By Chinasa Afigbo

If you attended or watched the recap of Burna Boy’s recent live concert at Madison Square Garden (MSG), New York, you must have noticed the fierce female backup singer swaying to the rhythm of the moment, as she rendered lilting vocals.

Her name is Christina Matovu, a Ugandan, who has spent most of her years in London building and nourishing an exceptional innate gift in music.

This is the extent of Matovu’s vocal imprint: a backup voice that does not seek attention, yet is so good it gets it.

Whatever impression you had after watching the band’s performance with Burna Boy would be concretised by the time you are done reading this interview.

Christina carries an earnest consciousness for the African culture. She is aware of the power she carries as a black woman, the poise, the unmistakable presence. She wears her crown with great poise strong enough to grip anyone who does not only listen but watch her. Still, she reserves respect and adoration for her boss Burna Boy who has consistently offered her a solid platform to not only polish but excel in her craft.

This interview, held over a cozy Whatsapp call, was a rollercoaster of emotions, and joyful laughter. Christina speaks to Vanguard about her passion for music, finding true faith in her vocals and getting to work closely for five years with the undisputable African Giant himself.

Let’s get to know who Christina Matovu is?

I am Douglas Paul Sengendo’s sister. I am Diana Nanteza’s daughter, and I am Christine Hubwama’s granddaughter, who I am named after. I am African, East-African; I am Ugandan, British born. And I am based in London, where I grew up with my grandmother and mother. God and music are what unite us as a family. Music is something I have been surrounded by from childhood. It made a very huge impact on us as a family and I started to take it seriously from the age of eight when I joined various choirs, performing on birthdays. Singing in church was something I am grateful to have had the opportunity to start with. I started with God and that is what has kept me and is keeping me going; the same God, yesterday, today and forever. I am grateful for my journey; and my story, I can tell it the way it is right now in this interview. God has changed my story and I am thankful for the instances I had growing up, that women are strength and substance. This has taught me about self-worth and respecting oneself and holding oneself accountable for what they feel is right and not about what they feel they desire.

What is music to you?

Music is the balm to my soul. It adds to my healing in so many ways. It is my form of worship, my form of meditation to overcome, a form of bringing myself back to a state of peace. I can sing through pain that sometimes makes me cry because I mean every note and every word. So, I make sure that I am responsible with that, that’s a power I cannot abuse. Because I know the effect music has on me, I can only imagine the effect I am having on people that are listening to what I am healing through.

What was it like growing up in Uganda?

I was born in the UK, and then we went to live in Uganda for about a year after things didn’t work between my parents. I was back to London where I was brought up by my grandmother, while my mother was back and forth from Uganda to London. But we do travel to Uganda frequently.

Take us through the memory of discovering the uniqueness of vocals in music?

I discovered that I had a passion for music from the age of eight. And again it was because of the musical influences that I had in my family, starting with my grandmother, down to my mother and brother. My grandmother came to the UK in the 1940s on a singing scholarship in Liverpool. Music has been a very big part of my family history. One of the core influences on where I am today is my brother who has been producing music for a very long time since our childhood. He had a band back in the days called, “The Extreme Impacts” and we traveled around with him as a family, supporting him in shows and competitions that he would win with his bandmates. I was able to learn a lot from them and incorporate into my musical journey. Later on, in life, I would study music for A-Level and get a Diploma in Vocals. So, it’s just beautiful how history repeats itself and puts me in a position where I can take this further than anyone that has been able to do it in my family.

My recognition started in the UK gospel scene when I started doing backup vocals for different UK gospel artistes. And that went on until the age of twenty before I got the opportunity to go into the London gospel choir with the help of a sister named Rachael, where I would now start singing professionally, and got the profession of being a social musician. There were multiple facets to my becoming a musician, and it’s been evolving. Now I am in the position where I now back the biggest Afrobeats artiste in our time. It only makes me realise that everything I discovered along the way has prepared me for this position. I am very thankful to God for not messing up.

So have you transitioned from gospel music to secular music?

It wasn’t a transition, it was more about the opportunity. I had an opportunity to broaden my horizon because there is so much more to music than gospel music. Gospel music is a genre; music, in general, is always about God. It still translates, whether I am signing secular or singing gospel, God is in each and everything that I do. It doesn’t mean I have to be behind the pulpit. I can be in the temple of what God represents and that speaks for itself.

How was it meeting Burna Boy for the first time?

I was very nervous the first time I met Burna. I had admired him from afar for many years. And now working with him, so that was a 360 moment for me. You meet people that you admire in your craft or fieldwork and it’s just really encouraging. And so, I just wanted to do my best, obviously, from the first show we did at Hammersmith Apollo, October 2016. I have been working with him ever since. I am grateful for the journey that we have had, which will be getting to its sixth year soon.

Being in Space drift for 5 years, working closely with Burna Boy and seeing his immense growth on the global scene

I am very proud of Damini and everything that he has been able to achieve because he works very hard to attain all that he has now. The simplest way for me to put this would be that Damini prides himself in the fact he doesn’t take the elevator, he takes the stairs. And we have been on the stairs with him, so we understand. We might have joined from the fifth floor but we were with him from then and we have built from that point to Madison Square Garden (MSG) New York. Everything that we sowed as a band was never in vain.

The Outsider’s Band has taken their time to invest their blood, sweat and tears, literally, just for him to understand that he isn’t alone. That people are supporting and understanding his vision to unite Africa as one big nation. And because we are on the same page of that vision, no matter what has happened, and the things we had to go through… I remember us doing American tours on a bus as a band, that was where we became family. We used those starting times to know each other better. So, from 2017 to 2019 was really a trying period for Burna Boy and the outsiders’ band because we were only still learning each other’s temperaments.

