YALI Voices Podcast: A Rapper and Photographer Turns to Peace Activism

Cyrus Kawalya (Courtesy of Cyrus Kawalya)
Cyrus Kawalya (Courtesy photo)

Ugandan-born Cyrus Kawalya sounds a bit coy about his past as an entertainer in the latest YALI Voices Podcast with the State Department’s Macon Phillips.

He was once nicknamed “Cyrus the Virus,” known for songs like “A Menace to Society.” He was also a professional photographer who founded Vision I, an organization that offers workshops to young people who are interested in pursuing a career in film or photography.

But many YALI Network members have also heard of this 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow as the man behind the #IPledgePeaceUg campaign, which many credit with playing a part in the decreased violence around Uganda’s elections in February 2015.

What motivated this successful artist to change his focus from the entertainment industry to social advocacy, and transform his routine from being “a late-night person” into someone who now advocates meditation and reading?

Kawalya also discusses how he uses the YALI Network to engage rising leaders across the African continent and challenge them to stand up to corruption. “I’m going to be looking at you. I want to see what you’re going to do when you get into that space,” he says.

Listen to the full podcast and also find out what he would ask President Obama if given the chance or download this podcast on iTunes by searching for “YALI Network” in the iTunes store.

Don’t have access to SoundCloud or iTunes? Read a transcript of the podcast below:

