There is power in numbers
I didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to partake in Akua Naru’s workshop which happened a couple of hours before her unforgettable show in Kigali as part of her African tour
After a quick lunch with a selected number of Kigali’s Hip Hop community, we headed to Goethe Institute where Akua Naru was waiting for us. I had imagined all the things I was going to say when I meet her but the unexpected formal handshake did not let me. So I curbed my enthusiasm, but that didn’t take long. Meanwhile we sat in a circle, introduced ourselves and began with the workshop. She started by sharing her story. As opposed to most of us who grew up in families that shut down our creative sides and pushed us towards a more office-oriented lifestyle, Akua Naru was encouraged to perform her poetry at various family gatherings as early as she can remember. Sometimes she would get remunerated for it as a token of appreciation from her family. And that gave her the courage to grow fearlessly and artistically into the great emcee that she is today. She kicked off the workshop rolling the ball in our side in an attempt to understand where we come from and most importantly, where we want to go.
1. What’s the art/music scene like in Rwanda?
A moment of silence followed this question. Probably because there is no simple answer to it. I personally had had this conversation before with various people via Twitter, blog posts and informal conversations. In fact here is a debate that I took part in regarding the state of music in Rwanda.
After the long silence, she rephrased. “Are artists doing big shows, making a lot of money?” I looked around and I could see my fellow artists struggling to pinpoint at names that are successful in music around here. Then a few started mumbling, “hmm yeah… ish ish” until Cheryl expounded, “Artists don’t really make money from their music. The top chatters survive as brand ambassadors and through advertising deals.” How do they become popular? “Basically after producing a song, you put it on a CD and invite a radio dj, buy him a few beers and give him some money so he can air it and invite you for interviews” Don Nova, an underground rapper, explained.
2. How do you get your music produced?
“It’s a big problem. The person we call producer is actually not more than a beatmaker though they would decide on a number of things in the production process. Pretty much everything: creating the beat, arranging, mixing, mastering, and sometimes they would dictate the artist how to do his thing even if the artist doesn’t quite agree.” B Threy said. It was mentioned that this way of working compromises the artist’s identity and is the reason why almost all the music sounds the same in the country. “We haven’t tapped into our history and culture yet and I believe these are stories we need to tell.” Extra reminded us.
3. Who are you?
As complex and existential as the question seems, it is important for the artist to face it. To make it easier, Akua Naru put us in groups of two so we can tell each other about who we think we are as artists, and as individuals. There’s a thin line. She repeated before sending us to meditate on this, “If you don’t define who you are, people will defined you.” Through this exercise, we opened up and told each other some of the qualities that we see in each other and understood the need to create lanes through wich to operate in order to maintain our individual identity. To break it down even more, we deconstructed some famous Hip Hop artists’ images/brands to get to the core of who they are. Akua Naru volunteered to be part of the case study and gave us quite some revelation behind her new album’s cover.
“People tell me I reminded them of Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, Gill Scott and many others including Hugh Newton, the father of the Black Panther movement because my music is pro Black. I did not use those as compliments, I studied these icons and picked bits that I used for my image.” Of course she added her touch of genius to it.
4. What is your goal?
“Would you perform if there were no audience? Are you trying to make money? Are you simply having fun? ” Akua Naru tried to simplify the heavily posed question, which led to a moment of self-realization for many of the participants. One needs to have clear objectives and work methodologically towards the goal or else it would be easy to go astray and sometimes give up.
After a couple of hours digging into the ills of the music scene in the country, we found ourselves in front of a huge question mark: “Now what?” Because to be honest, there will always be a “I wish I had this, I wish I had that… ” but what do we do with the resources that we have at our disposal to create the art scene that we want to be a part of? Resources are not necessarily money. They can be the talent that we surround ourselves with – musicians, journalists, beatmakers, event organizers, publicists, entertainment business moguls etc. Why can we not come together as collectives, labels and start booking shows because one thing for sure is there is power in numbers. Resources can also be your phone, social media, a software, skills… “Don’t be landlocked when the internet is global” she stressed. Use anything at your disposal. Quality should not stand in the way of producing content. On that note, Akua Naru pulled a small portable microphone from her bag, connected it to her old tab and invited us to freestyle. At the end of the session, she checked at the time. Oops! She didn’t have enough time left to prepare for her show at Maison des Jeunes, Kimisagara.
I won’t talk about the show, which was dope by the way. I saw some journalists covering the event, I hope they will do it justice. I just want to express my gratitude to the inspiration that Akua Naru is to the world, and for making a trip to Rwanda to share her journey, talent and stage with us.