Listening to Rwandan Popular Music with Victoria Netanus Grubbs

Victoria Grubbs

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Victoria Netanus Grubbs, a Black feminist sound theorist and abolitionist educator. Victoria is currently the Black Studies Collaboratory Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley. She completed her PhD in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University in May 2021. 

Her current book project, Kumva Meze Neza: Sounding Blackness in Rwanda, examines how popular Rwandan music worked in the aftermath of genocide to produce a collective social body. Drawing on five years of participant observation among Rwandan music industry professionals and their audiences, her work demonstrates how shared investments in the sensory experience of Blackness produce formations of togetherness that defy traditional organizing categories.

Listen to the podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Let’s start by understanding Rwandan music in the context of African popular music. What’s distinctive about Rwandan music in the Afropop landscape?

Rwanda’s popular music resonates within a global context of Black diasporic music. There are two really broad genres: hip-hop and Afrobeat. Hip-hop draws on a lot of African spoken word and poetry traditions, griot storytelling traditions, Caribbean DJing and toasting, and American emcees and DJs playing funk and R&B hooks. It’s a long history.

This includes localized African sub-genres of hip hop — for example, Ghanaian hiplife or Nigerian blues and funk from the 1970s and 1980s. Coming out of East Africa, Tanzania has bongo flava, an early hip-hop style that was really influential. Gengetone comes out of Kenya and kapuka also comes out of Kenya and Ugandan styles. (Rwandan) hip-hop generally pulls from a lot of that. It’s a very transatlantic, diasporic sound, but it’s also pulling from a more local spoken-word tradition. 

And then there’s Afrobeat, which is dance music. It’s recognized globally as dance music, extending the pan-African legacy of iconic African artists of the 1960s and 1970s, like Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba. These artists incorporated rumba, which came out of the major cities in Congo, like Kinshasa and Brazzaville, and major cities in what was then Belgian-occupied Congo by way of Cuba. So we got early jazz and electronic house music, and then also house music coming out of Cape Town (South Africa), and Nigerian funk and Nigerian soul.

You can see the two genres were growing simultaneously, but using different vocal delivery styles. They do transfer sounds between them. I don’t want to make them sound like completely independent genres. But those are styles that popular artists right now can go into a studio and say, I want to do Afrobeat, or I want to do hip-hop, and be immediately understood by the producer. 

In Rwanda, there’s also a strong gospel tradition, especially in choirs. Choirs record a lot of popular music, drawing connections from local spiritual practices of singing, drumming, and dancing, but also from the influences from the church, whether it be the Catholic Church, or Methodist and Adventist and Pentecostal churches, which all have different sonic landscapes of their own. This is something that I know less about, but something that I’m definitely interested in, and it’s definitely influential in Rwanda to think about the different kinds of auditory practices that the church brought in and placed in relation to spirituality. 

There’s an obvious, I think, noisiness to a Pentecostal sound compared to the quietness of a Catholic sound. There are a lot of really interesting dynamics, even within the gospel tradition, but I would say that within the gospel tradition, there’s a really localized subgenre of music, which is music for memorializing the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. That music is a political project, but also a grief project and mourning project, and also a financial project, because there’s usually money from the state for recording this genre of music, which makes it so that artists who wouldn’t traditionally be recording gospel music per se might venture into that style to record a memorial song.

A broader theme of your work is that how people think about and listen to and participate in popular music has a lot to do with their national identity. Can you tell us about how music has become central for Rwandan national identity (or lack thereof)?

I think music, and specifically Black music, is always trying to evade capture by the state. So it’s not that the music is producing an investment in national identity, as much as the value of the music is always trying to be taken up by the state, and incorporated into their project of state-making and statecraft. So when you see popular artists performing the narratives of state power, and when you see popular artists performing the narratives of party lines or a particular history, there’s an investment that is often monetary. But beyond that, there’s an investment that is a recognition of the value of their work, which is something that a lot of artists are looking for. Artists know that it’s hard out here for all of us, so to feel that somebody sees value in what you’re doing and thinks that it matters is part of that recognition.

Let’s dig into a specific example that you look at in your research of this phenomenon of the state trying to capture the value of the work of an individual artist, which is that of Bruce Melodie’s big two hits. Tell us about these songs before we take a listen.

