Profiles

Laura Byaruhanga: Spicing Up Uganda with the Spoken Word

LAura

Meet the passionate poet Laura Byaruhanga, she loves poetry so much that she treated guests on her wedding day to awesome poetry. she is the brain behind Open mic Uganda.  Open Mic performances will blow you away. Open Mic is a platform that promotes spoken word in Uganda. They hold  monthly poetry night activities and school visits. We caught up with the passionate founder Laura Byaruhanga who shared with us her experience

Who is Laura Byaruhanga?

Laura Byaruhanga Businge is a Christian. She is a writer, producer, voice artist and radio personality. She is a creative mind, a lover of the arts, and a wife. It’s hard to describe her so in a nutshell, she is Laura!

Why Open Mic Uganda?

I chose to be a part of Open Mic Uganda because it was a challenge in the arts scene in Kampala, and I enjoy challenges, especially because there were no regular poetry nights at the time we begun. It’s fun working with a team of passionate young people. In spite of the challenges, we have pushed through with our dream.

What is this spoken word that you and your youthful friends have been so much passionate about?

Well, spoken word is basically self-expression to entertain, educate or inspire an audience. It is primarily through poetry performances. A few of us watched a lot of Def Poetry Jam and thought abbot trying it out. We thought it would be a cool way to move an audience, and so the organizers are mostly poetry performers, and were to begin with. Most of the poetry performances in Kampala, which were seldom held, were theatrical in nature, so we decided to try out something new like we had seen in the videos we had, and a movement was born!

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One of Open Mic’s Finest poets

 You have been so passionate about poetry to the extent that you treated the guests at your wedding reception at Serena with bouts of spoken word. Where did all this begin from?

Lol!  Well, you could look at it in different ways. I needed entertainment at my wedding, so being a producer of a company that deals in entertainment, I already had a pool of talent in my grasp! Hahaha! But the real reason? I knew that if I got married, I wanted entertainment that would keep the audience glued, remember it possibly forever, and make everyone have a good time! So poetry performances were the perfect thing to have! Please note I would have probably had a huge poetry production, but my husband knew I would take it too far, and pushed against it. But the live performances, both music and poetry, were phenomenal!

 Where did you get this love for poetry and spoken word?

I think it’s a combination of reasons. Even though I don’t like being to be center of attention, I really enjoy public speaking, acting and performing. I love written poetry, I love word play and I love attending shows. I first fell in love with poetry from a young age, and I believe that a combination of these passions and talents gave birth to my love for poetry, spoken word and poetry performance!

 Has your family been supportive in your pursuit and love for this not so common spoken word?

Hmm. At first my parents thought it was okay, they have always supported my passions. But at the time I used to perform at poetry recitals at the National Theatre under the Lantern Meet of Poets, I was about to finish university and was unemployed. They thought I was wasting my time and told me to stop wasting time with poetry! Then Open Mic Uganda happened, and I was constantly lectured especially for going home late. I was severely told to leave the platform and anything poetry related which got worse when I finished my contract and was jobless again! It was hard but after I explained to them a million times and they saw my resilience in staying in the movement, they softened. I think it helped when they saw several articles of us in the New Vision and Daily Monitor newspapers!

 What are your biggest accomplishments ever since you launched this spoken word platform?

As Open Mic Uganda? We have sold maybe hundreds of our Open Mic Uganda merchandise such as T-shirts, wrist bands and bookmarks thus publicizing ourselves. We have a vibrant social media presence, especially on Facebook and Twitter. We have had I believe just over a hundred shows in and around Kampala. We have had performers on our platform go all over the country and across the borders exporting the talent that was nurtured on our stage. We have worked with organizations of all types dealing in humanitarian issues discussing their issues through spoken word. We have been spoken about on broadcast and print media that has been key in the growth of our movement. A lot of our management team have used the skills they have gained with us in their careers such as presenting on radio and public speaking. But most importantly, we have been the pioneers of a movement that we are working hard at passing down to the generations!

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 You are a producer at Open mic Uganda, how do you get to pull off these hectic monthly shows?

I can honestly not take the credit, I work with an amazing and vibrant team! Every production is due to a team effort! Also the support of the Uganda Museum where we hold the shows, and of course the poets, musicians we show case, and audience make it all happen!

 What was interesting about the “Fusion360”?

