In the 1970s and ’80s it was traditional Rwandan music that ruled Rwanda’s radio airwaves.
Back then, the biggest music stars included Cecile Kayirebwa, Abdul Makanyaga, Andre Sebanani, Athanase Sentore and the Orchestre Impala band, whose music was a fusion of African folk and Congolese rhythms.
However, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that almost decimated the population also left the music industry in disarray. Many musicians – including Sebanani, Sipirian Rugamba and some members of Orchestre Impala – were murdered while others fled into exile.
The late 1990s saw the emergence of the immensely talented Jean Paul Samputu, who attempted to fill the gap with neo-traditional hits such as Nimuze Tubine, which won him two Kora Awards for Most Inspiring Artist and Best Traditional Artist in 2003.
The 2000s, however, came with a crop of stars who completely changed the game: Jay Polly, Tom Close, Urban Boyz, Fireman, Miss Jojo, King James, Knowless, Rafiki, Dream Boyz, Riderman, Miss Shanel, Ciney, Engineer Kibuza, Dr Claude. They would usher in a new, urban sound. Rafiki calls it “Coga style.” Ciney prefers “Afro hip-hop.” Engineer Kibuza thinks “Nyarwanda hip-hop” is better.
Whatever one calls it, this new sound of Rwandan music falls under hip-hop — or rap music — and it is so popular that the past two winners of Rwanda’s premier annual singing contest, Primus Guma Guma Superstar, were rappers.
But unlike some other rappers, Riderman and Jay Polly, the respective 2013 and 2014 PGGSS winners, are not known to have coined terms for their styles, with Jay Polly simply describing himself as the “King of Hip-hop.”
Upon her arrival from Gabon in 1995, Aisha Uwimana acquired the moniker Ciney when she launched her rap career in the late 2000s. Being inspired by American hip-hop star 50 Cent, her music was in the American hip-hop style.
However, she says, in 2012 “I blended it with traditional musical instruments and came up with my own style, which I christened Afro hip-hop. Rappers such as Jay Polly, Riderman and Fireman have also taken up this style.”
This has seen Ciney’s latest songs — such as Kure Yibyiza, Ndabaga (featuring Jay Polly), Ngwino Nkwereke (feat. Lil P) and Tuma Bavuga — acquire a local touch albeit still borrowing heavily from American hip-hop.
Engineer Kibuza set out as a traditional singer but found his groove in hip-hop. He uses a wide range of traditional musical instruments, which he adds to his trademark vocals that make him sound like an old man — or someone with a bad hangover. The 26-year-old rapper is the voice behind the 2010 hit Umunsi Utunguranye that blends modern hip-hop with traditional music.
It is this new crop of artistes that is dominating local music with rappers such as Young Grace, Ama G the Black, Kobe, Ciney, Riderman, Jay Polly and Fireman contributing the majority of local FM radio hits. Their selling point is that they rap in their native tongue, Kinyarwanda, striking a chord with local music fans.
The few who have tried to keep traditional Rwandan music alive, such as Mani Martin, have been left lurking in the shadows of rappers as their music appeals to only the minority older generation and gets little or no airplay as most local FM radio stations.
The youth make up Rwanda’s biggest demo-graphic. Local radio presenter Bright Turatsinze attributes this trend to commercialisation of “everything.” He said: “Radio stations are also targeting sales, so they can only play music that has a big following.”