RETURN OF THE LEGEND: Ernest Nsimbi aka GNL Zamba is one of the people that popularised hip hop music as Lugaflow in Uganda. The rapper, who inspired and continues to inspire many Ugandan hip hoppers, has been away for a while. Lawrence Ogwal caught up with GNL online about music and Hollywood.
You have been out of Uganda for quite some time, don’t you miss home?
Yes, King Tchallah has been away from Wakanda for three years to be exact, although it feels like three days to me. Of course I miss the “Republic of Kawempe”, I miss my old house that we used to call “Beverly Hills”, I miss my friends, but most of all I miss my family. Home will always be home but I also love to live in the present so I can savour every minute as I explore and experience new environments.
Why did you flee the country?
The word ‘flee’ implies I was being pursued but if I remember correctly, I left by choice because I felt I had reached that time of my career where it was time to evolve. I always had a dream of working and living in Hollywood, plus part of my family was already in Los Angeles. It was the only logical thing to do, move to the Mecca of entertainment and grow my craft while focusing on building my family.
Rumour had it that you had gone to visit your girlfriend Tamar’s family…
As rumours go, this is another of them that is untrue. It was always our plan to move to California to grow professionally. My plan is to explore, experience and expand. I had been touring North America since 2010 but it was not until I met Tamar that I found a partner to chase and actualise dreams with. So I got my professional O-1 visa (only given to international performers) and that is how I became a prince of a town called Bel–Air.
A few months into the US, you got into acting. Was Tamar your connection to Hollywood?
When I was 16, I told my father that my company was going to be called Baboon Forest and I told him that I was going to make movies. I learned how to write short stories and recite poems. I discovered mentors in Tupac, Nas, Ice Cube, Common, Will Smith and Quincy Jones, all masters of one craft — the art of storytelling. My connection to Hollywood was spiritual before [it became] physical.
How come we have not seen any movie featuring GNL yet?
It took Denzel Washington 20 years before he got his first major role in Hollywood, George Clooney became a star with ER at 50, and the list is endless. I am not only concentrating on being in front of the camera, I write, produce and I am refining my skills at directing. My commitment to this art is not for “kasigiri”— there is no rush. Some people act like I owe them a report card of how I am fairing in Hollywood.
There was a clip that made rounds on social media, which featured a guy called Obbo who looked like you. Was that you?
Yes. That was my character, Obbo.
You have been quiet musically and only came out recently to respond to the Who is Who battle
I think we all need to have our facts straight. You might have fallen victim to fake news, because the chronology and accuracy of what your question purports is way off the mark. My freestyle is called Vibranium and it was never a reply to anyone but rather a letter to my fans. It had a totally different beat and you must agree that the subject matter was of a completely different class and seasoning. What I heard was that a YouTube blogger spliced the first few seconds of my beat and made it seem like the two were related. You fell for the trick. I do not reply, I address.
If it was not for the Who is Who challenge, were you planning on retiring musically?
In a developed system of the music business, an established brand regularly takes a pause of about three years between projects. That is why they deliver quality projects every time they drop. Take an example of Dr Dre, Jay Z, Eminem and Coldplay, among others. I only put commas on my career, not full stops. This is a life sentence of pain and bliss and I love it. I can never retire from music for as long as I can still channel that energy for good.
In Uganda, the Who is Who battle made a good statement, do you think it was a good way to promote hip hop?
I think credit should be given to Feffe Bussi for being so brave in reigniting the flame. He reminded me of a younger me when I was down in the trenches. I would walk or hop on a boda boda to go battle anyone anywhere in their hood to get my name popping. I was never afraid! I was arrogant because I knew my lyrical sword and mind was sharper than anyone out there. I was merciless; I took crowns and heads to become GNL. People at DV8, Catalina, Kasubi, Eden Service Park, Lions Club, Sparks, Spot After and Kawempe will tell you I was not anyhting to play with. Who is Who re-ignited the spirit of that competition in the game and that is very necessary when moving forward. Shout out to all the talented artistes that penned replies and did it for Hip hop but most of all those whose flow sat on the beat.
Which particular artiste do you think did justice to Nas’ beats?
