Jonah Mutono On 'GERG' And Embracing His Identity And Ugandan Heritage NPR's Scott Simon talks with the R&B singer dubbed "the Ugandan Frank Ocean" about his album GERG and his experience reconciling his sexuality with the community that raised him.

On His Debut Album, Jonah Mutono Embraces His Identity And His Name

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jonah Mutono's new album, "GERG," is really a reentry. You may have heard some of his music before when he was known as Kidepo. But now he's sharing his real name and real story of self-acceptance for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

JONAH MUTONO: (Singing) Put your name tag on. Let's go. Put your name tag on...

SIMON: Jonah Mutono joins us now from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

MUTONO: Hi, there. Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: And why were you using another name for your music previously?

MUTONO: I used the name Kidepo because it was a good way to hide.

SIMON: And what made you change? Why did you want to do something different now?

MUTONO: I think, you know, I was writing incredibly personal music. And all of my favorite artists - you really see them as human beings out in the world. And you can link this to their music. I didn't want to deprive people of the experience of, you know, knowing the artist a little better when hearing my music.

SIMON: Well, and let's not delay it. And begin to tell your story. Let's hear the song "The Low."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOW")

MUTONO: (Singing) I never had one bad dream about you. Not one, nowhere. I really can't take you to my mama. She couldn't bear. Waiting on 16th at the place we meet. Don't you love and leave me.

SIMON: Beautiful song. What can you tell us about it?

MUTONO: This is the last song that I wrote for the album. This song talks about a relationship I had while I was living in England where I felt that I had to sneak around and hide this person from everybody in my life because I grew up in a very religious background, you know, the Christian church. And even though everyone was so good to me, I hadn't come out to them yet in this way. And I was in a same-sex relationship. So I kind of did it behind everyone's backs in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

MUTONO: (Singing) Out in the world, out in the world. I won’t find anyone like you. Oh, what I might do if I could have you...

SIMON: You grew up in Uganda, but you were born in London, I gather, and moved around a bit.

MUTONO: Yeah.

SIMON: Can you help us understand what it was like for you to, on the one hand, realize something about yourself, but you didn't want to distance yourself from family and other people that you loved and perhaps even at church that you loved? Just help us understand all the factors that were weighing in your life then.

MUTONO: It was interesting because I think right before this period in my life, I lived in New York by myself, and I'd made a whole new collection of friends. And so I was really allowed to experiment. When I went back to London and I was dropped back into the environments and the communities that I used to be in, I just didn't know how they'd react because in my experience, everyone really, you know, looked down upon people who, you know, had a same-sex orientation. But I still wanted the freedom to experiment and see where I was with all that because I was still discovering what it was to me.

In terms of, you know, the Ugandan side of it, there's a much bigger political conversation around that because, of course, years ago, there was a bill that they tried to pass to put, you know, homosexuals to death. And, of course, this just strikes fear into the heart of every man who might think that they love another man.

SIMON: You wrote an essay for The Daily Beast...

MUTONO: I did.

SIMON: ...In which you said you don't believe what you called the activist that Uganda deserves. What do you mean?

MUTONO: I think I'm not performative in the way that I feel like I need to march through the streets or anything. I do feel like I do need to exist. And as the artist I am, maybe existing as the artist I am will be enough, will be my contribution. I don't have anything further that I can do in terms of, you know, emotionally, physically. I don't know what else I can contribute to this cause.

SIMON: I mean, your music can be very powerful and make a statement and inspire and move and touch people, in a way. I mean, maybe you don't call it activism, but it certainly makes people feel engaged and enlarges human understanding.

MUTONO: Of course. I definitely hope so, but I guess I didn't write that with that in mind. You know, I didn't write the album with that in mind. I was just sort of trying to process what it was and what the truth of it was and - more for myself than anyone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1949")

MUTONO: (Singing) Could you be that fine love? That 1949 love? That quiver in your spine love? That summer wine love?

SIMON: So why are there so many love songs on this album when so many of them seem to have come out of a sense of pain or injustice or...

MUTONO: Why are there so many love songs? Good question (laughter). I think, usually, when I write a song, I want to get to the truth of the matter. And I guess the truth of the matter is I just want love like anybody else.

SIMON: Yeah. How do you feel now that this album is out and people are listening to it?

MUTONO: It definitely feels like a graduation, like the end of a chapter because I think it's taken so long from the genesis and the first song I wrote to this album to the very last one, maybe four years. I'm excited for people to finally hear it. I'm excited to move on after everything I've learned about myself after writing this. It's a great thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1949")

MUTONO: (Singing) That 1949 love. Walk straight into the fire...

SIMON: John Mutono - his new album is "GERG." Congratulations, and thanks so much for being with us.

MUTONO: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1949")

MUTONO: (Singing) Just grab a warm body and pick up the keys. If you need somebody, somebody to be. You can’t count on timing...

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