Published

17 September 2021

Throughout a career in African dance and arts that spans more than 30 years, Mercy Nabirye has sought to raise awareness of dance forms and dancers from across the African diaspora. A world-class artist, teacher and arts leader, Ms Nabirye works with individuals and organisations around the world to practice, raise awareness of and collaborate on African diaspora arts.

Ms Nabirye was honoured by the University of East London with an Honorary Doctorate of Arts at a ceremony for its School of Arts and Creative Industries on 13 September near the Docklands Campus.

At the ceremony, Ms Nabirye advised students to be open to the world, and in doing so they will find their voice and be ready to face new challenges and goals as they make their mark in the world. 

She said, "Change is an ideal that is evolutionary and a constant and you must continuously adapt to the change. The last 18 months have been uncertain for all of us, but it is also full of promise. I urge you to look at this experience as a 'pause' and an opportunity to pay attention, to reflect on old truths and insights to be able to embrace new beginnings."

Ms Nabirye is the founder and director of Kauma Arts, named after her mother, which connects, consults on, and supports arts talents that have their traditions rooted in the African diaspora, from dance to literature, film, music, performing arts and more. 

Born and raised in Uganda, Ms Nabirye grew up in a time of wars. Her father was brutally killed by the forces of Idi Amin, and she was forced to take on an early role of carer for her siblings and extended family. After studying performing arts - music, dance and drama at Makerere University in Uganda, Ms Nabirye worked as a choreographer and backing vocalist for a national performing arts organisation, The Ebonies. In 1988, she joined the company on a UK tour to promote Afro Jazz dance and music before deciding to move here.

In the UK, she worked with Apples & Snakes, helping it grow from a small literary and performance poetry organisation to a national spoken word organisation that today sits in Arts Council England's National portfolio. She then went on to work with Arts Council England's Creative Partnerships Initiative and Future Creatives CIC, Kent-based educational programmes that promote creative learning in schools and learning centres across Kent. 

Her achievements in raising the profile of African performing arts include writing and producing The Rwenzori, a musical expressing the different dance styles of Uganda, working as director for the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora, which later merged with three other key dance organisations to create One Dance UK, the national body committed to supporting diverse and thriving dance cultures. 

Under One Dance UK, she helped to develop the Bloom National Festival, which celebrates dance from Africa and its diaspora, and Re:generations, a biennial academic and artistic conference that brings together academia and practice to debate, present and share research in African Diaspora dance forms. 

Since the conference was launched in 2010, professors and students from the University of East London have often been invited to contribute to the programme and presentations. 

In her many years devoted to connecting and promoting the arts of the African diaspora, Ms Nabirye has created an extended artistic family around the world in the spirit of her endless Ugandan and UK families. 

Ms Nabirye said, "I have relied on the strength of others that came before me, they paved a way for me and are a part of me. I use the same strength to pass on the baton to you all. Keep family close. They are your immediate circle of influence and as you build more, be you, be authentic."