By GARRETT BARRY
Abramz Tekya remembers sneaking into his uncle’s bathroom when he was a boy, picking up a toothbrush, and lip syncing into his mirror.
An act so common among youth in North America was new and risky for him. Tekya was only allowed in his uncle’s bathroom if he was going to clean it. This time, he went to copy the scenes from the rap tapes he saw.
For Tekya, now 29, those tapes belonging to his cousins were a portal to a new world. He hadn’t yet learned English, but quickly fell in love with the music.
“I love these songs where people talk over instruments,” he would say to his friends and relatives. He was speaking of unknown but favourite artists: A Tribe Called Quest, Chubb Rock, Big Daddy Kane. “I didn’t know it was rap music” he recalls.
He would mimic the words from the tapes, while adults watched him with amazement. Tekya credits the music with teaching him English, and giving him an identity that brought him respect – “Abramz the rapper.”
Now, Tekya is helping children forge their own identity through hip hop. He founded Breakdance Project Uganda not only share the music he loves, but also to create what he calls “positive social change.”
When Tekya was born, in 1982, Uganda was half the size it is now and the first case of AIDS had just been reported. In 1989, When Tekya was seven, AIDS had contributed to the death of both his parents.
After his parents died, Tekya and his siblings moved from home to home with relatives and grandparents.
“A lot of things around me changed drastically. I wasn’t really getting the same love that I used to get when they were alive. I went through a lot of mistreatment as a child, from relatives and other people I was trying to get support from,” Tekya remembers from the time.
He was just one of thousands of Ugandan children to lose parents due to AIDS related reasons that year. In 1990, UN estimated there were 250,000 children in Uganda orphaned due to AIDS complications. Today, those estimates are as high as 1.2 million children.
Most AIDS orphans share an experience similar to Tekya’s: they are often taken in by relatives or raised by brothers and sisters. However, with families and support systems quickly becoming overwhelmed, many children are spending more time away from school and more time on the street.
According to Tekya, orphans are highly disregarded. Tekya recalls how his relatives used to treat him: they’d tell him “You’re going to be unsuccessful, you’re never going to amount to anything in life.” In school, he’d be called “Abramz the poor kid” or “Abramz the orphan.”
It was in the midst of all of this, as an eight year old, that Tekya stumbled across his cousin’s rap cassettes and videos. They resonated with him, even if he couldn’t fully understand them.
“I didn’t know English, so most of it didn’t really make sense to me,” Tekya explains. “I just loved the vibe. When I watched the videos I just liked the style: how they dress, how they move, how they dance. I thought it was so cool”
“I wanted to know what they were talking about.”
As Tekya grew up and began learning English he discovered the power of the songs to tell stories and to pass on a positive message.
“I had never heard music where people openly talked about what they were going through: the sadness you were going through or your mistakes…for me [rap music] was the realest form of expression.”
Tekya first saw breakdancing a few years later in 1991. Like rap, he was introduced to dance through videos and movies, and was hooked. “I said, ‘you know what? I want to do this,’ ” Tekya recalls.
He was the first among his family to discover breakdancing, and Tekya says people in his community were not initially supportive.
“People told me it was camera tricks, that no one could spin on their head…my auntie didn’t want me to dance,” says Tekya.
Still, he pursued his interests in rap and breakdancing throughout his childhood, despite his family’s lack of understanding. When his peers and teachers at school saw him dance and rap, they respected him. His teachers would now ask him to draw charts and help out, his friends began to call him “Abramz the dancer” or “Abramz the rapper.”
Soon though, Tekya was forced to drop out of school. He couldn’t afford the fees for schooling and no one could help him pay. He tried to keep learning through whatever ways were possible, like reading books or old newspapers he found. Eventually, when he was a teenager, Tekya moved into a slum in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city.
Life in the slum was tough, Tekya explains. “There were so many temptations, so much crime…a lot of relatives didn’t support us because they just looked at us as poor kids.”
