Ladies First : Cleo ‘The Sphynx’ Murungi
By Kye Makyeli
The term ‘femcee’ has always been a part of a growing sub-debate embroiled in the ever urgent issue of misogyny in hip-hopworldwide. Over the years, however, femcees have been known to bring a unique experience and talent to the hip-hop stage and open up a whole new world of relatability.
Meet one of them – Cleopatra Murungi Kyaligonza, popularly known on the Ugandan hip-hop scene as The Sphynx. A born Ugandan, she attended Kitante Primary School and Kampala Parent’s School before her rebellious nature had her enrolling into several other schools for her secondary education, among them, Nabisunsa Girls’ School, GreenHill Academy and St. Lawrence Schools, (Creamland campus) where she sat for her A’ Level. Now, the young rapper is making no stops for red lights as we talk about her kick start to what’s been a rising career, being a female artist, double-standards in music and hope for the future of hip-hop music in Uganda.
I love the ‘Sphynx’ moniker. What’s the inspiration behind it?
“The Sphynx” was inspired by my obsession with ancient civilizations like Egypt and Greece. Their stories, or what we call mythology now, is something I find captivating. The Sphinx is a mythical creature from both civilizations and I always found myself relating to it and what it stands for. It was half human, half lion and was responsible for protecting knowledge and also a guardian of sacred tombs and temples. The Sphinx was also known for using riddles, and whoever failed was devoured.
I relate with that in a way because I’m very protective of my friends and what I believe in. I’m also into riddles – coming up with them and figuring them out. I use a lot of punch lines and wordplay in my lyrics. In relation to rap, I go by “Half Lady, Half Beast” which means I can be just as gentle as a lady should be, but also as ferocious as a beast when it comes to the rapping. It also denotes that I use both heart and mind to express my art.
Where did you get your start as a femcee?
I started out on a dare. I have always been a lover of hip-hop, an enthusiast. I got to meet some of my favorite rappers on an online Facebook group. I was very vocal and, being such a male dominated culture, it wasn’t something you’d expect from a female. A few of them approached me and suggested I consider rapping since I already showed I had the attitude, but I didn’t think it was for me. Well, that was until Enygma challenged me. There was no way I was backing out of a challenge; it’s just the way I’m wired. So I started writing under the mentorship of Benny Black , Enygma and JT of Yego Productions where I was recording, and the rest is history.
Once you decided you were going to be this artist, who/what else influenced you with your art?
I took a while to really convince myself that this is what I wanted to do. There were times when I completely doubted myself but I also felt that, being that there are very few females in the industry, I owed it to myself to make it work. I got a lot of support from Ruyonga, who gave me my first feature on his album, Victory Music, and my first stage performance at Phatfest 2013. That inspired me to push myself. Even now, I still get inspired by people I look up to, The Mith, Navio, Nelly-sade; they always have gems of wisdom. I have grown creatively and understand how things work, better than I did as a fan.
What do you think about the state of hip-hop, not just in Uganda but throughout Africa, particularly regarding female rappers?
The state of hip-hop for females is a very touchy subject. I believe we have the talent and the opportunities, but very few of us are really working as hard as we should to earn them. We have many great females rappers; Angel Mutoni from Rwanda, Xtatic and Fem One from Kenya, several from back here in Uganda but only one seems to stand out – Keko. Keko has a monopoly on the East African market. She has worked hard to earn and keep that spot. No other female can touch her. We are too comfortable, myself included. We want more females out there but the input and strategy is still lacking. Those are things I’m trying to change. There is room for every female to win. I started a group with another female rapper, The Royal Agee, called MALIKA. MALIKA is Arabic for “Queen” and we shall be working together with other females in hip-hop to provide a bigger platform to showcase and mentor young femcees.
You are a part of an all-female rap group and your music is very well punctuated with references to women empowerment. Why is that important to you?
I believe every female in hip-hop is a Queen. There’s no two that are alike, every single one has her own style. I want us to realize that the competition shouldn’t be amongst us. Our competition is the males. That’s why there is a lot of emphasis on women empowerment and us working as a unit to achieve what we say we deserve, which is equal opportunity and respect.
The inaugural UG Hip-Hop Awards are coming up in a few months. As a renowned member and unapologetic activist of the genre, what do you think these particular awards mean for hip-hop in Uganda?
I am looking forward to the Awards. It’s a win for everybody in hip-hop. Recognizing and appreciating our own is a huge milestone. It will check the misrepresentation of hip-hop by other award shows in the past. I also see this as a gateway to unity. The lack of it is one of the biggest reasons growth is slow in the genre. This event will gel the underground and mainstream and put all the hip-hop elements on the same pedestal. I also see it as a beginning for better things to come. Healthy competition and better quality music and videos – that’s progress.
How do you envision a true Afrikan woman?
A true Afrikan woman is the embodiment of sensuality and beauty beyond the physical. She is respectful yet fearless, confident yet not overwhelming. She is gentle but not weak; in fact she is a pillar of knowledge and of strength for her values, and possesses virtues that generations are built on.
Even though her career in hip hop started just a few years back in June 2012, The Sphynx’s features on other artistes’ songs have patently built a foundation for her as a rapper and have also given her a platform to compete on the same level as male rappers. She is currently working on a solo compilation which is “going to be just great hip-hop music – something to feed the mind and also touch the soul.” MALIKA is also in the works with an EP that will feature several female emcees.
Connect with The Sphynx on Facebook : https://m.facebook.com/CleoTheSphynx/ Twitter: @cleo_thesphynx or listen to her music at www.cleothesphynx.com