Bruce Melodie re-recorded his song with another studio with a specific intention. We can listen to the first one. I can give you a bit of context before we do that. The song came out in 2017 in May, I believe, and it was produced by a producer named David Pro, who was a popular producer at that time. The video was also really popular. It showed girls shaking and smoking hookah and Bruce Melodie and his friends drinking out of red solo cups and dancing around. Everyone’s just having a great time. Musically, it’s a perfect pop song for Rwanda. So I think that’s a really good place to stop and take a listen.

What an infectious song. It does actually just make you want to go party.

Right? It’s a party. And it was very successful in being circulated on the radio for that entire year. 2017 was also an election year for Rwanda. It was a watched election because it was Paul Kagame running for a third term, which had required altering the Rwandan Constitution, because typically, you’re supposed to only take two terms. (“Typically,” as in since he had taken power, because he was the first president since the Genocide.)

So the election was being watched because there was a lot of Western critique of African presidents taking long presidencies, or lifelong presidencies. These critiques from the West were that African states were not participating in their idea of democracy, or that African states were feigning performances of peaceful transferences of power within the model of the state that the West had tried to promote as their own. So it doesn’t necessarily look good from that perspective that he changed the Constitution. But it was an election where 98% of the population voted for Paul Kagame to take this third term. Voting in Rwanda is required for everybody over 16. Everybody has to vote. It’s different than here, but I think it’s important to know that there are lots of ways that the state can look and operate, but in the same ways, capitalism still finds its way in. 

All of that is to say that the song was re-recorded in consultation with some “RG Consult Group” (which is what it says if you look up the citation). The song was recorded with new lyrics. The original lyrics are “Twaneye, twatsinze” (“we drank; we got drunk; we were drinking, having a great time.”) It’s a story of, we didn’t have any problems. We were just hanging out, getting drunk regularly. That was the vibe. The “twaneye, twatsinze” then was changed from “we drank, we got drunk” to “we voted, we won.” We can listen to the second version.

Let’s talk about some of the differences between this version and the previous version musically. I’m not a musician. What’s going on here?

The citations are obvious to most people. I think you could hear it without being musically experienced or trained and say, “That sounds like the same song.” A lot of that happens because the rhythms and pitches are the same, even though the songs are re-recorded, perhaps with slightly different instruments, because it was produced in a different studio. You never know what instruments a producer will have around or will have on their computer or their hard drive. 

The basic core of the song is reproduced almost identically: it’s the same kick pattern, snare pattern, the same chord changes, the same vocal melodies. The one distinct difference that you hear is a difference in the vocal performance. It’s got a lot more energy in it. It’s got more forward direction, and it’s a lot less laid back. It’s a lot more driving and aggressive, and the tempo of the new one is also a little bit faster, so it gives it a little bit more of that “get up and go” energy. 

There’s also a very dramatic lyrical shift. The lyrics transfer from a message of a memory of “oh, we didn’t have any problems because we were just hanging around drinking,” to “we voted, we won [twatoye, twatsinze] and now we don’t have any problems, right? We’ve solved them all.” I think really importantly, the lyrical shift here goes to calling all of the people together – calling all abanyarwanda, the people of Rwanda, and saying, abanyarwanda, turishimiye, “we are happy.” It pulls everyone into one feeling about this particular event.

And then it says in the chorus, “we’ve done what the foreigners failed to do.” So you can form a group around an inside and an outside perimeter around success: we, the winners, did what the foreigners failed to do, and we brought everybody together, with the ultimate goal being national unity. We brought everybody together because we chose our old man (Paul Kagame). And you hear his papa voice. That’s Paul Kagame at the beginning of the intro to the video, saying, we can do anything together. And he’s speaking in the tone of voice as a father with a child that gets very tender and paternal. The song takes a lot of popular inertia and turns it into a very effective celebration of a state project of national unity.

It’s interesting because it’s a hyper nationalist song in the same way that country songs in America have come to serve that same void, like “I’m proud to be an American.” This is, I’m proud to be Rwandan. But one of the things that you’re looking at in your research is how producers aren’t only producing Rwandan identity through songs. Can we talk a little bit about the other identity politics or identity formation in the songs?

