To WRITE about Jose Chameleone is to RE-WRITE about him. ‘Owakabi’, an artist of unimaginable depth- a wordsmith without an equal, has had unrivaled limelight and public acclaim to attract the eye, ear, and pen of the best journalists. Nothing I can write, even with the best of my heart and soul, can be new or at least sufficiently capture the sheer scale of what he is.
Much has been written about him that no topic I can touch is without reference. Mine, therefore, is a simple reverential piece to pay tribute to a man who has scaled the heights to push the boundaries of what’s possible with art, and inspired generations to dare, dream, and fly.
Joseph Mayanja (known by his stage name as Jose Chameleone) a phenomenally successful artist was born in 1979 to a humble family- his parents- Mr. and Mrs. Mayanja. Jose has, is, and remains Uganda’s top musician, a fort he has firmly held for over two decades.
At the dawn of the new century, pop culture- with its massive appeal, had firmly become pronounced within Uganda’s mainstream social space. Entertainment had found parking within Uganda’s youth culture. Urban youth had found a new vibe that made Kampala’s nightlife better than heaven. There was a new vibe in town. There was a promise. The past, with all its sorrows and wounds, seemed to be winding up, while the future- grand and full of promise seemed to be unfolding.
Chameleone, inspired by this vibe and in pursuit of a better life tags along the famous Kenyan Ogopa Deejeys to make his way to Kenya. There, in the unforgiving environs of Nairobi he discovers himself- he can sing and sing well. Back home, FM radio was spreading like a bush fire. The sheer scale of its spread was beyond imagination. Chameleone returns and in 2000, it’s blitz.
From 2000, Chameleone pedals the wheels that turn the music industry in Uganda. Hit after hit, Chameleone cements his name. By 2013 he had produced 13 albums, had many record-selling singles to his name, and had won at least 20 awards. That, literally is an award, every year. To write about such a man, one must honor him with pomp reserved for royalty.
He is a man that has transcended himself to leave an indelible mark on the music industry, country, and century. But we are a country that never appreciates. We are a society that does not see another person’s success as, in time, your own success. We are a society that loves to watch others fail.
A man as successful as Chameleone attracts intense scrutiny from the public with the ever-happy hand of the media. Controversy, understandably, is the fuel that keeps the news mill turning. Over time, exposed to the unending gossip windmill- whose wheels are ever turning, we get used to gossip and scandal, and lose the connection with the beautiful art, inspiration, and creativity of an artist. We forget the young man that beats the odds to show many what’s possible in what looks impossible. We forget the success and look at the failures. We lose the win. That win from a man that rose from, literally, nothing.
We forget the young man that fights his way through the treacherous industry to make a living, changing his fortunes and that of many others who have found their own wings, by flying on his or looking at him and discovering their own. But that’s our society.
Chameleone’s music has something about it. His genre of music crosses between Ugandan folk, rumba, zouk, and reggae. The blend of Luganda, Swahili, and English endears him to multicultural audiences and appeals to all classes of people- young and old, rich and poor.
My favourate songs are Jamila, Valu Valu, and Mama Mia. There was something juicy about these songs. They had a sweet feeling about them. They evoked emotions we had never felt before. There was something about Jamila…something I can’t find the words to describe.
I also think that there was something about the year 2000 and the years that followed, that filled people with a gap that only these songs could fill. We needed a Jose Chameleone and Jose Mayanja gave us a Jose Chameleone. There was a vacuum…there was a longing for something we didn’t know and Jose showed us what it was- his music, his voice, his themes, his life. These songs spoke something- that only the heart can describe.
Chameleone splendidly knew how to read the social temperature and just provide that blanket of warmth we needed, through his music. Some of those songs carried a kind of melancholy but one that was bitter-sweet to leave you dancing while still feeling the rich buffet of feelings that you could not describe. Interestingly many of his songs are in Swahili and many people do not understand the meanings of the songs but as they say, the ‘heart reads it’.
Chameleone became an epic in our music industry that many titles of his songs entered into the social dictionary. To date, if someone wanted to tell someone that they don’t appreciate, they make reference to Chameleone’s ‘Basiima ogenze’. This man somehow just knew how to bring to the fore those currents in our society that were brewing but perhaps people didn’t have the nomenclature to reference. Chameleone’s songs are loved across cultures.
His husky voice somehow sits over the music, beautifully giving authority, authenticity, and posterity to the songs. By God, it still remains a wonder how such an artist with a husky voice manages to put a layer of emotion in his song to cut through our hearts with such a sweet feeling. Each of his songs has heart and depth and will hang around for a long time.
As years have passed since his emergency on the scene, many musicians have emerged but few can punch with his weight. Chameleone, is literally and actually on Leone Island. He is alone, in his own space. His pallet of music is one of distinction. It is hard to compare him with other artists because, and I say this with the highest respect and reverence for other artists, his music is different.
Even when many artists with untold talent have come around, Chameleone remains that artist that still holds his fort. And I think his leadership is not much in how many songs he gave us than it is how many artists he has inspired to rise. Some have risen to challenge him, while others have risen to compliment his work.
I hope that the Makerere University and other research institutions, in God’s good time, will find time and conviction to commit resources to study this artist and his work and its influence. Everything, thus far, indicates that there is something different about him- a level he scaled that remains uncrossed despite today’s artists having the resources and media eco-system to rival and surpass him.
Chameleone is for me, a shining example of a man whose call in life has been extraordinary and one who has stood up to his call. Every year, just when you think Chameleone is in the twilight of his vocation, you discover that his new song is an overture to another epic. Despite the scathing beating from the media, for both good and bad reasons, this brother continues to hold ground.
With his quick mind and lethal sense of repartee, he has borne the blows that have come thick and fast during his career with courage, navigating the difficulties of walking a public life with personal life and the burden of being human- vulnerable to making mistakes. For us who are less attuned to living a celebrity life, you can’t help but respect this man for becoming who he has become.
Uganda can be a difficult place. You have to respect those who make it. It is easy to abuse Chameleone- sometimes I am tempted to, but when you reflect more about it, to appreciate what it takes to become this person, you calm down.
Sometimes there are no opportunities. Sometimes there is no way. But People like Chameleone make you think again. Sometimes, when we are behind here, on our screens, it’s easy to just write and bash but men, after it’s all done, you appreciate this guy is super creative and successful. He has made his parents proud, inspired many, and his works will remain for posterity. I have never met him in person but I admire his mastery. Uganda, we need to appreciate our own. Jose Chameleone is an artist on his own Island.