Fusion 360 is the monthly show we hold at the museum. It is interesting because from Fusion 360, we have been able to gage what the audience wants, the local talent we are dealing with, how to come up with a production and work on our marketing and publicity.

 Any experiences that have touched you while promoting the spoken word?

Yes, the hunger for talent grooming and mentoring. Whether at Fusion 360 or at schools, many writers and performers have come to us for advice on how to improve their performances or writing. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly!

Also at the close of each and every show, we have had performers thanking us for giving them the opportunity to share their talent with the world! It always touches me and reminds me why we do what we do!

 As a lady, how do you manage to keep on persevering to promote this idea even amidst challenges?

Well, the world knows that women are the backbone to many successful ventures in history. This may be because of our ability to multi-task, not break under pressure and care for those around us. So no matter what storm hits us, as a person and as a woman, I know that we can handle it. I won’t lie, I cry many tears that are unseen to those I work with and those we struggle for, but in those tears I find strength that endures the winds and the pressure trying to knock us down.

 What has been your best memorable touching spoken word show or tour ever since you started and why?

I honestly can’t pick, they were all touching at some point in their own ways! But the ones that stand out are when we held a show with Abavubuka Foundation at Open House, the very first Open Mic Night Kampala show at Sabriinas, the first show we held at Gayaza High School, the first Fusion 360 show we held at the Uganda Museum, the last Fusion 360 show we held supported by Take One Entertainment, when we performed at the Bayimba Festival in 2012 and Engero at the Ugandan Museum.

Well, it seems you are here to stay! Where do you see Open Mic Uganda ten years from now?

Ten years later, I see us in our offices with enough room to hold shows and rehearsal space. I see us exporting our poets around Africa. I see the management team being able to earn salaries on a monthly basis, and our poets getting paid handsomely for each of their performances. I see us performing at state functions and still supporting underground artists. I see us, the current members of the management team being mentors to those in the spoken word movement in Uganda and East Africa.

Start-ups take great courage and commitment. What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?

The challenges are very many! Consistency in passion of each team member has proven to be our hardest challenge! Lack of finances is probably our second biggest challenge. Also most of our target audience is still biased against poetry as a form of entertainment. And support of the government and arts community is greatly lacking!

 Any worst moments or regrets?

Definitely. Trusting some organizations who wanted to selfishly benefit from us caused us to get into a lot of trouble and stress. But we were able to learn from this difficult experience and come out of it better and wiser than before.

 Are you planning to promote and produce spoken word for the rest of your life or time will come and say “Yeah i have played my part”?

I think a time will come when I will note that I have played my part and step off the playing field for others. This movement is bigger than the individual; it is something we want to touch the generations to come even long after we are long gone. Also, there are other passions in my life that I want to dedicate my life to, so as much as I will dedicate a large part of my life in this commitment, I will walk away from actively producing the shows at some point. But I hope to always be a mentor in this, even in my old age!!!

 

Lets talk about the activities you do. From school outreaches to monthly poetry nights (which are awesome by the way), what made you adopt this strategy?

Hmm. Well, like I said it was a team effort! The purpose of the school trips was to first of all show the generation after us what poetry performance is all about. Then encourage them to try it out and start it as a school activity.

Monthly poetry nights are our first, most consistent and best way of achieving our vision! We actually started this and then decided to come up with all the other activities to support the success of our poetry nights. It is our most successful activity!

 

Have you received any rewards or skills or lessons from being associated with this platform?

Rewards? No yet! Skills? Definitely! Organizing events, human resource management, problem solving skills and creatively engaging a consistent audience to mention a few. Lessons? There are many but the one that stands out is to never give up your dream, even when against all the odds. Also, keep praying! When I pray, I mention Open Mic Uganda often because it is very close to my heart and I believe God wanted it to be a part of my destiny!

 

Am sure this started as a passion for poetry. But now that you’re getting recognition, does it still remain driven by passion?

Yes! It is! There are challenges like I mentioned earlier with consistency in passion. But in spite of the challenges, even when our problem of the presence of finances is solved (and I am sure it will be), it will still be driven by passion! We deal with poets, a category of some of the most passionate people on the planet! So I guarantee passion is key!

 

Behind your inspirational leadership and the name of your organisation, there are other people who help you be who you are or have helped you. Do you mind mentioning at least some of them? How big is your team?

