Nu Kigali: Rwanda’s underground music

Saturday February 2 2019

Angell Mutoni, rapper Nu Kigali

Angell Mutoni, 25, an underground rapper and poet of Nu Kigali. PHOTO | ANDREW KAZIBWE | NMG  

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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Rwanda’s underground music scene, known as Nu Kigali, is in full swing.

After years of stifled growth — generally being ignored by everyone who should have cared, from the mainstream media to public stakeholders — this new crop of artistes embrace a do-it-yourself approach to create a vibrant parallel national music scene.

But what is Nu Kigali? It is a creative philosophy that is centred on artistes’ freedom from being boxed into genres — as evidenced by the cross-genre collaborations — and an attitude that does not conform to mainstream media norms and expectations.

Nu Kigali is also a movement, a sort of New Age renaissance of the Rwandan creative art space, with creatives investing in others in a communal fashion. This artistic revolution is not just about a group of ''rebel'' musicians but an army of industry enthusiasts that includes photographers, music venue owners, designers, bloggers and curators, to mention a few of the creatives involved.

This thriving cultural landscape has morphed into a hotbed of creativity brewing alternative sounds to those popular across the city and country, creating a nexus between musical genres like folk, house, trap, neo-soul, spoken word, funk and percussion.

The diversity, sound, experimentation and energy that goes into Nu Kigali is about surviving the strait-jacket of mainstream music industry. It is a life of resilience.

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With the rise of social media, the underground artistes of Nu Kigali can now share their music and other creative works laterally as well as collaborate over the internet.

Unquestionably, social media has played quite a significant role in enabling them to push out their work from the sidelines, an otherwise uphill task if they had relied on mainstream channels like TV and radio to get to the audiences.

The creative world in Rwanda has always operated through a series of gatekeepers when it comes to adopting new trends: The innovator (artist), the early adopter, the late adopter, the early mainstream, the late mainstream and finally the conservative. But now it is possible and normal for music and other trends to go straight from the innovator to the mainstream.

Nu Kigali is also ending the common misconception about African music as perceived by Western media that tends to lazily band together all African music into a genre dubbed World Music.

Nu Kigali artistes are breaking that mould and starting conversations that have compelled local and international music enthusiasts to appreciate the eclecticism, complexity and variation of the music that comes out of Rwanda and Africa in general.

Green Ferry musicians Ice Nova and Prime Mazimpaka

Green Ferry musicians Ice Nova and Prime Mazimpaka perform at Mamba Club in Kimihurura, Kigali. PHOTO | ANDREW KAZIBWE | NMG

The personalities

Who are the people behind Nu Kigali?

As a socio-cultural phenomena, Nu Kigali has come to be identified with various acts based in Kigali and a number of them based in the diaspora.

What sets them apart from other underground scenes is that Nu Kigali creatives use English, French and Kinyarwanda, with some artistes mixing all the languages in a single piece.

Rwanda has a huge number of returnees (those who came back to the country after the 1994 genocide) who grew up in neighbouring countries as well as in Europe and North America, speaking a variety of languages.

Mainstream Rwandan music is performed in Kinyarwanda only.

The main acts behind the Nu Kigali wave are artistes such as Angell Mutoni, Mike Kayihura, Mucyo, Eric 1 Key, Selektah K’Ru, Sogokuru, Maktain, Prime Mazimpaka, Kanaka, Malaika Uwamahoro, Eloi El, Shavu, Nicole Musoni, Precious Keza, Weya Viatora, Bushali, Stella Tush and J Dub among others.

These creatives are of different ages and backgrounds and identify with being different by being more in touch with world trends and breaking away from typical Rwandan aesthetics. They push the limits of what can be done better with an international appeal.

Rwandan musicians

Rwandan musicians join counterparts from other countries as they perform at the Great African Caravan in Kigali late 2018. PHOTO | ANDREW KAZIBWE | NMG

Some of the noteworthy acts to look out for in 2019 are:

Angell Mutoni
Angell Mutoni, 25, is a poet, rapper and singer-songwriter based in Kigali, whose genre is a mix of Afro hip-hop, soul & R&B and pop. However with an eclectic musical taste, she enjoys experimenting and discovering new sounds.

Born into an artistic family, her father and uncle performed in a band. She started her artistic journey by performing spoken word in 2011 and morphed into a musician.

She first featured in a song called 2011 by Kanaka (formerly known as Darkecy) and released her first group album, Dim Witted, in 2012. She released her first solo mixtape project Epidemic of Words in 2013, followed by other musical projects: Rise album (2014), mixtape Epidemic of Words 2 (2015) and her latest Seedling (2018). She is currently working on her official debut album to be released later in the year.

Mike Kayihura
Mike Kayihura is a 25-year-old singer–songwriter based in Kigali whose genre is a mix of neo-soul, R&B and hip-hop. He is influenced by the music of Stevie Wonder.