What’s interesting to me about Rwandan music is that it’s produced in a context. Immediately and specifically, this generation is living in a state of reconciliation, a post-traumatic state of reconciliation. What that means is that you have experienced some kind of violent rupture in your community and that you are also actively living together. Any music that comes out of that context that can produce a sense of togetherness or a sense of collectivity, it’s going to be important for us to listen to and understand and take seriously that social work. That’s also something that the state recognizes, that it’s serious social work that this music is doing. And arguably, the kind of togetherness that the music I’m seeing produced in Rwanda (maybe we can listen to a couple of these examples of more contemporary songs, even some stuff that just came more recently) is in its sonic landscape, citing a much broader reference point than Rwanda. It’s not citing a specifically localized national history, or even the way that the state is citing a specific local national identity around a particular sort of class status and a presentation of royalty. And so there’s a very narrow state project in terms of identity. And then there is the multiplicitous, broad, diasporic project of Blackness that you hear in the songs that are being produced. Let’s listen to a song by B-Threy.

This sounds like it could play on American radio in many ways. What’s the circulation of music that you’re seeing with these Rwandan music producers? Where are they listening to music? How are they getting their ideas? And how are they putting that together with what they want their songs to be about?

That’s a great question. A lot of artists want their work on YouTube, which is why music videos have become really important. If you can’t get the funds together to make a video, people make lyric videos, or some put up an image some way to get their content on YouTube. Within the country and the region, YouTube is still really accessible to people in ways that paid streaming platforms aren’t. YouTube you can use pretty effectively for free. More recently, Rwandan artists are putting their music on platforms like Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music, but it’s not as accessible to most. 

Other than that, on a local circuit, the radio is still very important. And songs travel hand-to-hand on thumb drives, or they just bring the whole computer or use Bluetooth from your phone to whatever local DJ you can get to play it, or maybe, add a little “soda” (cash incentive) to see if you can get them to play it for you. If you can get your songs to DJs in nightclubs, maybe they’ll play it. If you are looking for music, you’re probably either listening to the radio or searching on YouTube.

What about this specific song that we just listened to? How does this play in the popular scene? Is this a typical song on the radio?

B-Threy would like to say that he’s an original artist, and I think he’s really talented. He’s really pushing ahead. This is a genre that he and a collective of artists he was working with (out of a studio called Green Ferry Records) that they are calling “Kinyatrap.” This is a reference to trap music, which is an evolution of the southern US hip-hop style of trap music, but in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s native language.

There are efforts within these diasporic genres to always localize, to always make it feel like your own. B-Threy is also coming from a specific part of the capital city of Rwanda that has a very urban, all-night, 24-hour kind of energy, as opposed to other parts of the city which may be a little quieter or sleepier. So you can also hear his environment in that reference to trap music in the first place. Let’s listen to one by Double N called “Abaswa.”

This is an even more contemporary style, pulling from the American drill style, which is also a sub-genre of trap music. So thinking about how you also hear the umuduri, which is a local traditional Rwandan instrument. This is another example of that intention to really try to localize these diasporic genres, so this artist calls this style “Rap Gakondo,” meaning tradition, roots, or culture rap. And if you want to play just quickly, the track “umuziki,” you can hear another local instrument just as a solo instrument with a vocalist.

That’s a lovely example of how local sounds get incorporated into these diasporic styles, which then have the intention of being heard around the world. That’s the desire, to put them on YouTube or on the radio. You want the DJ to play your song, because you want this song to travel. And I think that’s also a real characteristic of this diasporic Black music is that it wants to travel: it’s catchy, it’s music that holds on to you, it’s music that you take with you. It’s music that gets in your body. The intention to make a hit is really a desire to make a song that’s going to grab on to you, and you take it with you and go somewhere with it. 

Let’s talk about listening and listening practices. One of the things you’re really interested in is focusing on not only the way this music gets produced for an international audience, but how people talk about and embody the practices of listening.