The team was vast, but membership numbers have dwindled. However, key to mention are Ernest Dennis Sesanga who is a director, has been there from the very beginning and has been responsible for the Marketing department. Murray Shiraz sat in the very first Open Mic Night Kampala meeting and has dedicated every bit of his passion in this movement. Mark Gordon Musinguzi was the founder of Open Mic Night Kampala, and some of the members from this thus formed Open Mic Uganda. Winnie Apio, one of our most talented poets has been acting as the administrator and manger of the team. Maritza Byoga was the P.R.O and MC of our shows as was Patrick Maasa Birabi who doubled as our Graphics Designer for most of the posters of our shows and branded material. Steve Gumiriza has been key in dealing with stage management, and Tasha Emily for the welfare of our audience during our shows. Also key members in the past to note are Don Arinaitwe, Hellington Musoke, Susan Tusabe, Priscilla (Chef Illaxino) and Deexon Muhizi.

 

Then outside OMU, which partners have been helpful to you in your spoken word poetry shows?

We have been largely supported by Milege, they have been incredible and we are forever indebted to their assistance with sound equipment during the shows, sometimes availing the Milege Afro Jazz Band! We are also grateful to Take One Entertainment for graduating us to a level we only dreamed of at the time! Bonfire Uganda has helped us with sound equipment at our first Fusion 360 shows, as well as in providing performers. We are eternally grateful to The Lantern Meet of Poets for providing us with incredible talent and poets over the years. Also important to note are One Question Network, Brand 360, Writivism/CACE and others. Also, we are thankful to media houses like The New Vision, The Daily Monitor, NTV and others for covering many of our shows, we are honored!

 

Let’s talk about personal inspiration. Which people inspire you in everything you do?

I honestly never know how to answer this question; I am inspired by many people in different areas in my life! But key is Jesus, He has never let me down and constantly sustains me and uplifts me to greater heights!

Apart from God, I am inspired by my husband who has been there through EVERYTHING! He pushes me on when I feel like everything is a mess, when I want to throw the towel in. My parents and their love always never ceases to amaze me. Nargis Shirazi, my friend and sister from another mother truly amazes me with the fight to achieve her own dreams, some which are similar to mine in nature. My siblings and their individual strengths. And the entire Open Mic Uganda team that works tirelessly to support the dreams of many poets, and upcoming poets and performers.

 

If you had a chance to meet Russell Simmons (Def Jam), what would you tell him?

First I would jump up and down in disbelief! Then I will make him scribble his autograph like a million times! Then I will thank him graciously for coming up with his dream of spoken word because it has set fire to maybe hundreds or even thousands of minds to express themselves through their words and thoughts. He is responsible for many people finding their confidence to step on a stage and open their hearts and minds with others. I would tell him this and more.

 

If you also had a chance to meet policy makers in the Ugandan government for example the president or parliament, what would you tell them?

I think I would lecture them for undermining the performing arts in this country, especially His Excellency! Then I would ask them to find a way to ensure the performing arts are supported by the government. I will probably have a proposal strategy in hand and will do my best to blow their minds! I don’t know if it would work, but I would do my best!

 

At the end of the day, they say judge a person by the works of his or her hands. How do you want to be remembered?

Well, as concerns Open Mic Uganda and the spoken word movement in Uganda, I would hope to be remembered as a person who inspired others to follow their dreams, those who follow us to work tirelessly at progressing the spoken word movement in Uganda, and someone who pushed on against all odds!

 

This Is Uganda wants to tell the world that Uganda is not about Idi Amin or Kony but about beautiful people like you making a difference. Imagine if a white is reading this interview and they are touched, where can they contribute to your cause?

Well, if by a white, you mean someone who has the ability to contribute to our dream financially and is willing to do so, I would tell them to meet up with us and see how best to contribute. It could be with a grant, via sponsorship, or in any other way! They could reach us on our Facebook group or page on Open Mic Uganda, or our Twitter handle @OpenMicUganda, on email openmicuganda@gmail.com, or our blog openmicuganda.blogspot.com.

 What advice would you give to someone who wants to be like you?

Love God with your all, be true to yourself, and work at helping others to the best of your ability. This is the policy I try to live by, and it seems to be working!

 Any remarks you want you make to appeal to the people?

Poetry is the essence of art! It is the backbone of music, the body of visual art, the motion in the tempo of dance. Embrace it!

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