Whoa! There were many but I do not think I heard them all. Most notable was Jim Nola, Rachel Ray, Mulekwa, Feffe Bussi, Da Agent, Brian Cuts, one guy that did Lusoflow (Lusoga) and one new artiste whose name I cannot remember right now but he had a vicious flow; his video was in a studio with his homies and then on the bypass.
Which rapper in Uganda do you think has a promising hip hop career?
I see so much potential and talent but I am not a fortune teller. Most artistes have the talent but no drive. Talent is as common as kitchen salt but persistence, resilience, character and focus are a rare combination. All those factors will determine who will be the next young king. I am looking forward to seeing who it will be.
Your new album artwork has Tamar’s photo, are you collaborating with her?
Yes, I am excited about our new self-titled album. It is a multi-cultural global fusion album called Nsimbi. I feel like this is the album that should have preceded my first album Koyi Koyi. It is full of purpose and positivity; it is my truth, our truth. Tamar and I are both at the stage in our careers where the music we make has to be thoughtful and impactful. It is an album we are both proud of, because we feel like we are bringing something positive to the world and bringing the world we believe in to life.
How do you plan to promote this album?
The album will be promoted in the US and beyond. This project belongs to the world to create a positive mindset. We are working with an experienced American PR company and our managers are two amazing women that have our backs and believe in the Nsimbi vision. Education is another area the project was designed to reach so in addition to stadiums, festivals and performing arts centres, we will be at universities.
What is your comment on hip hop from when you started out and now?
I am proud of the new talents, I like the growth. The platinum generation, my era of MCs, inspired so many. What needs to be improved is the content; everybody is chasing a dance floor hit that leaves little room to create impactful music. Even the most talented produce air bubbles and sound the same because they are trying to replicate their earlier successes.
A hit song is on the radio and goes off quicker than a fart in a storm. My advice is to try and diversify the subject matter. It was good when I made Kikankane, better and authentic when I made Ani Yali Amanyi, vividly real and relatable when I wrote Koyi Koyi, classic with Soda Jinjale but legendary with Story Ya Luuka. A great MC needs to have range and that is what is missing today.
Do you think the platinum generation has anything to offer anymore?
Let’s solve this riddle together. If Jay-Z and Chingy staged a show today, which one do you think people would go to? It is like you saying Beyoncé has nothing to offer because there is Ariana Grande. In the war to promote hip hop, we need all our pistols and canons where you need to have generals and foot soldiers. In Baboon Forest we say “emitti emitto jejigumiza ekibira”, translated loosely as “it is seedlings that make the forest dense and intricate”.
Does Baboon Forest still exist?
My vision for Baboon Forest is global. I am grateful to our fans, believers and clients all over the world. The company has grown. Our interests right now are aligned with social entrepreneurship projects, film (Baboon Forest Pictures LA), a fashion brand and most definitely music. I will soon introduce a programme called the G1000, a label, that I hope will see me work with talented youth.
Do you agree that Mun-G only became successful after leaving Baboon Forest?
I would be so disappointed if he had not. I am super proud of him and all the other talents we groomed and managed. My philosophy is that a candle loses nothing when it lights another, it only makes the room brighter. I hold back nothing when I believe in my younger brothers, that is why the label was more like a mentorship programme where artistes I worked with learned the formula to not only make a hit but become a self-sustaining brand.
When was the last time you talked to Mun-G?
I have not spoken to Mun-G in three years. The last time we spoke was at his kwanjula and we had a great time. We both went out and partied until the sun came out. That day must have been the world’s longest hangover.
Besides just hip hop, how would you rate the Ugandan music industry over the years…
Let us take a moment to appreciate the music alone. The discography is a colourful spectrum from Menton Summer to Ziza Bafana and Weasel, Young Vibration, Bataka, Klear Kut to Fik Fameica. The Journey has been a beautiful struggle and we have not reached our destination yet. We have seen caterpillars become butterflies and we have seen carcases and flies. We lost our dear Radio in our time, the past generation lost Philly and Elly.
Do you ever consider returning to Uganda any time soon?
I am packing as we speak.
What is the one thing you miss back home?
A meal of deep-fried mputta (Nile perch), cassava, nakatti, avocado with nyanya mbisi, Ayayayayayah!