Meet a member: Mugabi Byenkya

– Interview by Sophie Gordon

This month, I caught up with one of our highly commended emerging writers, Mugabi, to learn more about their artistic practice, which weaves together words, music and more. And congratulations are in order, as Mugabi has recently released their debut mixtape Songs For Wo(Men) 2.

Photo: by Tina Byenkya

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

I was born in Nigeria to Ugandan parents, and grew up living for 3-4 years in a different African or Asian country due to my father’s work, namely: Nigeria, Sudan, Bangladesh and Cambodia. When I was 13, my father passed away, so my family moved back home to Uganda, where I lived for 5 years, before gaining a full tuition scholarship to The University of Kansas, where I spent 4 years for my undergraduate degree.

I moved to The University of Michigan afterwards for postgraduate studies on an Academic Leadership Fellowship, then suffered two back-to-back strokes so I moved to Washington, DC, USA with my sister as I recovered for one and half years. I later moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada with my brother for 6 months from 2016-2017, and spent 2017-2019 splitting my time between Toronto, my native Kampala, Uganda and on the road on tour in support of my award- nominated debut novel-memoir “Dear Philomena”. I moved back to my native Kampala in January 2020, and have been there ever since, with the exception of a 5 week stay in Bangkok, Thailand for healthcare in 2022 and a 4 month stay in Nairobi, Kenya in 2022-2023, to visit my sister and brother-in-law where I developed and I’m recovering from long-COVID.

I am award-winning writer of prose, poetry, comics, essays, drama and songs. I also act as my own booking agent, publicist and manager. Additionally, I am an editor, performer and part-time business manager. You can find out more about myself/my work via my website.

For anyone interested, I’d highly appreciate a purchase of my debut novel-memoir “Dear Philomena,” and a purchase of my debut mixtape “Songs For Wo(Men) 2” (tips are more than welcome!)

Where did your love of words come from?

From my parents and elder siblings. I remember a story that I have often repeated, of a 4-year-old Mugabi asking my siblings to play with me and finding them all curled up on the couch, reading their respective books. They responded with: “No, we’re reading”. I wondered how reading could be better than playing, so I asked my mother to teach me how to read and after several months, I discovered that falling into the worlds created by writers of all forms: prose, poetry, drama, non-fiction, comics, songs etc., was in fact better than playing. Music has always been a very important part of my love of words and creative process, I’m listening to ¿Téo? as I write this.

I look up to and study my favourite songwriters, the same way I do my favourite novelists, essayists, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, comics writers and artists, and short story writers. At 4 years old, I proudly proclaimed to my family that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: an author! 25-year-old Mugabi fulfilled that dream with “Dear Philomena,” and has never looked back.  

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

I joined 26 after being shortlisted as one of 3 finalists and being Highly Commended for the 26 Emerging Writers Award. I was offered a discounted membership which greatly helped, as I’m living that starving artist life. I decided to join because the opportunity of being a member of an organization that loves words and has trainings and projects surrounding a love of words, made me feel like I’d found my people, and it’s a wonderful community to belong to. I’ve been a member since July 2022.

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

Unless you count the Emerging Writers Award then no, I do hope to co-run a 26 project in the near future though, so watch this space!

What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)

Definitely with music, as I mentioned earlier. The music ranges on my mood and whatever I’m feeling like listening to at the moment, but I’ve found listening to one song on repeat helps with creative writing and listening to albums helps with administrative writing. My ideal scenario for writing would involve nature of some sort, which is why I love writing on my mother’s verandah, as she has a beautiful backyard with a gorgeous assortment of bushes, manicured hedges, avocado trees, soursop trees and a bunch of other trees that I don’t know the names for in English. Picture for reference:

I believe that getting yourself in the right frame of mind for writing is a privilege that disabled people like me often don’t have access to. I’ve gone years without being able to write anything creatively, where simply attempting to respond to a text would induce a seizure. Therefore, I do not take the ability to write for granted, and when my health cooperates enough for me to be able to write, I write.

