Label of the Month: Hakuna Kulala

Niamh O’Connor sits down with the founders of the Uganda-based imprint, Hakuna Kulala, to learn more about the label’s artist-first ethos and the intrepid, Pan-African club sounds that it champions.

16 min
Hakuna Kulala
Nov 6, 2023
Niamh O’Connor

Hakuna Kulala means “no sleep” in Swahili, and it’s an apt name for the Uganda-based imprint, which champions contemporary club music by producers, rappers, singers and MCs based or born in the African continent.

Operating in Kampala as a sub-label of Nyege Nyege Tapes, label co-founders Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian run Hakuna Kulala with DJ and producer Rey Sapienz. Considering the workload of the pair’s endeavours outside of Hakuna Kulala, it doesn’t come as a surprise when Debru admits during our call that they don’t get much sleep themselves. It’s also why the label’s logo is the ultimate sleep-snatcher — a spindly mosquito.

Despite this, Debru and Dilsizian are unrushed and articulate during our interview in the runup to Nyege Nyege festival on the 9th of November. This year, it’s located in a new site in Jinja city for the duration of four days. Primarily showcasing a myriad of artists signed to Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kulala, like Aunty Rayzor, MC Yallah, DJ Znobia, and acts from beyond the continent, it’s the most prolific electronic music festival in East Africa.

While festival preparations are underway, the annual occasion is only one element of the sprawling world of Nyege Nyege. Debru and Dilsizian head up Nyege Nyege Studios, which they call “the villa.” It’s where they offer artist residencies to solo musicians living in Berlin and East Africa. Alongside Debru and Dilsizian, a small, close-knit team operates the multi-faceted machine of festival, label and sub-label, artist residency programme and booking agency. Congolese DJ and producer Chrisman is the studio manager, and producer Ian Nnyanzi, aka MASAKA MASAKA, is heavily involved with Nyege Nyege’s video production. Lola Lapiower manages the Nyege Nyege talent agency.

Check out Hakuna Kulala’s ‘Label of the Month’ chart on Beatport.
Hakuna Kulala Beatport 5

2023 has been Debru and Dilsizian’s busiest since launching Nyege Nyege festival eight years ago and Hakuna Kulala in 2017. The latter has released 48 records in digital, vinyl and cassette formats, helping to break through several names on an international level, like Slikback, Nihiloxica, Ecko Bazz, and many more.

Before they started working together in 2013 at the Kampala Film School, Greek-Armenian Dilsizian grew up in Exarchia in Athens, where he promoted hip-hop parties in his early twenties. Debru, of French-Burundian heritage, “always had a connection with the [African] continent,” grew up in Belgium and discovered electronic music in Japan, where he studied in his early twenties.

Between lecturing at the film school, Debru and Dilsizian curated their own event series, Boutiq Electronique, where they platformed African artists from the kuduro and coupé-décalé scenes rather than mainstream acts from dancehall, reggae, and hip-hop. The parties inspired them to create their own arts collective, and so in 2015, they opened the recording studio, launched the artist residency programme and promoted the first Nyege Nyege festival. One year later, they co-founded Nyege Nyege Tapes to support micro-genres, like Singeli, electro Acholi, and electronic takes on traditional, percussion-based music from the region.

“But at the same time, we had set up the villa, where young producers were coming to do residencies and learn about music production,” recalls Dilsizian. “And the output of that was more like young kids here interested in club music, fusing African music with sounds that we were hearing from abroad, and music that we were introducing them to,” he says, citing Underground Resistance, Drexciya and Amnesia Scanner. “So it was almost like a separate stream of music coming out at that point, and there was so much of it. So it made sense to hone it onto a different label.”

Today, most of the releases on Hakuna Kulala stem from artists in residency at the villa. “There are even a lot of artists who weren’t making music when we met them who are now on the label, like Authentically Plastic,” says Debru. “And a few artists who were coming to our parties early on as revellers, and later got into music, and then started making music,” adds Dilsizian.

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Regarding A&R at Hakuna Kulala, it’s Debru, Dilsizian and Rey Sapienz, the latter of whom has “played a pivotal role, especially engaging with new artists in the community and bringing them on,” notes Dilsizian.

Debru and Dilsizian provide feedback to every artist on Hakuna Kulala during the creative process, although it depends on the artist’s abilities and the timeline between previous releases. “There are conversations about directions and choices, in terms of how it would be at an artist residency or a music school, at that stage,” explains Dilsizian. “I think at the stage when they are starting to put together an album, they’ve already created their own cosmology and direction.”

“I think the most important thing is to push them,” adds Debru. “…it’s good to tell [them], ‘but what if you try a bit more? What if you continue and continue, and eventually, you get to something that’s even further?’ I think, in our sort of A&R, it’s as much about the freedom to explore wherever the artist wants to go as it is to encourage the artist, and not to settle, and to really try and push the boundaries. Because otherwise, we would have a release every week.”

One thing that connects Hakuna Kulala’s boundary-pushing ethos is the imprint’s artwork. The visual aesthetics have evolved from handmade designs based on graffiti drawings on bright backgrounds, like neon green and electric blue. Instead of being consistent with this design-led approach, Debru and Dilsizian now work with local photographers and follow a photography-focused aesthetic.