He started singing at the age of 13 with the Christ Church choir in Kigali. Kayihura was privileged to study music in Ethiopia where he was trained to sing and write music.

He released his first song, Let Your Worries Go, featuring Benny Black, in 2014, followed by nine other songs: Tina (2014), Towards Everlasting (2014), Temptation (2015), Buri Munsi (2015), Ndugu Kalisa (2015), Maria in L.A. (2015), Mama and the City (2016), Nina With The Side Eye (2018), Religion (2018), Over the Sun (2018). He is set to release a live album in the next few months.

Mucyo
Mucyo is a singer-songwriter, whose genre is a mix of neo-soul, R&B and experimental R&B. She is deeply influenced by old school R&B, hip-hop and jazz artistes Erykah Badu, A Tribe called Quest, Lauryn Hill, Common, Jill Scott, The Roots and Aaliyah to Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye.

She began singing by doing covers of Erykah Badu, India Arie and Monica at events.

She released her first song, I Do Remember featuring Trey Vessels in 2015 and was featured in Trey Vessels’s You Wanna Go Home and Fly? in the same year.

Mucyo had her breakout year in 2018 with the release of her first album Blur, which featured Mike Kayihura and was well received in musical circles, then followed by a single Raindrops, with Mike Kayihura. She is set to release her second album, Free, this year.

Eric 1Key
Eric 1Key is a 37-year-old multilingual hip-hop rapper, poet, spoken word artist, blogger, and advocate of Kigali’s blossoming live music scene.

He is deeply influenced by hip-hop acts like the late Tupac and Biggie Smalls. He says he learned English through hip-hop as he was trying to understand the message in the songs.

Born to a Rwandan mother and Congolese father, 1Key has lived in the DRC, Republic of Congo and Uganda. He started his music career by performing poetry at Spoken Word.

He released his first song in 2012, Mr Hypocrite, followed by a stream of poetic songs after lacing beats on his live Spoken Word pieces. He released his debut album, Entre 2 (Between Two), in 2015 it was well received with its mix of traditional Rwandese melodies, soulful folk, celebratory rock, bouncy reggae and conscious hip hop poetry.

This was followed by other musical projects: Experimental (2016) and Alkeymie – The Slamtape (2018). He released a single, Mandwa Mfasha, this year and is expected to tour and release other projects later on in the year.

Angell Mutoni rapping at an event in Kigali.

Angell Mutoni rapping at an event in Kigali. PHOTO | ANDREW KAZIBWE | NMG

Nicole Musoni
Nicole Musoni is a singer-songwriter based in Montreal, Canada whose genre is a mix of soul, R&B, hip hop and experimental electronic music. She draws influences from the likes of Celine Dion, Erykah Badu, Lara Fabian and Jill Scott.

As the eldest daughter of popular Rwandan artist Evariste Musoni, she has a natural inclination to music. She released her first musical project, a short tape Chasin’ Dreams Short Tape which was released in 2012, this was followed by her sophomore project, Chasin’ Dreams Chapitre Deux in 2013.

She is set to release an album in 2019, which was preceded by the premiere of Die With Me, a video of her lead single from the album produced by Kaytranada.

Sogokuru
Sogokuru is a Rwandan–Burundian rapper, producer and graphic artist based in Belgium who focuses on hip-hop and various art forms.

He started recording music at the age of 16 alongside hip-hop artiste and co-founder of MLG, Steezy Steez. He creates art spaces for the younger generation to share experiences.

He released his first song, Got Till It’s Gone in 2013 when he was in rap group MLG with Steezy Steez, which was followed by their first mixtape, Quiet Words Loud Thought (2013).

He released his first solo musical project, Kanura (2016), a mixtape that was received well on the musical scene and showed his rapping prowess. He released a collaborative album, Ijoro, with Yannick MYK and Remy, followed by his debut album, NCSSR in 2017. He and is set to release other music projects through the year.

Green Ferry Music
Green Ferry Music is a local hip-hop collective which has pioneered KinyaTrap, a local variation of Trap music, in which they rap in Kinyarwanda, and a major hit with their youthful fan base.

The hip-hop collective comprises Prime Mazimpaka, Maktain, Bushali, Pogatsa, BThrey, Ice Nova, the songstress Weya Viatora and Dr Nganji, who is the founder and producer of the label.

The Green Ferry Music label was the most consistent label in 2018 churning out albums, extended plays and mixtapes in 2018 with the release of Prime Mazimpaka’s album A Thousand Hills Prodigy, Maktain’s album Seasons Change, Bushali’s album Nyiramubande, Pogatsa’s album Ngoma, B-Threy’s album Nyamirambo, Ice Nova’s album Ubuvanganzo, Weya Viatora’s Flame, Dr Nganji’s Doze and treen Ferry Music’s Mixtape Vol 1 & Vol 2. Green Ferry Music is set to release various musical productions in 2019.