Last Friday night marked Uncle Ricky's first major star turn — sort of. To understand the import, you have to know a few things about him. Namely, that his real name is Ochen Kaunda, that he's 28 years old, that he immigrated to Oakland from Uganda about a year ago, that his primary languages are Acholi and Swahili, that he's not quite conversant in English, and that he knows just enough to write Facebook updates like: "A new baby is born in the field of music do you wanna know more about the baby click like then you to this page and check out some cool vedeo about true love much much appreciation to your effort."
Uncle Ricky currently works two jobs — one stocking shelves at a beauty supply store, the other as a sous chef in Temescal. He has an apartment in Fruitvale, recently applied for a green card, and is currently on a year-long sobriety kick in the hopes of passing his health test. About a month ago, he also became a minor YouTube celebrity after unleashing a music video for his reggae-influenced slow jam tune, "Offer True Love." Friday was the first time he performed it live, inside a West Oakland recording studio for a crowd of hipsters who apparently had all seen the video multiple times, given that they sang along with Ricky on the chorus.
The studio's proprietor, 26-year-old Lucas Noah, had decided not to charge admission. Things were already complicated enough: He'd been forced to yank the show from a legit venue (Vitus) at the last minute due to a booking error, and it had become a logistical nightmare. Four bands were scheduled to open for Uncle Ricky, which meant that Noah spent most of the night flitting about the studio, adjusting amplifiers, plugging in mic cords, and navigating through the crowd of cigarette-smokers who clogged his driveway. Billed as an Art Murmur after-party, the show attracted hordes of youngsters (the median age appeared to be 21). By 10 p.m., Noah looked put-upon.
Uncle Ricky spent most of the night cloistered in what might have been the equivalent of a "green room" by West Oakland standards. He wore a maroon airline steward outfit that he and Noah had purchased at a thrift store that afternoon. Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" burbled through the computer speakers. Ricky fingered the brass buttons on his uniform. He didn't seem bored so much as puzzled. Roughly four months had passed since the genesis of his music career, and already, his public image was becoming problematic.
It's not clear whether or not Uncle Ricky sees it that way. For that matter, it's not clear if he's in on the joke, or if it is a joke. He and Noah first met a few months ago, after Ricky began seeing flyers around town for Noah's recording studio. "I just got this really garbled text message one day," Noah said. "'Do you have beats? I need beats!'" He jumped to conclusions: "I was like, okay, this is some really shitty Oakland rapper." The two of them corresponded by text message for a while, and Noah didn't revise his opinions about Uncle Ricky until they finally met in person and began recording the singer's first bona fide tune. "I would say about an hour in I was like, 'Yeah,'" Noah said. "And as that first song shaped up, I was, like, 'This is awesome.'"
Thus far, Noah is most famous for co-producing the "Teach You How to Snuggie" video — another small-scale YouTube hit featuring one rapper, one hot video chick, and several soft blankies — which ultimately won second place in the 2010 Snuggie Choice Film Awards. Most of the artists on his roster are garage rock or electro, such as local guitar-vocal duo Safe, which opened for Uncle Ricky that night. That said, Noah's sensibility is actually pretty campy. If he had his druthers, every artist who entered his dark, windowless building — ironically named "The Rec Center" — would have an act worthy of viral video notoriety.
Uncle Ricky's aesthetic is campy, too, which explains why he so easily allowed Noah to become his de facto Lou Pearlman. He's a big Lady Gaga fan, and although he grew up playing traditional African music (his first instrument was an endingidi, or Ugandan fiddle), his tastes as a listener err on the pop side. Ricky said that his alias derives from a childhood nickname. "Uncle" is slang term for "boss" or "mack daddy" in Uganda. "Ricky" is the sound of the endingidi (or "rigi rigi," as it's sometimes called). Not only are Uncle Ricky's songs unabashedly sentimental, they're also extremely traditional, in that his ideal romance usually ends in a happy, faithful marriage.
Thus, "Offer True Love" is an earnest, schmaltzy ballad, and a lowbrow masterpiece. Noah and co-producer Jesse Meeker recruited three women via Craigslist to dance in the background for free. They sway behind Uncle Ricky, wearing stripper outfits and stiletto heels. Filmed partly in front of a green screen and partly on the beach in Santa Monica, the video contrasts an intentionally primitive production style with lyrics that seem totally sincere. For part of it, Ricky wears a white coverall jumpsuit with a red heart drawn on it.
Not surprisingly, "Offer True Love" spread like a contagion in the blogosphere, particularly after someone reposted the video on the popular music site WorldStarHipHop.com. Within about 6 weeks, the 2-minute clip had garnered more than 42,000 views, in addition to 19,000 views on YouTube. And the response was about evenly divided between plaudits and disses, which, Noah conceded, "is good, for the Internet."
Hipsters in West Oakland were eating it up, too. There were only about eight people in the audience when Uncle Ricky finally emerged, at midnight, to perform a four-song set over canned tracks. "How is everybody feeling?" the singer asked, taking the stage in his maroon two-piece and a sailor cap similar to the one he wears in the video. "On the stage is Uncle Ricky." He smiled as Noah cued up the first track on his computer — a bouncy reggae ballad with ear-puncturing synth chords and a light snare beat. Uncle Ricky began singing in a warbling alto that wasn't quite a falsetto. People began filing in until the room had almost filled up. In the front row, drunk audience members wobbled blissfully to the beat, swinging their arms awkwardly and murmuring with Uncle Ricky on the hooks. Three songs in, Ricky did a call-and-response with the audience. Someone tried crowd-surfing. By the time he got to "Offer True Love," the audience response was explosive. Some people were snickering, but most seemed genuinely enthusiastic.
Which begs the question: Is the Uncle Ricky meme just another example of American audiences seizing on something foreign and liking it ironically? And, if that's the case, where do we draw that perilously thin line between ironic fandom and cultural tourism?
Noah argues, to the contrary, that there's nothing ironic about Ricky's sudden cult of celebrity. "He's a good singer with a high-range voice," the producer said. "The song is cute and earnest. I would say most of the time people are into it. There were some people on that World Star site who were laughing, but it was at least 50/50."
And Ricky would agree. Interviewed a couple days after the warehouse show, he said that people like his music because it's "true" — meaning it comes from a very heartfelt place. And, in fairness, the singer's cloying sentiments and charmingly sheepish demeanor are a large part of his appeal. He might be a willing accomplice in his own exploitation, or he might have a real future in music: There's no denying that the hooks on "Offer True Love" are pretty damn catchy. Noah and Meeker recently posted the vocal track and instrumental loops for "Offer True Love" on their website, UncleRickyMusic.com, so that listeners could make their own original remixes. Apparently, there's an album on the horizon.
For now, though, Uncle Ricky just wants to get his green card.