[THEME MUSIC]
THEME SONG: Yes we can, sure we can, change the world.
MACON PHILLIPS: Welcome, young African leaders. This is the YALI Voices Podcast, a place to share some of the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. My name is Macon Phillips, and I’m so glad you’ve joined us today. Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast, and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
My conversation today is with Cyrus Kawalya. Cyrus is an inspiring young leader whose life has seen its share of twists and turns. In the 1980s, he split his childhood between Kenya and Uganda, even living with his teacher for a time. Cyrus, AKA Cyrus the Virus, made a name for himself in the emerging Ugandan music scene. He then pivoted to a career in high-end film, design and photography, always chasing the next big project.
The irony of accomplishing so much at a young age is that, ultimately, Cyrus felt dissatisfied. He couldn’t shake that feeling that he should be using his skills to make a real difference. Determined to spur change, Cyrus used his diverse skill set to start a number of social advocacy campaigns, including I Pledge Peace, which is a campaign aimed at promoting free and fair elections in Uganda that’s being adopted by other young leaders across Africa.
Let’s jump right into my interview with Cyrus Kawalya. Cyrus, it’s great to have you here.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Thank you. Thank you. It’s also an honor to be here with you guys today. Especially with the topic that we’re dealing with.
MACON PHILLIPS: Yeah, man. We’re going to have a good conversation. Cyrus is also known, by the way, as Cyrus the Virus.
CYRUS KAWALYA: AKA, also.
MACON PHILLIPS: AKA Cyrus the Virus, from his time in the music business. You still rapping much, or?
CYRUS KAWALYA: No, I kind of stopped rapping, but still well connected to that part of the industry. I’m still keeping my ties there, because once in a while I need to go back and work with those guys. Because they’re very influential. But yeah, the name has refused to go away. It’s still stuck with me. I tried to run away from it. But now, look today, it’s even caught up with me in the whole YALI thing.
MACON PHILLIPS: Well, Cyrus calls Uganda home, and we’re going to talk a little about what’s going on in Uganda, and we’re going to talk a little about the projects that he’s been working on. But first, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little about where you were born. I know you were born in Uganda but had to move.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Yes.
MACON PHILLIPS: And then you came back. So walk us through that whole process, or what are your roots?
CYRUS KAWALYA: So I was born in Uganda in 1981, and at about that time, I think, we’re having a lot of problems, political problems. It’s mostly the time of Obote and Amin, so most of the parents that were living in Uganda needed to find refuge elsewhere. And at that time, also, my dad was having a lot of issues with one of the guys that was in government. He was called Paul Muanga by then.
So we had to move to Nairobi. And then we lived in Nairobi for a while. But then also at the same time, my dad had to also move to England. And he couldn’t go with me at that time. I mean, my mom and my dad were being together at different times, and then they’re always separate.
So my mom left and came back to Uganda. And then my dad had to go to England. So later on, I was adopted by a Kenyan family. But that family that adopted me was my teacher in pre-primary school. So she told my dad that, you know what? Leave Cyrus here. We’ll take care of him if you have to move. And, obviously, then I got into the family. It was very interesting.
In African settings, normally, if you go to like a new family and they’ve got other children, you’ll be treated as a kid from outside. But she had very many children, but still treated me very, very well. And I think I have a lot of good memories from that childhood experience. And then later on, obviously, when my dad came back, and then we had to move back to Uganda in the late ’80s.
MACON PHILLIPS: So walk me through the differences between life in Kenya and life in Uganda. What was it like to have spent some of your earliest years in Kenya and then return to Uganda?
CYRUS KAWALYA: First of all, coming back to Uganda was totally new experience, because I went when I was very young, and not yet developed a lot of awareness of my environment. And then the thing is, also, the first languages I learned were foreign languages. I learned Kiswahili, and then I learned Kikuyu because my family in Kenya used to speak Kikuyu. So I had no attachment to my local mother tongue.
I actually think I started learning that about the age of 11. And that was really, it was a bit different because I had the disconnect, like coming back to Uganda and not being able to speak the language. But then because we still spoke English at school and at home, it was OK for me. But not being able to speak the local language was quite a trick. And that’s where I felt a bit of the disconnect.
But growing up in Kenya during the time of Moi was also very, very interesting. It was quite an experience.
MACON PHILLIPS: In what way?
CYRUS KAWALYA: I mean, like the school I went to, some of the schools I went to, I remember this is something that doesn’t happen a lot like in African schools, is that they used to give us like free milk, free biscuits at school. That memory stayed on for long. And still when I came back to Uganda, I never got to experience that at all. So coming from Kenya was a total contrast from Uganda.
MACON PHILLIPS: But then you finally got your feet under you, learned the language, started making connections in Uganda. And when did you feel like the lightbulb turned on for you in terms of wanting to pursue the path you’re on now?
