Shuga’s sweet success

2012-03-02 10:45

No city reveals its charm in the trip from the airport, but the driving is usually a sign of its character.

Approaching a traffic circle, the drivers of Nairobi lean over their steering wheels with great alertness and move slowly into the first gap. No one waits their turn and everyone keeps moving. There’s a good bit of braking, but almost no hooting. Road rage is not a known condition.

There’s a rumour that American rapper 50 Cent has flown in from neighbouring Somalia and is staying where I’m booked. Wow! The hotel driver confirms this with pursed lips. The rapper apparently arrived in a convoy of five cars and moves with 10 bodyguards and two policemen.

By contrast, I’ve barely dropped my bags when MTV calls and invites me out with Banky W. For those who didn’t know, Bankole Wellington is one of Africa’s most successful R&B artists. He’s travelling with child star WizKid and is set to collaborate with Akon.

With his natty hat and designer facial hair, Banky W makes his presence felt in a crowd. “Being a musician is not just about coming to sing a love song and going home to sleep,” he says quietly.

“It’s also about making your world a better place. When MTV called, I jumped at this thing.”

This thing is season two of Shuga: Love, Sex, Money.

It’s a fresh and ambitious HIV-prevention youth drama initiated by MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation and funded by the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief with the support of the Kenyan government. Banky W has recorded the title track for the series with WizKid, SA rapper L-Tido and Kenyan artist Boneye.

With its dazzling cast of mostly newcomers, Shuga 2 spotlights a group of friends in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. It crafts its plots around pressing HIV concerns. Without wagging its finger, it offers advice in an aspirational world where condoms are sexy and where beautiful, skinny people have more problems than you. It has an MTV pace and many short scenes, yet inside each it plays on slowly milking emotions.

The stories include that of 16-year-old Baby who is raped by her uncle and must act against him. There’s also the story of the HIV-positive Violet who, on an alcohol-fuelled night, has sex with a friend without revealing her status.

Then there’s Leo, who finds himself in love – and in bed – with two women. And the all too familiar narrative of Kipepo, who arrives from her village and finds she needs the help of a sugar daddy to get by.

“The process started with talking to young people about their first-time sex encounters,” says Angus Gibson at a display of Kenyan hominid fossils. The series is having its red carpet launch at the National Museum.

He directed the show with Tebogo Mahlatsi, through their SA-based production company The Bomb Shelter. The two are the men behind SA’s drama seriesYizo Yizo.

Gibson agrees: We’re probably world leaders in educational drama – ever since Soul City in 1994. Studies show TV drama can, and does, effect positive behaviour change. Anecdotal evidence is everywhere.

Says a new cast member: “Watching Shuga 1 made me go out and get an Aids test.”

By now hip-hop is occupying the museum. DJs rock a colonial marble staircase and light refracts across an extinct okapi. Outside, a screening of Shuga’s six episodes receives a spirited reception. There is a sense of freedom in the air.

Outlining government’s involvement, the MC acts stunned. “Wow. Yes. They’re actually supporting the youth.”
What makes it interesting is that Shuga 2 features a gay character in a nation where homosexuality is illegal.

Social networks have been buzzing about it for days, but it’s all a bit of a storm in a shot glass.

The character, Ray Ban, is in the club and an older man propositions him. The audience roars into laughter. Ray Ban dismisses him and tells his girl friends he doesn’t do married men. He’s clearly gay.

“Personally, I would have liked him to have a bigger role,” says Georgia Arnold, the Viacom (MTV) social responsibility boss and creator of Staying Alive. “We agreed that this season we need to start breaking down the stigma. Research tells us the majority of gay sex in Kenya involves married men – who usually have unprotected sex with their wives.

“Finally we’re talking,” says Banky W when I run into him at the after-party at a swish club Gallileo’s. “These are life and death issues involving young people that Africa is shy to discuss.”

He and L-Tido enthuse about the new pop frontier. Their song, It Ain’t My Fault, has gone down well in both Nigeria and SA, opening new possibilities. And they’re getting international attention as the rest of the world catches on to African pop. When I mention 50 Cent, most people just shrug.

The rapper’s in town to highlight poverty for the UN’s World Food Programme. He has pledged one billion meals, one per sale of his energy drink Street King. After several homophobic statements, 50 Cent was losing his shine.

Then he released an anti-bullying children’s book and came to the Mother Continent.

MTV is also giving and taking, building a brand and selling content. But Shuga has a strategy. It’s being offered free to broadcasters. About 100 will be showing it, including Kenya’s public TV stations. It’s also being released as a radio drama to target rural population.

Heading back to the airport down Uhuru Highway, I chat to the same driver.

He has still not forgiven 50 Cent. “Who is he anyway?” he clucks. “I asked everyone: ‘Sing me one of his songs so I know’. Nobody could.”

» Shuga is on MTV Base (DStv Channel 322) on Tuesdays at 9.30pm. It will also be screened on

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