Also being the only female in a male-dominated band, you can only imagine. Despite the differences, I guess it was the respect, not just the love, that we had for each other that allowed us to put our pride aside and work closely as a family. Now we reminisce over such times and remain grateful. Working with Burna boy has been an honour and it allowed me to accomplish things that I wanted to achieve in myself, like having more confidence in performing, owning and being in my skin as an African woman, a black curvy woman, a black African woman, knowing that there’s no much room for us in the industry. Now I can comfortably say I am receiving love from Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and all other African countries. It is so overwhelming because never in a million years did I think I would be where I am today.

What’s your memorable performance with Burna Boy?

Other than MSG’s performance, I will say it is the Hollywood Bowl that happened last year. I can’t really describe the way I felt on that day but I am going to try my best to put it into words. It was a show like never before, spiritually. We were hitting different dimensions with our performance. I had to teach a new choir of 15 people all that I had learned in five years in two days because we didn’t have the luxury we have now to invite the whole band over. To God be the glory that made the show stand out despite the anxiety attacks I had the day before, apprehensive about teaching a new choir. That is the only time I can reference us performing “20-10-20”. And within that period, the first anniversary of the Lekki toll gate massacre was coming up, and we hadn’t performed it before then, so, the performance was used as a remembrance, which moved the crowd.

How did you come about your social media handle “Christina Matovu The First” what space are you taking up?

It all comes from a place of knowing that I have been so oppressed and getting to a place of healing where I love myself wholly, and now see myself for who I am: Christina Matovu. There is nobody like me, and never will there be. It’s not even about taking up spaces, it’s just me in the spaces I encounter and whose life is impacted because I am in them or because they have heard my music or my story. And that is why I carry integrity along in whatever I do. As an African black woman in the music industry, I need to understand what spaces I need to be operating in, and what spaces celebrate me.

Who and what inspires you?

Well, it’s a long list. But I will start with Whitney Houston, Brandy, George Michael, The Spice Girls, Anita baker, Missy Elliott, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. I remember how I used to rush into the sitting room as a child whenever ‘Always Be My Baby’ by Mariah Carey played so that I could sing along in time with its beginning tune. Finally, my inspiration now is really me.

Before music happened, were there previous career aspirations?

Yes, I have always loved mathematics right from when I was a child, so, I fantasised about being an investment banker. Also, I love theatre arts and have attended a couple of auditions but haven’t got the opportunity to act.

Your most favourite of all Burna Boy’s songs?

I love all of Burna’s songs, but I’ll just go with the ones that are my favourite to perform, starting with “Onyeka”. The song carries a lot of happiness in its lyrics and harmony that no matter how sad you are, listening to it will make you happy again. Sometimes, I play it repeatedly for days. And performing it, just the richness of the culture is quite beautiful. Another song I like performing is “23” just because I love it when Damini is vulnerable. Ultimately, he sings from his heart in all his songs and that is the beauty of good music.

How does it feel to be finally noticed and appreciated for your vocals in Burna boy’s songs?

If I am being honest, I don’t feel anything towards that, rather what I do feel is that I am doing my job well. At least, I know now, not that I didn’t before, but at least now I know that I have been doing my job well. Again I am very grateful, people didn’t have to notice me, and there were other people on the stage including Burna himself. For me, the focus has always and should be on him. But when the spotlight spills a little bit to my corner all I can say is thank you, God.

Let’s talk about your performance at Madison Square Garden (MSG) New York and how the music controlled, in as much as you controlled it too.

If I am being completely honest again, all I was doing was praising God. It felt like I was in two different worlds giving my best shots. I was like: “God, I am standing on MSG, in front of this massive crowd because of you. So, God give me all that I need to do my job to the best of my ability and support Damini in a way that he delivers the best of his talent today. Because I am backing this artiste and I need to do my job properly so that Damini can puncture all those holes in the sky. And in the end, only your name will be glorified.” And I kid you not, I had so much fun.

My focus, whenever I get on stage, is Burna, so, I had to study how he moves musically so that when he changes the atmosphere I will be sensitive and flow in with him. The bottom line is I am there to do my job well so that what happens at MSG, happens at MSG. I am so grateful for the way Damini allows us to shine with him too. He puts so many people on but he doesn’t speak about it because he doesn’t need to. But you will be surprised by the number of people Burna Boy has helped that turned around to bite his hands. Damini loves people and that is why his mum, who is also his manager, protects Burna from himself, sometimes, because he sometimes loves people too much. Now is his reaping season, it is an honour to witness it and be a part of the history he is making.

What should we expect from Burna boy’s next album?

Damini has done the work and I am super happy about his next album. Take note yea, ‘this whole album go burst una brains’, mark my words. This next album that is coming on his birthday in July is fire; you guys haven’t seen the best of Burna yet. Burna is such a creative that enjoys and understands the process of making great music. I assure you that Burna Boy will continue to release banger after banger because music is good to him. He understands music in a way that is so spiritual, and it can only be God and revelations.

What’s more for Christina Matovu?

Well, I will be releasing my new music this month on world’s Africa day which is on May 25th. It’s a single called “Black Sweet Dreams”. The song praises the uniqueness and existence of our black culture. This is a mandate upon me, to bring about this awareness to my people and I am glad to be doing so with my gift.


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