An Examination of Rwanda’s Underground Music: How to Transcend Afrobeats

Munyakazi Deo plays the traditional inanga so as to bring modern music back to its roots. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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By Hadley Copeland

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he contemporary music scene in Rwanda can be separated into two chapters: before the country’s atrocious Genocide and after, as the country has rebuilt and healed over the past twenty-five years. For decades, traditional music has served as a key part of Rwandan culture: it is an integral part of ceremonies, festivals, gatherings, and storytellings. But during the Genocide, music became an instrument for the Genocide’s perpretrators. According to The New York Times, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found that the songs of well-known Rwandan musician Simon Bikindi were part of a propaganda campaign to incite hatred towards Tutsis, an ethnic group targeted during the infamous Genocide. Music contributed to the Hutu’s ethnic campaign against the minority Tutsi population in the country, and thus, to the deaths of at least 500,000 Tutsis and the rapes of over 250,000 women. 

Beyond Rwanda’s borders, music has played a crucial role in propagating violence in other genocides, including the Holocaust. In the Nazi’s gruesome concentration camps, music was played over loud speakers to ‘re-educate’ what the party identified as their political opponents. The Nazi Party also created their own music that supported and strengthened their nationalistic, xenophobic, and destructive objectives: the “Hort Wessel Song,” known as the anthem of Nazi Germany, employed the tune of “How Great Thou Art,” to new lyrics written during the late 1920s. Rwanda is not the first country where mass genocide has occured under the influence and encouragement of musical accompaniment. 

Since the Genocide, musicians have tried to move beyond this legacy by bringing new elements and styles into the Rwandan music. For most Rwandan musicians, this means connecting Rwandan music to pan-African music styles: nowadays, much of the music produced in Rwanda is comparable to that in Nigeria or Kenya. The Yale Globalist spoke with some members of the Kigali music scene who are trying to reinvent Rwandan music in a way that reflects the rich cultural history of the country. 

Deo Munyakazi is a musician whose work focuses around the traditional inanga, an instrument popular in Rwanda as well as Burundi and Uganda. The inanga is formed out of a single piece of wood with eight notches at each end; the finger and nail are used to pluck the strings, which are formed out of a single piece of cow tendon. Although traditionally children are not taught to play the inanga—instead, they are expected to teach themselves after seeing their fathers play—Munyakazi began playing in 2012 after an elder, who had been playing for decades, began to teach him. 

Munyakazi’s work has achieved acclaim in Rwanda and even worldwide. Most nights, he can be found playing in hotels, concerts, or convention venues across Kigali. The morning I met with him, he was planning to perform that evening at L’Epicurien, an acclaimed restaurant in Kigali. Last year, he also had the opportunity to perform at Kigali’s own European Street Fair. The fair, which is organized by the EU Delegation and Embassies in Rwanda, brings Rwandan, European, and African artists onto the same stage. Through festivals like this, Munyakazi hopes to encourage the revitalization of Rwandan culture. 

“Rwandese are trying to make Nigerian music, R&B, and pop [but] there’s no originality,” Munyakazi said. In this way, Munyakazi has tried to modernize the inanga as a traditional aspect of Rwanda’s culture. 

Like Munyakazi, Green Ferry Music is a Rwandan enterprise hoping to transform the country’s music scene: but through its own unique brand of trap music, not the inanga. With about twenty people on their whole team, including twelve musicians, videographers, managers, and producers, Green Ferry is an integral part of Rwanda’s music future. Looking back on the past 20 years, the group has seen few changes in Rwandan music: most Rwandan artists continue to connect their work with pan-African music; because of this, neither a traditional style, nor breakthrough artist, has really emerged on the world stage. 

At their studio, south of the capital Kigali, the group produces, writes, and performs their own music and has rising artists like B-threy, Icenova, and Bushali, who I was able to meet over dinner my first night in Rwanda. The artists, who despite looking for inspiration outside of Rwanda, want to develop a truly Rwandan brand of Afro-hip-hop and trap music. 

They differentiate themselves from other Rwandan labels, as they say, “[Because] most music companies here they just want to get money. For us, we are trying to create artists, writing for music and not just writing for money.” 

