A History of Influence: The Major Acts in the History of Hip-hop Music in Rwanda

By Alain Jules Hirwa
On 28 November 2019 at 11:22

Five decades ago, there was no such thing as a musical movement of resistance and rebellion, Hip-hop. The movement spread all around the world, and in Rwanda it has come to symbolize a voice of the voiceless. It has become so popular among Rwandans, especially the youth, that if one does not know Jay C, they know Jay Polly or Riderman and the list goes on.

“Hip-Hop is a cultural art form with four main elements: rapping, deejaying, breaking (dance), and graffiti art, co-existing and allowing artists to maximize their individual expression,” says Teta in the McGill International Review.

It originated in the streets of New York in the 1970s as a movement of resistance against societal negligence. According to Msia in All Africa, Hip-hop was introduced into Africa with the rise of cable TV and the return of Senegalese living abroad carrying the latest hip magazines and music.

That was in the 1980s, the same decade in which DJ Berry pioneered it in Rwanda.
DJ Berry, real name: Abdul Aziz, worked on the national radio where he was known for rapping and dancing breakdance. Later, he would exile in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo and continued his music.

He relocated to Germany where he produced the song “Hey You” which would attain some popularity on radios in Uganda. He returned to Africa in 1990 and passed on six years later, in 1996. One year before his departure, the Rwanda National Television was introduced.

The 1995 introduction of the Rwanda Television popularized many foreign Hip-hop artists among Rwandans.

Among those artists, one can mention Tupac Shakur and MC Solaar. This planted the seed of this music among many young Rwandans who would, later on, sprout with a mastery of the form of music.

In an interview I had with Jay Polly, one of the lead Rwandan Hip-hop artists, he said, “Yeah, of course, in 1998, there were still the feuds between BIG and Tupac, and the East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry was still going on in America. So, we followed all of that news. I got interested a lot to follow those people, to know who they were, to know how it was done.”

That shows an important role that cable televisions played in teaching and inspiring a new generation of artists in Rwanda as only two years later the first Rwandan Hip-hop song would be produced.

In 1997, KP Robinson and MC Monday produced “Peaced Up”, and that became the first Hip-hop song to be released in Rwanda, by Rwandans.

That also means that MC Monday is one of the pioneers of the form of music in Rwanda. 1999 saw the rise of another major act, the rise of MC Mahoni Boni.

MC Mahoni Boni, who most artists and followers of the Rwandan Hip-hop crown as the king and pioneer of Hip-hop in Rwanda, started singing in 1999 with his single titled “Malariya ni Indwara Y’icyorezo Kandi Yica”, according to The New Times.

The year 2003 launched a new music group KGB (Kigali Boys) comprised of artists Rurangwa Gaston, a.k.a Skizzy, the late Hirwa Henry, a.k.a H-Wow and Manzi Yvan, also known as MYP.

In an interview I had with Skizzy, he said, “KGB started in 2003, at school, at APAPE. In high school, we studied in the same class. Then, we started the group. We went to a recording studio in Kenya and recorded our first album. We recorded songs that came to be liked such as “Abakobwa b’I Kigali” and “Ndagukunda.”

Then, we continued working with Rwandan local recording studios and producers, including J P and Pastor P.” Then, only three years later, Riderman, real name: Emery Gatsinzi, just another major artist in Rwanda, took the country by storm.

In January of 2006, he joined a group named UTP Soldiers that included NEG The General and MIM. They entered the recording studio for the first time on the 11th of January that year. Riderman would release his first single in 2007 called “Turi Muri Party”.

Tuff Gong rose to fame in 2008 and became the most influential Hip-hop music group in Rwanda.

On the founding of Tuff Gong, its founding member Jay Polly had this to say, “Tuff Gong started in 2008; after that, all of us came to meet because for me I grew up with Green P. Our producer was called Lick Lick. He too, that time, lived in the same neighborhood with Green P. That is how the connection started.

Then, because he was in that neighborhood and knew Green P and The Ben, I came to know Lick Lick. Lick Lick studied with Bull Dog in the same class. You understand where the connection came from. We connected.

Fire Man joined later because he grew up with Bull Dog in the same neighborhood, in Kanombe. Finally, P Fla came from where he was (in the US). But they told us that he had the same style as ours. It is Lick Lick who connected us. We connected and started Tuff Gong that way.”

The same year of the rise of Tuff Gong saw the rise of another vital musician, Diplomate. Diplomate, real name: Nuur Fassasi, released his first song “Umucakara w’Ibihe” in a collaboration with Young Junior. According to The New Times, for his poetic, metaphorical, and history-packed verses, some of his fans called him Rwanda’s upcoming Snoop Dog.

A decade that followed saw a rise to fame of many more Hip-hop artists. Among them, one can mention K8 Kavuyo, Pacson, Jay C, White Monkey and younger upcoming artists such as DA Strix Junior. In 2013 and 2014, Riderman and Jay Polly won the Primus Guma Guma Superstar Contest respectively.

With songs full of messages to the youth such as Bull Dogg’s “Pay Attention” which tackles the use of savings, blood tests for HIV, Hepatitis, and other diseases, as well as on the effects of drug abuse, Hip-hop in Rwanda has been on the core of positive change among the youth. However, Rwandan Hip-hop artists did not achieve this tremendous contribution in a millisecond.

Instead, it took over two decades, from the beginning of Hip-hop on the streets of New York in the 1970s to the introduction of this form of music in Senegal in the 1980s, the same year it was introduced in Rwanda.

With its most popular artists being its old generation, what the new generations are doing to keep the wheels turning becomes such an important conversation that we need to have.

We should tackle that in our articles to come.

Five decades ago, there was no such thing as a musical movement of resistance and rebellion, Hip-hop.