CYRUS KAWALYA: I think that came a bit much later because I had a little bit of struggles through my teen years, because I was still trying to build a relationship also with my mom. And that can be tricky for very many people. But through my last stages of adolescence is when I actually started feeling that I wanted to do something with my life, that I wanted to make a contribution.
And I think the first step for me was actually music, because then I had gotten also exposed a lot to different Ugandan musicians. And at that time, the industry was beginning to kind of take off. And I had that ride and opportunity of being a part of that whole process. And I think it’s through that continued process of engaging that I actually developed the idea that I wanted to do something that was different. I wanted to contribute to my community.
And also being, coming from the background of living as a foreigner in Kenya, it also gave me that feel that when I came back home, I wanted to make a contribution.
MACON PHILLIPS: So what was your connection to the music industry? Were you always a lyricist/rapper type? You play instruments? What did you —
CYRUS KAWALYA: I was a lyricist/rapper. And we used to, I remember one of the biggest artists in Uganda now recorded actually, one of my first songs.
MACON PHILLIPS: And what was that?
CYRUS KAWALYA: It’s very funny, but the name of the song was actually “A Menace to Society.” And it was kind of, I think, an expression of the feelings that I had for my country at that time. But then as we went on along the way, the melody kind of changed, the lyrics kind of changed, because then I realized that I had to have a positive vibe to drive if I wanted to make a difference.
MACON PHILLIPS: So that was the entry point was the arts. But since then, you’ve developed this I Pledge Peace.
CYRUS KAWALYA: I Pledge Peace campaign.
MACON PHILLIPS: I Pledge Peace campaign. So how did you move from someone writing “Menace to Society” to running the I Pledge Peace campaign? Were you always someone who paid attention to elections and politics?
CYRUS KAWALYA: I think one thing I’ve come to agree with myself now that I think I’ve been trying to run away from is the role of leadership. It’s something that has been in me. I’ve always wanted to do it, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. So over the years, I moved on to do film, design and photography, after the music industry.
I, at some point, I didn’t feel so satisfied with what the results were coming out. And at that time, anyway, there was not much you could do with the industry. It was much of hype, much of a name, but it didn’t contribute to anything that was concrete. And then when I started doing film and design and photography, I worked still in the same industry. I worked with different artists, different models.
You know, the whole hype of that industry. I worked for one of the best magazines called African Woman, and another one called Zenji. These were like the two best magazines to come out of East Africa. And after chasing that still for a while, it turned out to be, how can I get the next big company? How can I get the next big check? And that wasn’t satisfying at all.
And then I had these skills I had developed. So the next idea to me was like, how am I going to use film, design and photography as tools for social advocacy? And it spun around my mind for a while until I actually met somebody who had come from the ILVP Program in the States. And he met me and said, “I’ve seen some of your work. It looks nice, but have you thought about using it in this direction?”
And I’m like, you spoke out my mind. So that’s when I actually jumped into the whole idea of how do I use these tools.
MACON PHILLIPS: It’s not really a new thing, but it’s certainly something, in the States, that a lot of people are talking about — particularly new media — the confluence of culture and news. The fact that a lot of people are consuming a lot of entertainment culture, sports culture, arts culture, the different things that normal people do in the normal time. Not everyone’s aggressively studying public policy or politics every day. Those are just geeks and crazy people like us, I guess. But most people don’t have time for that.
But they do have time every night to watch some television, or go see a show or something like that, listen to some music. And what’s happened with new media, digital media, is that it’s allowed news organizations to tap into those new audiences. Because those new audiences don’t need to buy a paper to get that. They don’t need to change the channel to the newscast to get that. And on the other hand, it’s allowed celebrities and cultural movers and shakers to actually weigh in on public policy issues. Are you seeing that kind of shift in Uganda?
CYRUS KAWALYA: Yes. It’s going to happen. But it will take a little bit of much of an initiative, especially now in regards to the recent elections we had back at home. And one of the debates I actually [had] with most of the artists — because we worked with some artists on the I Pledge Peace video campaign — and I carefully selected those guys for a reason.
I didn’t want anybody who had actually participated in what we called “Tubonga Nawe.” “Tubonga Nawe” was a music video that was done by Ugandan artists in the name of praising the president. And that kind of came off a bit odd for me, and so many other people who probably have not shared their ideas or said anything about it. But I know it because I’ve spoken to some of those people.
And they felt that artists should have actually used that opportunity to fight for something that is bigger than themselves, something that is bigger than the check they probably received from the president to do the music video. Or they would have fought for some social issue.
MACON PHILLIPS: They want to do it for the love, not for the money, right?
CYRUS KAWALYA: Exactly.
