. I think art can be a form of activism, but I don’t think that I’m there yet. People may sometimes refer to me as that but I don’t refer to myself as that because I feel that that under plays the activists that I know and respect.
R:Ed: What are your hopes for the future, within art or within Africa?
Kemiyondo: My hope is that we started investing in our own art. My hope is that in 20 years someone will not have to leave the country to make money as an artist as I’ve had to do it. The choice to be an artist or to live at home are two very hard things to separate. And my hope is that one day someone’s going to do both.