Dreamer: Many Ugandan musicians trace their first encounter with music to the school church choir and with incessant practice and competent management, they get their first hit song. But Prosper Ntege, aka An-Known, has a different story to tell. Bash Fahad Mutumba sat with the musician to hear the story of how he broke through the music industry.
“I like to describe my music style as a fusion of Soul and elements of RnB. I come from a family of four siblings and we could not get everything we wanted. The boys were raised by our father and the girls by our mother. My father was not well-off financially, to the extent that we often relied on local herbs for treatment when we got sick,” the 24-year-old starts off.
While in school, An-Known says he used to enjoy fine art, portrait drawings and the like. He knew he was a talented artist/painter.
“My dream in high school was to improve my art and make a career out of it. As children, we always have dreams, but we keep adjusting them as we grow, because we get to realise how hard it is to achieve many of them. I wanted to be able to study in an international school, and go abroad and study further in art school. I had the talent, but I was craving for a way to nurture it. I wanted to eventually be able to own an art gallery. But lo and behold, I ended up in the nocturnal business of music,” he says.
Surprisingly for him, he did not see the music kick in because as he says, everything just happened out of the blue and he noticed he could sing and write songs too. All this happened while he was in Senior Two when he joined the Music, Dance and Drama (MDD) club.
However, he still did not look at it as a future career. It was mainly for fun, and a pastime. But after his Senior Four exams, he had dropped out of school and he started to look at music as an actual job.
“I remember in my primary school, I used to cram song lyrics. I loved Eminem’s Not Afraid and rapping his songs helped me develop my voice in a way. I used to rap in very high notes,” says.
What An-Known did not realise is that all the while, he was doing vocal practice because when he later tried to sing RnB songs, and in church, his voice was good. Everyone asked where he practiced from and the answer was always nowhere. The MDD club gave him an opportunity to write material for them, and they loved everything he did. From that point, he fell in love with music.
However, like any African parent, music was not something his father wanted to hear about.
“My dad did not support my music dream. Not because he did not like it, but because he did not believe it would be a successful venture for me. I never blamed him because he was trying to protect me. Actually, he never rejected the whole thing outright, but he just kept advising me to find better things to do with my time as a young man, says An-Known.”
Interesting though, this situation with his father contributed to his very unique stage moniker, An-Known, which he says he coined to hide his music from his father in case it ever played anywhere. After all, his father did not know what his singing voice sounded like. He only found out much later.
An aspect about An-Known’s success that would still seem very curious, is the fact that he got a breakthrough song less than two years after joining the music industry. We know that it took even the best that we know, the likes of Sheebah, multiple years of trying, before they finally hit the jackpot. How did a little-known young man from a humble family background, with no money and no connections, manage to pull this off in such a short time?
“I had given myself 10 years to get a breakthrough, because I had always heard stories about how long it took most musicians to get their first hit song. Also, where I come from in Seguku, there were upcoming artistes I found in the music business, who were singing long before me and had never got a breakthrough. I knew it was hard, so I set a realistic goal for myself,” the vocalist says.
At the back of his mind, however, An-Known thought it could also be as easy as being talented, and that your music would get you noticed, however, he learnt along the way that lack of connections and finances are a big hindrance for any upcoming artiste. He does not take it for granted that it was somewhat easy sailing for him.
He clears the air, saying he never crashed any shows he was not invited to, despite many advising that it was a strategy. He was believed that if it were meant to be, success would find him.
“The moment I decided to release professionally-produced audios, is when I got my breakthrough. I will not lie.”
Indeed when Doctor, his first single, was released, it got critically-acclaimed only a few months after its release.
“Initially I thought Covid-19 was a curse for me and given the financial situation in my family, I had given up on music and was planning to go to Dubai to work. I planned that perhaps if I were able to save some money, I would invest in the music much later. The lockdown interrupted these plans, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As many were sadly losing their lives, I was being transformed into a successful musician.”
However, it was not all rosy for the smooth-voiced artiste. Given that his success came during the Covid-19 lockdown, with concerts banned in the entire country, he did not make any money during that time since concerts and any kind of shows had been banned.