The ability to write has been taken away from me in the past, and I don’t know how long it’s going to last when it’s here, so I take advantage of it. I often spend more time handling the business side of my writing career than actually creative writing, but I’m always able to tap into my writing abilities if my health is cooperating. When I write, I’m merely a vessel channeling from another source as Stevie Wonder said, and the more I channel, the easier it gets to tap into. Nonetheless, I have recently joined a weekly writing circle hosted by the wonderful Whitney French which has helped me establish a regular writing practice, whether I’m working on: poetry, essays, residency and fellowship applications, drama, prose, comics or songs; the writing circle gives me time every week to write.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on the rollout, promotion and marketing of my debut mixtape “Songs For Wo(Men) 2” which I’m super excited about! “Songs For Wo(Men) 2” is a concept mixtape that bleeds the lines between songs and poetry in the vein of the progenitors of Hip-Hop Gil Scott-Heron and the Watts Prophets, and more personally in the lineage of Okot p’Bitek, who rejected western labels for his writing and chose to firmly stand in his cultural tradition, moving the center as Toni Morrison would put it. I collaborated with Prnz who Produced, Mixed and Mastered all but one song on the album, and with my brother (rapper-singer-songwriter-producer) 3-Card who wrote and performed the outro, produced, mixed and mastered by DEANBADDIE. The songs speak to disability, platonic intimacy, self-love, familial intimacy, emotional labour, toxic masculinity, grief, witchcraft and faith healers to tell the story of a disabled soft body in an able-bodied oppressive world. Available to purchase here and please share and spread the word widely. 

Other than that, I recently got accepted into a residency to further develop and hopefully premiere my debut musical. I also have my debut chapbook slated for publication later this year.

Lastly, I’m working on transcriptions for my debut podcast titled “One Foot In The Closet” that profiles Queer & Beyond the Binary Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora who live life with “One Foot In The Closet” for safety, and challenges the whiteness around coming out as a bold declaration of self-love, as coming out is not safe to all people.

The podcast was co-created and co-written by (Name Redacted) and myself; directed by myself; hosted by (Name Redacted); theme music by Prnz; cover art by Mimi Mutesa; edited by Annie King-Smith; mixed and produced by Drew Deakin Thomas; social media management by Stella Aniston. This project was funded by House of African Feminisms, a project by the Goethe-Institut Kigali, Lagos and Johannesburg.

Lots of debuts! But, I’ve never liked being constrained by a particular medium of writing so this is a lot of fun for me.

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?

I’m particularly proud of “Married Myself” from my debut mixtape “Songs For Wo(Men) 2”. The song is an ode to self-love, written in contrast to my brother’s song “Buried Myself”. I love the marching beat of the instrumental (courtesy of the aforementioned Prnz) and the eerie sample in the background. I wrote it after yet another person I was dating told me that my disabilities were too much to deal with, and I was tired of being too much for people. So, I processed my feelings of self-love and self-love through writing it.

Writing has always been a form of processing for me. It was a way to reclaim and love who I am, not the unhealthy expectations of others. It was also a way to channel childhood Mugabi’s dream of becoming a priest and my relationship with Catholicism, through the preacher-like performance and a social commentary on celebrity culture through the worship of Beyoncé. Once the Beyoncé references started coming, they couldn’t stop!

Where do you get your inspiration?

I get my inspiration from taking in all forms of art. Whether that be visual art, music, comic books, novels, essays, short stories, poetry, theatre, TV and movies, architecture, sculpture, performance art, photography, dance, multidisciplinary arts, video games, any and all forms of art really.

I also get my inspiration from moments where I allow myself to rest and a random bolt of inspiration will strike, which I usually email to myself to work on at a later date. I find doing things that are rest for me, whether that be reading comics, enjoying a cup of tea, going on walks, exercising, meditating, watching TV and movies, helps create the space for inspiration to strike. Which is why I have a semi-strict rule that Sundays are my day of rest, where I read comics, exercise and try not to get any work done. Like how Stan Lee and Steve Ditko got inspired for the character of Spider-Man by watching a fly crawl up the wall, I believe these mundane moments of mindfulness and daydreaming are necessary for inspiration. I’m also directly inspired by my life, my friends and family, my disabilities, my race, my gender identity, and my neurodivergence. 

– Interview by Sophie Gordon

If you’d like to feature in a future Meet a Member, or nominate another 26er, drop me a line at Don’t be shy.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.