Keeping lowkey: When you hear Swangz Avenue, your mind will probably rush to Benon and of course Irene Ntale or Winnie Nwagi. But here is Julius Kyazze, one of the CEOs, call him Benon’s Swangz Avenue partner. Why does he choose the back bench? How long has he been part of Swangz? What does he do at Swangz? Isaac Ssejjombwe spoke to him.
Who is Julius Kyazze?
Well Julius is a private person. I pride myself in the work I do. I am a family man, married with two children.
Tell us about Swangz Avenue.
Swangz is an entertainment outfit that has been around for seven years; we do both audio and visual production. We have done productions for companies in Zambia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Congo and of course Uganda. We also mentor and manage talent and lately, we started events hosting and our debut was the just-concluded Roast and Rhyme Festival.
How did the name Swangz Avenue come about?
When Swangz started, Benon & Vampos were staying in Makindye in a place called Muswangali. They were hot at the time. The only thing that wasn’t cool about them was their village name. So they started saying they came from Swangz, and that’s how Swangz Avenue came about. Once I partnered with Benon, the name Swangz had become popular.
What inspired you to join this kind of business?
This is the type of business that can pay all your bills. It is safe and I am passionate about it. I can tell and smell talent from afar. It feels nice to see people dancing to music and videos we produce because at the end of it all, it feels like they are dancing to my work.
How did you and Benon link up to become partners?
We were casual friends and I had hired Benon and Vampos a few times for our Buzz school tours. Around 2008, I learnt Benon had started producing music after returning from his US trip but I did not pay much attention until when I heard some of the music he had produced for Radio & Weasle, GNL, Aziz Azion and more. I called him and he made me a collection of music he had done in his bedroom studio in Makindye. I remember listening to that music for several weeks in a row. I appreciated the musicians but I fell in love with the producer’s touch. We met at my Buzz office and I sold him the idea of a bigger dream. We shook hands and we have never looked back.
What were you doing before?
Before Swangz I had just found my footing with Buzz magazine and Events. The business had been around since late 2005 and we had become the youth brand we had set out to be.
How do you balance Buzz, Swangz and your other businesses?
One of my most profound business achievements with my partner, Tina and the entire Buzz team is the systems we have put in place. I have an amazing team at both Swangz and Buzz who have played a huge role in ensuring we exceed our clients’ expectations.
So do you run Buzz and Swangz as sister companies?
Buzz and Swangz are completely different and very independent companies. We of course have a very good relationship and it’s not just business for everyone involved, we are a bunch good friends.
You seem quite comfortable in this business. What do you know about the entertainment industry?
Well, I know enough to make a living out of it [laughs] and to drive Swangz Avenue afloat.
What defines your personality out of office?
I am in no position to answer that. I guess my workmates and friends can tell.
Why did you decide to shift from Makindye to Muyenga?
We like comfort and Muyenga is so convenient for us because all the essential things are around us; banks, hospitals, companies etc. My partner Benon Mugumbya and I live just a few minutes away from the studio and it is so quiet, which is so vital for our kind of work.
What plans do you have for Swangz?
A lot. We are soon starting up a TV production house, getting contracts from all over Africa and so on.
In your perspective, what is the most outstanding transformation Swangz has had so far?
When we were starting up, we went through a huge re-branding phase in 2009 from Makindye to Muyenga and we had to let go of some talent. The clean out took us three years but it eventually paid off because we were able to become a credible and bankable brand.
How different is Swangz Avenue from other production houses?
I can’t speak for others but Swangz is the only record label doing audio and visual commercials, artiste management and soon TV production. Our studio offers a full package.
What are some of the challenges you face at Swangz?
Just like any other business in Africa, different economies are suffering, which cuts back on the expenditure and marketing. But we are believers offering solutions that can be embraced even during hard times.
What is the most memorable moment for you at Swangz Avenue?
Tough one. When we ventured into TV ad production several years ago, we were so eager to work and deliver. We agreed to shoot a TVC for Airtel Rwanda but because the budgets where so lean, I could only travel with Benon. We took on a job that is usually done by a crew of about 20 people and yet we had roughly a week to deliver. We had no film training or prior experience. We flew to Kigali, had a day to scout three locations, cast for the entire ad, do make up, get permits, film, direct and everything else. We edited it in our hotel overnight, jumped onto the morning flight and delivered the ad to the agency in Kampala. The client was amazed! For someone in this business they would know this is extra crazy. We still look back and laugh about it but we did it, but knowing what I know now, I cannot agree to it given a chance.
When people hear Swangz, they think of Benon. Why do you keep undercover?
My job at the company is to manage the business end of things and there is absolutely no need for me to come to the forefront. My job is to make sure our artistes stay at the forefront, our productions are trendy and that the brand continues to grow and stay relevant.
The late Sera was signed to Swangz, and there was conspiracy talk that Swangz had something to do with her death. Can you clarify on that?
We work in a very difficult industry and a world of public judgment where everyone with a smart phone, pen or pencil can issue a verdict. We lost a friend, a sister and a special talent.
Swangz recently bought a new car for Winnie Nwagi. Is it part of the contract to buy your artistes cars?
No it wasn’t in her contract. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes with our artistes. They get reprimanded for flaws of their own making and get appreciated for a good job. They actually earn these things. When an artiste starts to make money for the company and themselves, we always find ways to thank them. Every artiste has a different need and a car can’t suit everyone’s situation.
Who is that one artiste you look out for and you wish to sign?
I listen to a lot of upcoming musicians. I’m not as musical as Benon but I can tell a hit song when I hear it. I can tell a hit voice when I listen to one. So I always keep an open mind and of course I always hope that the next to walk to my office is the one.
Who calls the shots? You or Benon?
We are a team. There are areas where I don’t even concern myself on what goes on and the reverse is true. Sometimes, Benon will not even want to know what is happening. We are a team that complements each other’s ability based on unwavering trust. And this extends to our staff and artistes, we only partner or hire people that complement our abilities and people we can trust to perform their duties diligently.
Describe for us the mood at Swangz on a normal day.
Whether I’m around or not, Swangz is a cool place to work. It has never felt like work. We work with some of the most amazing people I know. Contrary to what people expect, it is quiet most times except when Benon and Irene are happy. When those two get excited especially over lunch, you will know they are around. That is when you will hear loud guitar sounds and music arguments about very strange musicians that only they can comprehend.
What would you say are your top five songs this year?
The ladies have continued to dominate the charts. In no specific order, my best hits so far would be Sembera by Irene Ntale, Nkwatako by Sheebah and Musawo by Winnie Nwagi.
• In 2009 we did something that changed the entertainment industry in Uganda. We created a new class of artistes who took the industry by storm; Vampino, Keko, Navio, Goodlyf, Rabadaba, and others.
• In 2013 we introduced Irene Ntale and the results are splendid. Her career has sky rocked in two years. There is no way you can mention Uganda’s best artistes today without mentioning Winnie Nwagi, but we can’t congratulate ourselves yet
• We have done commercials for big companies such as Airtel, MTN and our work has been appreciated in East Africa and as far as Zambia and South Africa.
• Soon we are getting into TV production such as dramas, soaps, reality shows etc. we are taking the burden higher by creating something new to TV.