Right now, Green Ferry’s events are primarily limited to small venues in and around Kigali as well as openings for other artists. However, members of the group did have the opportunity to perform at the European Street Fair, alongside Munyakazi, and to perform outside of Rwanda at the Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda. 

Connecting these two disparate movements to revive Rwandan music is Eric Soul, a Belgium-born and -raised Londoner who moved back to his parents’ home country less than a decade ago. His parents had left Rwanda before he was born when earlier waves of Tutsis fled the country as resentment grew against them. As a young man in London, Soul saw a crowded music scene: there were venues for house, hip hop, and dance music, among other styles. But like Green Ferry looking out on the Rwandan music scene today, he realized that while black music changed and evolved every two or three years, an African music scene was nonexistent. This is because, Soul observed, Africanness was not accepted with the same vigor that Carribean heritage was. 

“I was called a different shade of black,” he recalled of that time. 

For Soul, it felt wrong for artists to “be talking about your blackness [but] not connecting culturally to Africa.”

Soul said, “And me, as a French, African Londoner, I thought that there was a gap there.” 

So, Soul began to play the music of famous Nigerian multi-instrument Fela Kuti. Kuti is known as the founder of the Afrobeat movement, the incorporation of big-band jazz music with African music and socially conscious lyrics. 

And out of that observation, Soul began a series of enterprises that would eventually result in the founding of his company, Afrogroov, a conglomeration of his work with the BBC radio and big-name artists. 

From then, Soul moved onto the lounge scene in London, centered around Oxford Street in central London. This was less commercial than the clubs that Soul had worked at before and allowed for a more personalized sound. 

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Fela Kuti founded Afrobeat, a musical genre which combines traditional West African music with modern influences like jazz and American funk. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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With these experiences, and having traveled the world from Moscow to New York and back working nearly every role imaginable in the music industry, Soul decided to return to Rwanda in 2011 and brought Afrogroov with him in 2012. Among his many roles in the Rwandan music scene, Soul has founded Root House, a speciality project that he created through a partnership with the Root Foundation, a charity for Rwandan street kids.  The Root House was a one-of-its-kind creation that consisted of a coffee shop, run by volunteers who wanted to learn more about the industry, as well as a cultural venue that would be run by Afrogroov. 

Soul described this project as “a self-contained hub and creator space, an incubator, [and] a co-working space as well,” one of its kind in Rwanda. 

It was at this venue that Green Ferry performed their first showcase, with the help of Soul. Later, Soul, who helped to organize the European Street Fair, made spots for Green Ferry and Deo at the event. 

Yet, despite the improvements noted by Green Ferry and Soul in the Rwandan music scene and the country’s rich artistic history, they admit that music in Rwanda is still portrayed as culturally irrelevant in many circles. In cities like Berlin, Toronto, and New York, Soul emphasizes the immediacy of culture in the form of art, murals, performances, and architecture. In Kigali, despite the city’s modernity, there are few cultural venues, particularly after the closing of Root House due to a residential neighbor’s noise complaints. 

“So [Kigali is] safe and we have internet but OK?” Soul wondered. 

Looking forward, the future evolution of Rwandan music is uncertain. There are artists like those in Green Ferry who are on the cutting edge of the industry, but with little exposure to the newest music and production techniques coming out of music hubs like Los Angeles, London, and Paris, it is doubtful that Rwandan artists will be able to achieve wide global acclaim. This seems particularly true considering that pan-African Afrobeats–a style that lacks any type of original beat– is dominating Rwandan air space and popular attention. The majority of listeners have not yet taken intense interest in their own country’s musical scene. Deo, and others trying to reclaim traditional Rwandan, are facing off against the popularity of this nondescript style. 

No one is backing down from this challenge. Green Ferry dreams of establishing their own academy and for a future where they are known across Rwanda. Soul wants Kigali’s music scene to develop and for Rwandan artists to develop their own unique sound, embracing their cultural heritage. And for Deo, he is most concerned with ensuring that the inanga is not lost with the next generation. Whether or not Rwanda’s music is capable of moving past beyond its identity on the world stage as just another music-producing African nation, with no unique sound or voice. 

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A Rwandan musician performs. Photo courtesy One Zone Media.

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Hadley Copeland is a sophomore in Trumbull College studying Modern Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. She can be contacted at hadley.copeland@yale.edu.