Prospects for children living in slums are remarkably poor. Interviews done by the local NGO Uganda Youth Development Link show that depression overruns the slums – 75 per cent of children surveyed say they feel it. Almost half the children interviewed said they think they will probably die before age 30.
Tekya wanted badly to avoid slum life. He and his brother Sylvester would get up every morning, put on old school uniforms and walk to the closest school – only to sit outside the gate. Tekya explains they needed to convince others they were getting an education so they would be respected in the community.
The brothers, when they became too old to pretend to be school children, would walk to different slums in Kampala to perform and teach rap music for whomever would listen.
“Through those sessions we taught, we saw so many young people that were transformed – from street fighters into rappers, from robbers into rappers – because everyone thought [rapping] was the coolest thing to do” Tekya said.
“It really taught me so much about hip hop…how much power it had”
Tekya says hip hop gave him a whole new life. He explains it enabled him to shake all the negative labels that were stuck on him for a long time.
Tekya and his brother continued to rap, eventually becoming known in Uganda for their empowering messages. In 2006, they shot a video for their break-through song Lemerako, the title taken from a Luganda phrase meaning “hang on.” In the video, scenes from the slums of Uganda pass by while Tekya and his brother urge Ugandans to hold on to their dreams.
That same year, Tekya saw a challenge. He knew there was more to life than rap. He asked himself: “How do I use hip hop to get people back to school? How do I use hip hop to build self esteem? How can I use hip hop to get people to learn?”
His answer was Breakdance Project Uganda.
On the surface, the dance sessions put off by the project look like any other. There is a large group in the front learning the Indian Step, one of the fundamental moves of breakdancing. On one side of the stage, a group is trying to perfect a transitional move so it only looks like they are falling to floor. Some children at the back of the room are working on their Six-step, moving their feet around themselves in a clock-like motion. Erik B. & Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique, a staple of many b-boy gatherings, plays over the speakers.
Except this session in Kampala is packed. There are easily 50 people on the small stage, and more are waiting to get in. The dancers are barely avoiding each others feet and many of the young ones aren’t wearing any shoes. According to Tekya, people come from all around for these sessions.
The organization isn’t just about the music. Some meetings, Tekya says, have nothing to do with breakdancing. On occasion, he asks people to talk about themselves without referencing dance at all – The children are eager to call themselves b-boys or b-girls, the preferred term for breakdancers. He asks them what dreams they have in life, and Tekya says the organization challenges itself to help them get there.
When Tekya founded the organization in 2006, he wanted to help people “use the dance floor as a path to reach their other goals in life.” Breakdancing was just the magnet used to attract people to the organization, he explains. Tekya also wanted to show people why school and hard work were important, he wanted to build a community that was inclusive and open to all.
“We work with many people. If one of our members has a dream, we take it seriously. We look for partners who can help them.” Tekya says.
Many members of the organization come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Places where, as Tekya describes, “people don’t believe in them.” For them, the power that hip hop grants to express themselves is new.
“Hip hop, let it be graffiti, DJ’ing, b-boying or beatboxing, whatever it is, it gives you the freedom to create. Imagine how empowering it is to hear that you, as a 10 year old, have the power and the ability to contribute to this culture.”
To hear Tekya describe it, the organization sounds like a great equalizer. It works with the poor and rich, and creates a community where everyone learns and teaches each other. Not only their unique dance moves, but other skills–computer skills, filming skills, some people even find jobs and places to live through the connections they make.
“So many times we just need something to identify with, we need skill, a community to be a part of…Ours is more than just an organization. It’s a family,” Tekya says.
The organization, which started with small classes in Kampala, has expanded to offer regular classes in Gulu, a northern city, and special outreach classes nationwide. Tekya and others from the organization regularly travel to youth prisons in Uganda to teach there as well.
Tekya has tried to create a community where everyone would feel welcome. He wants the children to know that anyone, even those who grew up like he did – singing in the mirror or rapping in the slums – could become a teacher. Everyone, he believes, has something of value to share.
“My goal has never been to build something that would discriminate against some people, because that’s what I went through when I was growing up. I’ve always wanted to be in a place where everyone was equal.”