The artwork on Hakuna Kulala’s most recent album, Viral Wreckage by Aunty Rayzor, who cross-pollinates hip-hop, Afrobeat, R&B and experimental textures, is a cryptic, stark-toned photograph of the singer-songwriter in fire-red braids, captured Michelle Isinbaeva. It’s a similar feel to Isinbaeva’s close-up of MC Yallah on Yallah Beibe, who cuts through the lens with a powerful stare, complemented by her cobalt blue lipstick.

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“We engage with the artists obviously, make sure they like it, and don’t hate it,” says Dilsizian, speaking about the relationship between label, artist and photographer. “But we also make sure that we stick to a little bit to the aesthetic direction of the label and not let everyone do whatever they want.”

That sometimes happens also, like with Kabeaushé or Authentically Plastic, where they had a really clear idea,” says Debru. “It depends on the artist; sometimes they have a clear idea about what they want, and sometimes they just ask us to come up with good ideas.”

Challenges crop up when running a record label. In Hakuna Kulala’s case, one challenge is digital distribution and “how to spend your marketing money,” says Debru. “We’re more like a PR-based label where we know that when we work with a PR company, and there’s a good product, it will get picked up.”

“But sometimes, if you look at the streaming numbers of Aunty Rayzor or MC Yallah, for example, they could do much, much better,” continues Debru. “And that segways into the second challenge, which is, we’re really good at bringing unknown artists into the spotlight, but it’s still hard to get them to the next level, and that is when a lot of artists are encouraged, and always free, to move to bigger structures.”

“I feel like for the sort of economy we have, and the fact that we’re constantly bringing out unknown artists, it would be very helpful to be in a bigger structure, like with Universal or Sony,” says Debru. “Then, we would have that part that we do really well, which is finding new artists and bringing them into the spotlight, but we would also have a structure to grow them. If somebody put $100,000 into MC Yallah or Aunty Rayzor, where would they be now? There is a glass ceiling that exists, where music that is very, very popular in terms of streams is music that has been heavily invested in.”

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Debru and Dilsizian “don’t block” opportunities for their artists to move to conglomerate structures. However, the pair would like Hakuna Kulala to evolve into a label where artists can stay comfortably for their entire careers. “I think that is the challenge that we have now — how do we move from being a label that is known to bring out new artists to a label that can build legacy artists?” asks Debru. “And also improve streaming numbers and revenue?”

Another challenge of running Hakuna Kulala is the “grass is greener” perspective from regional artists. “It’s harder for them to contextualise what’s at play sometimes,” says Dilsizian. “In terms of the excitement that we generate around our new artists, I think sometimes it can be taken for granted how tough that is to achieve. In Europe, artists know how hard it is to get a show at CTM or Unsound. For a Berlin-based artist who is just up and coming, it would be a huge feat. They’d be super excited about such an opportunity. Here, there’s much less awareness of how the music industry works. There’s also a lot of suspicion, given that there’s a lot of predatory music streaming. But I think there’s also a legacy now of what we’ve done, and there’s a lot of trust in the way we operate. There’s a proven track record of getting artists to tour and generating excitement around their music. So, by and large, I think we’ve had it good.”

Alongside the lack of music rights collection agencies in the region, there’s also a lack of local audience. However, that seems to change once an artist receives the “external validation” of touring abroad. It goes hand in hand with the infrastructure of the local music economy, geared toward the next big hit and not alternative sounds. “And because of that, club owners are less likely to book alternative artists,” says Debru. “When that changes, I think it’s going to change everything, and we can rely less on music heads in Europe, Japan or in the US and rely on our own market instead.”

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So, what’s next for Hakuna Kulala? “A lot of releases, more and more exciting releases,” says Debru. “A particular thing about Kampala in Uganda is that it’s one of the countries that is home to the most refugees on the planet, and so the good side of that, if I may say, is that, especially in our area, it’s very Pan-African. So there is a constant influx according to where there are conflicts. Right now, we’re working with artists from northern Sudan, which has a very diverse music scene; it’s very developed over there. So all these artists in exile are coming to take residencies at the villa, so we should expect more releases from them.”

There’s also talk of hiring a label manager when the label has more income and starting a subscriber-based model, which would circulate new music for a small fee and ultimately provide the artists and the Hakuna Kulala team the freedom to release more music on a flexible basis.

“Everything was always about the artists from the beginning,” says Debru. “It’s not about us or the label. The label is just a means to an end, which is to create a way for artists to express themselves and earn from it. And that’s that.”

Debru says that if the Hakuna Kulala schedule becomes “too much of a constraint,” then the idea to share a slew of singles and compilations should lessen the lengthy gap between finishing a record and its release date, which can sometimes occur a year later. “But when an artist self-releases, they see that it doesn’t work because nobody picks it up or it doesn’t have the same impact,” explains Debru. “So how do we figure out a middle way that serves the same purpose that we started this with, which was to create a space, platform and opportunity for artists who have no understanding about how this works? I mean, we barely understand how to do it the right way, let alone the artists. So that’s the kind of work we try and continue to do and hopefully keep doing it better.”

Niamh O’Connor is a writer, talent booker, event manager and DJ living in Athens, Greece. Find her on Instagram.

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