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Two Decades Out Of Ghastly Violence, Rwanda Sings Of Love


Rwanda is a young nation. Some 80 percent of the population there is under the age of 35. That means most of them weren't even teenagers when the country endured the genocide that killed hundreds of thousands almost 20 years ago. President Paul Kagame is credited with rebuilding the African country's government and economy. But young people, call them the post-reconstruction generation, can take credit for reconstructing something else: Rwanda's music scene.

Baz Dreisinger reports.


BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: Take a listen to one of the biggest hits of last year in Rwanda. It's by local favorites The Dream Boys and it reveals a lot about the country's younger generation.


DREISINGER: The Dream Boys sing R&B, hugely popular in Rwanda. Local radio host Deejay Nano sums up what this R&B - really most Rwandan pop music - is all about.

DEEJAY NANO: All of their songs, you will find that either they're talking about a girl or a guy, or falling in love or someone breaking someone's heart. Even though the beat and the tempo is up, you know, and it's something that you can dance to, but it's always about love.

DREISINGER: The country that witnessed one of the most violent events in recent history is, in its musical taste, over-the-top sentimental and romantic. Thirty-year-old Afrobeat singer Kamichi says that's true of his songs.

KAMICHI: My most popular song is about love. My second-most popular song is about love. When I sing about serious stuff, people go away.


DREISINGER: Maybe it shouldn't surprise us that after the trauma of genocide, Kamichi's sweet love songs would be hits.

Filmmaker Ishmael Ntohabose, a survivor working on a feature about the gulf between his and his parent's generation, explains that he and his peers try to avoid focusing on tragedy, on the loved ones they lost, the parents who are no longer here.

ISHMAEL NTOHABOSE: I will never find someone to replace my mom, never. I would never find to replace my dad, never. I don't have them now. Who is my dad? Who is my mom? Is my country. So in the meantime in my country, let me enjoy what is there. let me have fun. Let me sing about it. I'm not going to forget that.

DREISINGER: And where young people want to have fun, there's always hip-hop.


DREISINGER: It's an exploding genre in Rwanda. Twenty-eight-year-old Rapper Bac-T says that when local rap began taking off about a decade ago, older folks made all of the negative associations that people in the U.S. do with gangster rap.

: When hip-hop came here in Rwanda, everybody was like, you know, these are thugs. You know, trousers down, what are they doing, weed smokers - something like that.

DREISINGER: But Bac-T's style, like most Rwandan rap, is anything but thug-like. His idol isn't 50 Cent but American conscious rapper KRS-One, known as The Teacher.

: Hip-hop, to bring people together - this is the hip-hop I am doing. To bring people together. So there is no segregation, there is no hatred in the society. We live together. This is what we do.


DREISINGER: In many countries hip-hop is a political platform for young people. But in Rwanda politics and song lyrics don't mesh. Bac-T says he once wrote a complimentary verse about President Kagame, but was told by friends to edit it.

: They told me it's not allowed. You have to ask for the government, maybe presidential office or whatever - something like that - before you do it. So I got scared. And I was like, let me chill about it.

DREISINGER: He's of two minds about this self-censorship.

: It's good for the artist not to enter deep in the politic. Just do your music, entertainment and something like that. But in the other side, it's not good because people need to express everything. Everything you feel, you need to express it.

DREISINGER: Well, maybe not everything. Criticism of Kagame's government can incur punishment under Rwanda's vaguely worded laws on libel, insult or contempt of the head of state. Talk of ethnic groups can land one in violation of the crime of genocide ideology.

Afro-beat star Kamichi says one thing Rwandans learned from the tragedy of 20 years ago and its aftermath is that freedom of speech can be dangerous.

KAMICHI: Before genocide, people said whatever they want, and they were noticed and they were killed. So we have that trauma. Kagame never said don't say what you want. But we just want peace. We are just a peaceful country. We don't want to be criticizing what doesn't need to be criticized.

DREISINGER: During the genocide, radio stations were notorious for spreading ethnic propaganda. And folk musicians like Simon Bikindi were indicted for hate speech because of their songs. Kamichi says his sophomore album, released last year, avoids anything having to do with genocide.

KAMICHI: I survived it. I was here. I saw everything. But songs I write about genocide, I just don't want to release them 'cause if people listen to them they'll go crazy again. We remember. People remember, but the society is still fragile.

DREISINGER: And for a nation as fragile as Rwanda, perhaps nothing helps the healing like music.


DREISINGER: For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.


MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.