MACON PHILLIPS: So I guess for people that are listening in and haven’t followed the elections in Uganda, I would imagine most people have heard about it one way or another, but obviously there’s a lot of news that came out of that. There were some challenges, and then there has been a general election after the primaries. Can you walk us through what the elections were to you, sort of what happened? Just if someone asks you, randomly, “Hey, what was going on with the elections?” And maybe to the context of your I Pledge Peace campaign, and how that came out of the elections.
CYRUS KAWALYA: OK. As the end result, I feel that the elections didn’t go the way we really wanted them to go. They were not open and free and fair. And that remains a fact. But what really drove the I Pledge Peace campaign is after we had the primaries in Uganda, violence started erupting around the country. And this kind of shook us a little bit, for people like me who were like, what is going to happen next?
And then, remember, we had the same incident in Kenya in 2008. So now then we started to see that this is what is going to happen to our country. And we were like, what can we do about this? And then we started to design the I Pledge Peace campaign, to kind of deflate the messages of hate and, you know, slow down that whole violent process. That is the key driver of why we set up I Pledge Peace campaign.
And generally I would say it went very, very well, considering that at least we’ve had some stability now. But I feel very many people are not satisfied with the results. But like I keep saying to young people that their opportunity is going to come. For people like us who’ve invested time in what we do in the country, it becomes a bit of a problem if we let the country descend into some form of chaos.
And I always tell young people that look, prepare yourself. Your time is coming. It’s more important that you invest in preparing for your time than trying to argue and trying to fight now. Because, to be frank, African leaders, to me, from my perspective, I feel they still have the mentality of tribal chiefs. They’re not yet statesmen. It’s not yet within their psyche to understand that. It would be, for young people, it’s a little bit different. Because for them then, they see the world differently.
I mean, look now, Accra, we’re talking with young people from all over the continent. We’re planning in ways that Accra can have better elections. That is a whole new dynamic. People like our president have probably not had that chance at our age to be able to deal in something like this. So I know their time will come. No doubt about it. But I just pray that they do prepare for that. So once their chance comes, they’re able to, you know, spin off very fast that would have a lasting, positive effect.
MACON PHILLIPS: But ultimately, that we keep violence out of elections. I think that’s the thing that’s really important to remember is the short-term impact of a loss, even if that loss is unfair or perceived as unfair, is far less than the long-term impact of perpetuating a cycle of violence.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Yes. Yes.
MACON PHILLIPS: And it’s why I think what you’ve done in Uganda is really important. And I’ve met a lot of other people from YALI that are doing this in one way or another in other countries. And what we saw in Nigeria was certainly remarkable, in terms of that election being peaceful. And you had a peaceful transition of power there that was very welcome.
I wonder if you could comment a little bit about the role of technology and social media in elections, because that was one of the things that people were talking a lot about your campaign, but also the government’s response to social media. And just the general environment there around the use of social media. What’s been happening in Uganda over the last few years in terms of how that’s affecting politics and civic engagement?
CYRUS KAWALYA: I think now social media is also playing a very key role. The ability for new technology and what it can do is really, really amazing. And I think that’s why we faced a challenge that they actually had to shut down social media in Uganda. But on the other side, we also use it as a positive tool for peace. We engaged; our social media campaign reached out to about 9.7 million people around the world. And we engaged directly 838,000 people.
So you can see that social media has the possibility to be a very positive tool, or a negative tool, depending on who and how they perceive it. But I don’t think it was right to slow down the social media process. But then, I also feel the elements that have also been not using it in a positive way.
MACON PHILLIPS: My reaction to that, not — this isn’t specific to Uganda, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it — is the idea [of] shutting down social media in the United States is something that we couldn’t get our head around. You hear that and you’re sort of, oh wow, how do you even go about doing that? Part of it is that I get the motivations of people sometimes are positive. They want to avoid violence. They want to avoid chaos.
And so they deny the social media space to people who would use it to perpetuate lies and sort of say things that would incite violence. But it seems like turning off that also creates a lot of mistrust, a lot of angst in society. And so it’s one of those where the easy way out in the short term might be to turn it off.
But the harder but more important challenge is to actually be out there earlier with your own message, and your own clarifying message about where you get the actual results from, what’s actually true and not, ways that people can be a more responsible consumer of news. These are not things that are easy to do by any stretch, but it just seems that it’s avoiding the easy way out and something that may ultimately backfire.