“I only started making money towards the end of lockdown. As it loosened up, we started breaking some rules. The ban on concerts was no longer so tight, so I would get booked for a few shows here and there. By this time, I already had a second successful song, Tonneerabira,” he says.
With the growth of social media platforms such as TikTok, it has become easier for underground musicians to get noticed than it was before. Actually, Nigerian Afro Beats singer CKay owes the unprecedented success of his Love Nwantiti song to TikTok. Also, Tems got worldwide attention after her Essence went viral on TikTok. An-Known agrees, but he adds that the music still has to be good to be appreciated by fans on social media.
“Back then, people used to only rely on radios and TVs for promotion. I started seeing my songs go viral on TikTok without me even trying. By the time they reached radio and TV, people already knew them. People always welcome a nice product,” he argues.
On breaking into the industry, An-Known acknowledges that he has met challenges on his path to fame, noting that many players in the industry make things so hard for upcoming artistes.
He mentions how some radio and TV presenters, audio producers, promoters and others, take advantage of desperate upcoming artistes to fleece them of their money, with a promise of things they never fulfill.
This, he says, is the reason he has stuck to the same producer, Spot Music, who did his first song, as two top producers ripped him off of heavy sums of money and one video director reportedly charged him Shs7m for a video that is not worth even Shs2m.
“Maintaining the success is a hard thing too, as there are people who always want to pull others down. Being a reserved person made many presenters think I am proud. I am not a fan of the bar, yet that is where most people meet to catch up. Also, before breaking through, I would do music at my own pace, but now, people demand for new music all the time. I would spend months without making a music video, but now my fans expect it after I release the audio. Sometimes I have no money for a video that fits the standards I am at now,” An-Known says.
And, of course, there are trolls
“I am a very sensitive person, and some fans of other artistes attack you for no reason. Learning to control emotions in these situations is not so easy, however, I am getting used to it. Another thing, some people wish you well in your face, but stab you in the back the first chance they get,” he says.
An-Known plays the guitar, is currently learning the piano and also plans to enroll into music school,
He says he got his first guitar lesson when he was 17 years and was not into music then, but he loved the sound of it, so he learnt three chords from a friend who used to play in church, and later got more tutorials from YouTube. It took him about a month to be able to play songs on the guitar.
This skill has helped him in a way that when composing a song, he comes up with a melody and rhythm, and hums it without words. After that, he puts it in the words, heads to studio, where his producer charges Shs1m for his services, so it becomes cheaper because he plays an instrument, so he and goes to the producer with a chord progression ready.
An-Known names Eminem, Sia, Mowzey Radio, A Pass, Ykee Benda and Maurice Kirya as his influences. And even though he does not sing the mainstream kidandali music that most Ugandans love, he is grateful that fans accepted him with his style, and promoters pay his asking price for shows,
“Shows are seasonal. Sometimes I do four a week, sometimes two and sometimes none. I have done some shows in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,”he says.
He also revealed that Swangz Avenue’s Azawi is his favourite Ugandan musician currently,
“I love her style of music so much. I can see myself trying it out soon. I also love Eddy Kenzo and A Pass.”
About if he is single or not, An-Known was elusive,
“Fans are everywhere I go, and sometimes they can even get you in trouble. Some married women even ask for what you cannot give, so I deal with them by not dealing with them at all. My answer to everything love and sex-related is usually responded to with a joke.”
That said, An-Known may be only 24, but he dreams big. Among his dreams is being able to get bookings in foreign countries; not to only perform for Ugandans in those countries, but the natives too. He wants his music to go international and although he does not know how yet, he has faith.
To upcoming artistes, he says: “You should just pray to God to make it easy for you. You need to be lucky, and you cannot get lucky without God. Sometimes it is not just about the talent, voice, money and connections. God needs to welcome you first, then everyone else will welcome you. Invest in your art. Do not expect a Shs50,000 audio made by your wannabe producer friend to compete with the audios professionally produced, mixed and mastered. Make two or three well-produced audios and keep them with you, and management will definitely find you. It is harder to look for management, than the other way round. Put yourself in a position where managers can find you valuable. I know it is a cliché to say do not give up, but you should not give up. Those who are laughing at you while you try to make it, will not give up laughing when you give up on your dream.”