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Crowds gather at the Kiryandongo refugee camp in Uganda as the Street Boyz perform. Members of the rap crew are usually scattered around different parts of Uganda and Kenya, but are sometimes able to congregate for a gig.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Taidor Deng Mach, who performs as T-Chris, works in a recording studio in Bweyale, Uganda, alongside MC B Happy J.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

In the sweltering heat, the red ceiling light makes it feel like you’re in an oven. The sound engineer declines the water bottle I offer him and tells the children crowding around his console to keep quiet.

We are in the Turf Recordz studio in Bweyale, Uganda, and T-Chris and Koko De Best are recording a new piece. It’s 45 C, but the music can’t wait.

The story of Taidor Deng Mach, also known as T-Chris, is the story of hundreds of thousands of refugees who, like him, fled South Sudan’s civil war to neighbouring Uganda.

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T-Chris is part of a crew of rappers, all from South Sudan, called the Street Boyz. Photojournalist Renaud Philippe and I spent a week with T-Chris’s family and friends in the Kiryandongo district.

Members of the Street Boyz, from left: Van D, MC Doula, T-Chris, Baddy Bwoy, Koko De Best and Triple MJ (the man seen crouching is unidentified).

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Hanging out at the Turf Recordz studio in Bweyale, a small city not far from the Kiryandongo camp.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

T-Chris (middle) and Koko De Best (second from right) record a new Street Boyz song at Turf Recordz, home of the only studio in Bweyale. The population of Bweyale has experienced an uncommon boom since the massive arrival of refugees in 2014.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Watch and listen: Street Boyz in the studio

Under the red light inside the Turf Recordz studio, T-Chris sings along to a track Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Like many young rappers an ocean away, T-Chris counts American hip-hop stars Akon and Tupac as two of his greatest influences.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Akon and Tupac are the two artists who have had the greatest influence on T-Chris. When war erupted in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in 2013, his uncle was murdered and he lost contact with the rest of his family. T-Chris left for Uganda to join two of his cousins and their mother.

“From that moment, music became real for me, it became my only activity,” he says.

T-Chris, Koko, Brisko, Baddy Bwoy and the other crew members are scattered all over Uganda and keep in touch through WhatsApp messaging and Facebook. Despite the hardships of life in the camps, music is their priority.

“If you do not believe in yourself through music, you’re just wasting your time,” T-Chris says.

It’s concert day in the camp at Kiryandongo. A truck with a generator and speakers rolls through the camp’s trails to invite the population to the event.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Watch and listen: Koko De Best in freestyle mode

Koko De Best leads a freestyle session to kill time. The group doesn’t often have the opportunity to get together because its members live in the four corners of Uganda or even in Kenya, in the Kakuma refugee camps. Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Everything required to put on the show, including a PA, mixer and even the DJ himself, was rented or hired in Bweyale.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Over several hours, dancers and singers take turns performing for the crowd.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Baddy Bwoy performs on the makeshift stage before T-Chris and Koko play as the headlining act.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Koko De Best and T-Chris playing to the crowd.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Some audience members climb a tree for a better look at the show.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Uganda ranks third among countries hosting the largest refugee populations in the world, and it hosts the most in Africa. Refugees arriving in Uganda have the right to a parcel of land, and a law from 2006 allows them to work and move freely in the community.

T-Chris is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and says he believes God has a plan for him.

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“I have been in really bad situations and I have always asked for help from God,” he says. “He took me to the worst places and I suffered a lot, but he was always there.”

T-Chris’s story is a reminder that there is still a crisis in South Sudan, the youngest democracy in the world. In and outside the country, there are more than 2.3 million migrants waiting for the situation to settle down.

A peace agreement was signed in Addis Ababa on Sept. 12, 2018. Now, refugees are waiting to see if the country stays stable before returning home.

A short walk in the Kiryandongo camp. In Uganda not only are refugees able to move around freely, but they also are able to work in the country.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Aerial view of the Kiryandongo refugee camp. The UN estimates that 57,639 individuals live in the district, the majority from South Sudan.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Street Boyz crew members walk the streets of Bweyale after a day of recording.

Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

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