CYRUS KAWALYA: True. I also think that because there’s a little bit, there’s no truth in it, that’s why they didn’t think about using social media as a tool that they could also counter what was going on. And that presents a challenge in itself, because I’ll tell you personally, shutting down social media was very, very annoying to a person like me. I didn’t think it was necessary.
And just the way you’ve explained it, the government would have gone out on social media and used the same tool to counter the situation. But I think sometimes when you’re doing something that’s not right, it’s not the thing you’re going to think about. And even during the swearing-in ceremony, they still had to shut it down. And well like, for God’s sake, why again shut down social on the swearing-in ceremony? Let —
It’s also giving people an opportunity not to express so many things that can’t be driven in the mainstream media. Because in our country, also mainstream media is very well controlled now. It’s a small space. So social media gives opportunity for people to also give a different perspective on things. But I just generally think it’s not right at all.
MACON PHILLIPS: One of the things that working at the White House — I worked at the White House before I came to the State Department — that was really remarkable is we had a lot of critics. President Obama has a lot of critics and people who don’t agree with his approach. But I always was surprised at just how meaningful it was for critics to be heard. Even if you said to them that I hear you but I don’t agree with you, the very fact that you at least give them some voice and they could say their piece meant a lot.
I think over time, ultimately they want those grievances addressed. But even in the short term, stifling that ability, I think, would be really counterproductive. So where do we go from here? Tell me about Uganda for the next few years, and how are you taking what you’ve learned from the I Pledge Peace campaign and building on that? Where does it take you now?
CYRUS KAWALYA: OK. Through the I Pledge Peace campaign, we realized there was also a challenge of civic education. And I think that’s one of the key areas that we want to try and work over the next years. Like engage young people a lot in civic education so they understand their rights. And I think if we did it over the next five years, it would make [a] totally huge difference in the upcoming elections.
But like I say to also many young people back at home, my team, and other people who I’ve worked with, that I think now is the time to start doing that work. We’re not going to wait into the last two, one year towards the election to be able to do something that will become meaningful. We need to kick-start now and engage a lot of youth in civic engagement around the country.
And I realize something that also, in the YALI Network, there’s a lot of people back at home that are running for leadership positions, that are actually on the YALI Network. And this I had an experience with when I went somewhere to print some of our work. And one of the guys was running for LC5. LC5 is quite a good position back home.
MACON PHILLIPS: LC5 — what does that mean?
CYRUS KAWALYA: Local Council 5. Like, it’s a district level. I don’t know how to compare it with a U.S. kind of level. But I found somebody who, the moment he knew who I was from the Fellowship Program, being the president, he got very excited. And he told me a lot of things. And we had a lot of discussions. And I remember one of the questions he was asking was, who are you going to, who are you supporting?
And I told him point blank, these guys, I feel, are long gone. You’re running for LC5. I’m going to be looking at you. I want to see what you’re going to do when you get into that space.
MACON PHILLIPS: Next generation of leaders.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Yeah. Are you going to get corrupt? Are you going to get paid off? Or are you going to stand for it. And he was actually very shocked. He looked at me and he actually realized that what I’d told him was very sensible. But then, the fact that he was on the YALI Network and realized how prestigious it was also gave me something to think about. That look, there are many of these young people on the network that are within our country running for these positions. It’s time we start to engage them, start to engage with them, see what their ideology is, what do they see their country like.
MACON PHILLIPS: That says a lot. One of the takeaways I have from that is, people will act as seriously as you treat them. I think there’s a tendency to look at youth organizations as just a bunch of kids. And you’ve got to keep them happy and one day they’ll turn into this thing. But the truth is, a lot of people are already doing things at a young age.
CYRUS KAWALYA: So many.
MACON PHILLIPS: And that’s what YALI is all about. It’s not people who want to be leaders. It’s young leaders who are doing things that many old leaders aren’t doing. I’m 37, so I guess I count as an old leader now. But I meet young leaders all the time that have done more in their lives than I ever will. So it’s absolutely true. We have to talk to these people in a serious way and treat them seriously.
Let’s wrap this up with a few questions. First off, what’s something that typically surprises people about you?
CYRUS KAWALYA: Sometimes people don’t expect I’ll say the things that I say. Then many people don’t know much about my background. So when they get to contrast between my background and who I am today, it’s like, oh wow. How possible is that?
MACON PHILLIPS: Do you ever just go off and like drop a verse on them?
CYRUS KAWALYA: Sometimes I do, but I’ve always tried to keep away from that. But I can’t escape —
MACON PHILLIPS: Can’t escape Cyrus the Virus, man.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Can’t escape the — I used to call myself, actually, C to the V, Cyrus the Virus.