Yeah, I think it’s something that we need to be more intentional about. I think listening is really under-theorized. We’re not as reflective about it in our everyday lives as we need to be. And I think we consistently underestimate the fact that perception is theory-laden. But there’s an influence of the world on how you might imagine yourself as an individual to experience sound, for example. So it’s not natural or inherently instinctual that when you hear a sound, you respond a particular way. That’s entrainment, right? That’s learned in practice. It’s experience in the world and observing the people around you and imitating what you see. Even in the ways that we use our voice to reach out to other people, we’re performing a very narrow set of sounds. Our voice is capable of making all kinds of outrageous noises that we generally don’t make because it’s unattractive or unappealing. So it’s important that we really take care to think about where the values that we place upon the sounds that we hear come from, and why things sound a particular way to us, why things feel a particular way, what makes something feel the way that you think it should feel (or doesn’t feel the way you think it should feel), and what makes you comfortable with your evaluations of what you hear. 

Sometimes we’re so confident in what we think we hear and we can be completely wrong. Part of my learning and growth as a theorist and a scholar in sound is trying to slow down and really take care to think about, why did I hear that that way? What does it mean that I have this reference? What does that mean about me as a referent? I’m participating in this listening, understanding that in another context, another person might hear such a thing differently. What would that mean if, perhaps in another context, a person heard it the same as I did? And what might that mean if another person in another context heard that the same as I did, and it moved them in a particular way that was familiar to me? Now I find myself moving in a familiar way with other people that I don’t even recognize myself in union with, but moving in unison and in chorus nonetheless.

I think that’s what diasporic music is doing. Diasporic music is producing a body that can see itself, feel itself, and hear itself as a collective. It’s not a state project. It’s not a national identity, it’s not something that can be voted upon or claimed to be by some military. It actually just has to be built by these producers in their studios, trying to make beats, listening to what they hear on YouTube, downloading the sound, sampling the sounds, trying to make a hit song that somebody else is gonna listen to, and have a little bit of influence on how the culture grows. 

That’s so interesting, because it points to both the ways that there are these intended modes of producing music to try to create a community, as well as the ways that people take them up. They are never the ways that are entirely intended, even if they might resonate with those original ways. You have two other clips you want to share: tell us about these.

I have another example of earlier influences of these local artists. The first one is Miss Jojo. I wanted to just make sure that we hear her because I think that the Rwandan music scene is dominated by male artists. And the women don’t get nearly enough airtime, or nearly enough money. And I think in the culture globally, we just don’t see women in leading producer roles either and so she’s just a really important voice to see. So she was producing songs a little bit earlier than the others we listened to. We’ll listen to one of her songs.

I think you can hear a lot of the influences in her music. Even though she’s a solo artist, she’s pulling from these 1990s girl groups. She has her girls behind her as backing vocalists, which was something that other artists weren’t really doing at the time like she was. So I really appreciate her for that reason. Also, she keeps that classic afrobeat clave in the back to keep consistent with that 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s rumba tradition. It’s also part of a larger African legacy in that way. 

The last song, by Mavenge Sudi, is an even older example. I like that we’re traveling back in time, but it shows a more traditional solo artist’s style. Maybe this style would evolve from someone playing the single string umuduri to now playing a guitar. 

In that song, Mavenge Sudi is actually citing his teacher, who is a guitar player named Gaetan Kayitare, who was killed in the Genocide in 1994. He had played and shared a lot of his songs with Mavenge Sudi, who keeps those songs as a living tradition by playing them and recording them. 

I think you can hear the African roots of the blues when he plays them. It’s a really lovely, stripped-down, pure example of those sonic elements of Black diasporic sound, because you have this very repetitive but moving backbeat, and then you have just the two chords being played over and over again, in a circle. And then you have this poetry on top of it.

Those are the things that, you know, stand out to me when I look at artists from the 1950s, to the 1970s, to the early 2000s in Rwanda after the Genocide when the industry was able to rebuild itself, to what’s happening now 25 years later. It’s that consistency. That’s what makes me think that they (Rwandan musicians) are invested in this larger global project, and are less focused on producing music that is specifically or inherently Rwandan. So when you see music like “Ntidukina,” for example, it stood out. It wasn’t that that was an expected thing for him to do necessarily, but it was a very insightful thing for him to do nonetheless. 

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