MACON PHILLIPS: I love that.
CYRUS KAWALYA: That is what surprises people a lot. But then again, I also realize it’s what has given me the advantage of being very many successful things. Like I Pledge Peace campaign is really because of the background. Once you come from that background, you can take things an extra mile.
MACON PHILLIPS: Put yourself out there and be a creative person.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Exactly. You don’t have to do it the conversion way. You get so many dynamics of putting it out.
MACON PHILLIPS: So the next one is, are you someone who loves to wake up early and attack the day? Or are you a late-night operator? A morning person, or a night person?
CYRUS KAWALYA: I played both of those parts in my earlier years. I played the late-night person. In these later years, I’m doing the early-morning person. I practice a lot of meditation. So I really have to get up —
MACON PHILLIPS: That was going to be my next question is, anything you do every day or every week that helps you organize yourself — this is really just kind of advice for other folks listening in — helps you organize your mind, your work, learn new things, whatever the routines are that you have that you feel has made you more effective.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Meditation and reading. Those are components that have developed over the last five years. And now I do it very regularly. Because I feel it’s the only way you can organize yourself and remain focused on certain goals for a longer time. Like because in most cases, many people do something and then jump off it and then do something else. But through meditation and reading, I’ve kept a very high level of focus, and I continue to do that.
MACON PHILLIPS: Last question. We’ve been peppering you with questions, but now it’s your turn to ask a question, which is, if you could ask Barack Obama a question, what would you want to know?
CYRUS KAWALYA: I want to know what was at the back of his mind when he set up YALI. Because one thing is for sure — and I keep saying this also to people, I think I’ve said it to guys in the States and I’ve said it to people back at home — I’ve told them you’re not going to witness the effects of YALI right now. But five, six, 10 years down the road, you’re going to realize, oh wow. Because it’s such a huge network.
And I’ve said it before that it has given us also, as Africans, opportunity to get to know each other. I’ve never been to West Africa. This is my first time to West Africa. And I’m coming here because of the YALI Network. And most of us grow up thinking of two things: I either can make it to Europe or I can make it to the United States. We never grow up thinking of, I need to know my continent very well. I need to engage with people around the continent.
MACON PHILLIPS: That’s been one of the things that I’ve loved the most about the events that I’ve been to the United States, but certainly when I’ve traveled in Africa is you get a few Americans that show up at these events and we get up there and say what we’re going to say. But the real action is among the young leaders getting to know each other and going out and organizing things themselves and exchanging WhatsApp or email or what have you and staying in touch. And that’s ultimately, I think, the real value of YALI is what each of you makes of it.
CYRUS KAWALYA: We have the most beautiful network now on the continent, more than ever in the history, I think, of our continent. And I was telling Teddy at the airport, one of the Fellows we are with on the tech camp, and we both agreed to it. And we said, do you know what it’s going to be like five years down the road when some of us become president, some of us become ministers, and we already have this beautiful relationship we’ve created amongst us? It’ll be easy for us to agree on so many things, which probably the older generation can’t do that.
So that’s the thing I’d like to ask President Obama. What was at the back of his mind when he came up with YALI, because I think it’s so, so, so brilliant. It’s really now, we can’t have any excuse not to do great things out of this. I think he set the pace for us, and now the challenge, and it’s on us to what we can go out of this network. But I think it’s the greatest thing to have happened to the African continent.
MACON PHILLIPS: Well, Cyrus, I’m going to end it right there, because I couldn’t say it any better. And I really appreciate your perspective on all this, and really appreciate your time joining us today.
CYRUS KAWALYA: Thank you. You’re welcome. Much love to the YALI Network.
MACON PHILLIPS: All right, YALI Network. So this is wrapping up our interview with Cyrus the Virus. He can’t get away from it, but we’ll just call him Cyrus today. Make sure you look him up if you are interested in civic engagement. And if you’re ever in Uganda, let him know. And we will be back with another interview soon. Have a great day, everyone.
I had a great time chatting with Cyrus. He’s clearly a talented guy who really understands the value of civic engagement and welcomes the opportunities networks like YALI bring. I love his positive vision for the future of Africa. Thanks to Cyrus for sitting down and sharing his story with us. If you’d like to get in touch with him, you can find him on Facebook. Cyrus Kawalya, that’s C-Y-R-U-S K-A-W-A-L-Y-A.
And don’t forget to take a look at his I Pledge Peace campaign, and his nonprofit organization, Vision I. And if you’ve got some free time, maybe you can find some Cyrus the Virus deep cuts online. Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices Podcast.

Join the YALI Network at yali.state.gov and be part of something bigger.

Our theme music is “E Go Happen” by Grace Jerry, produced by the Presidential Precinct. The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.

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