A Case for the Arts
You would never know it, but Rwanda is going through a mini-Golden Age of Music and Culture in general. Rwandan artists are enjoying millions of hits on their streaming platforms, we have some of the best songs in ages, but the plight of the arts and the music industry remains dire. We do not pay enough attention and money towards the arts, the arts were never factored into our development plans. We have even come to see music as decadent and time wasting, without understanding the full potential of music in developing our nation. Our artists also have some fault here as they have not made enough art that reflects the values of the nation, they often expect to be supported without a two-way partnership. The previous generation of Artists played both negative and positive roles in our past, some sang songs inciting division, others sang to heal. The likes of Kamaliza, Sentore, Kayirebwa and Rugamba rose to folk hero status, embodying the aspirations and ideals of their nation. They were not concerned with passing trends but creating works that stand the test of time, songs that become prophetic with time and serve to restore a nation to its rightful path. Music and culture in general, have a major role to play helping Rwanda develop, there are rich rewards to be gained by supporting the arts.
Cultural Product – we judge our economic progress on the Gross National Product, but what about the Gross Cultural product? Is the total cultural product we are producing enriching us or making us poor? Rwanda has such a unique cultural product that travels easily; the clean lines and angles of our aesthetics, the haunting melodies of our music, the graceful dance of Intore, they all display a refinement perfected with time and matured with wisdom. A cultural product can enrich a nation in real terms, it imparts information, values, pride, comfort, happiness, and the full spectrum of life. Most importantly “One good thing about music, when it hit you feel no pain.” It releases the tension and frustration of society, provides an outlet for anger that could boil over. Politicians all over the world know, a dancing population is a happy population.
Unity and Nation-building – Music can teach, it builds teams, it plays a part in nation-building. The Blues built America, the whip-lashed slaves who kept singing through the hard times would have never made it if it wasn’t for music. Rwandan artists need to wake up to this, the Government wants to sponsor you, but what are you giving in return? Artists are not doing songs that reflect our development struggle. You don’t have to make all your songs about praising Rwanda, but on an album of 16 songs, put one for the powers that be. Do it your own way, make songs about; Birth control, women’s rights, domestic abuse, environmental, reconciliation, and all other development that government is pushing, but with a funky beat. Artist understand that if you go to MTN you have to say nice things about MTN, but if you go to Government it is the same thing, praises must be sung.
Soft Power – we have to understand the power of arts in global power, a small country like Jamaica has so much global cultural influence. America uses its arts to dominate the world culturally through music, Hollywood, video games, fashion, literature, comics, and these have done more to pacify us than guns and bombs. Rwanda can leverage its soft power globally, just one song can bring Rwanda to the world cheaper than anything. Just a music video of $4,000 can be playing across dozens of music stations, to millions of people, and all while showcasing the beauty of Rwanda. This boosts tourism, national branding, awareness of Rwanda in general.
The multiplier effect – arts bring in money, bars are open, nightclubs, restaurants, venues all thrive off good music. There is a whole industry of support staff, one artist can employ dozens; manager, agent, producer, director, videographer, hair and make-up, choreographer, dancers, lighting crew, sound technicians, sales, marketing, stylist, dietician, vocal coach, PR, social media, I can go on and on. Supporting an artist supports another 20 people behind the scenes.
There are a number of obstacles blocking music development, both on the artist side and on the side of Government and policy. The artists need to do a lot more to make this industry viable.
Professionalism – wanting it is not enough, are you willing to do what it takes? Having talent is not enough without professionalism. Arrive on time, be sober, be polite, be attentive to minor details, prepare well, and take your job seriously. Rwandan artists sometimes want to act like stars before they are stars, arrive late, drunk, sing off key, unprepared and expect to be paid. Professionalism means getting serious about your job, to dedicate yourself full-time to music. You cannot have a part-time job, you have to sing to live, only then do you learn that “Hunger is sweet” and nothing is free. Invest in your career, every move you make must be to advance your career and talent. Keep a tight hold of your money, keep receipts, contracts, accounts, and spending.
Unique product – Rwandans are prone to copycatting, lack of long-term exposure to varieties of music means they often jump on trends. There are some awful Rwandan Trap records just because it is a trend. This is not new, even our Kisope music was an imitation of Congolese Rhumba until we put our own flavor in it. Rwanda has a unique sound in our traditional folk music, it is on a 3/5 beat, sometimes a 2/3 or even a 6/7. We have a half-beat that is muted but drives the tempo, in trying to copy Western styles (which are actually West African in Origin) in a 2/4 and ¾ beat we lose the essence of our music. We need a unique musical product, that fits us and can be exported. We need to constantly be in touch our past, to make our music a continuous thread, but modernize it for the times. No nation will buy imitation, we need an original product with its unique selling point.
Lack of cooperation – Rwandan artists need to stick together, to extend the meager resources they have, not just collaborating on songs but sharing resources and expertise. There should be a chain of artists, each artist must mentor and nurture the next, if you blow up then use that profile to raise the profile of other up and coming artists. Stop competing and cooperate, set an minimum price for a show and all stick to it, stop undercutting each other because you will all get paid less. Create a united platform to speak as one, to fight for royalties, copyrights, licensing, legal reform, and advocate to corporate and government investment in the arts.
On the policy and government side, a number of policies can help artists.
Academy of Arts – we need one immediately, a school for the arts, where artists of different backgrounds and genres can learn not just how to perfect their art but the business and technical side. Imagine in Jay Polly had emerged out of Arts School having learnt how to draft a press release, conduct an interview, balance a check book, bookkeeping, IT skills, maybe even learn guitar, how much better would he be as an artist? An academy is an opportunity to mold artist of the future in the nation’s image, we complain our artists don’t fit the ideals, but we never taught them. It is a chance to increase the quality of our arts, we have Itorero which deals with Traditional culture but it must be fused with a modern school.
Tax-relief – some countries like Ireland allow their artists to be tax-exempt because they represent Ireland abroad. U2 still live in Ireland despite being the biggest band in the world. It is a way to stop the flight of successful artists abroad, we already have most Rwandan artists jumping ship to the West on the first visa they get. Every time a Rwanda artist blows up, I just count down the days till they run away to be a penniless refugee in the West. Maybe the Meddy’s and Ben’s can be enticed to come back if they had tax-relief, that they could use to reinvest in equipment. Instead of government subsidies just give tax relief for a certain caliber of artist.
Venues – make venues available to artists, most of our best auditoriums are unused, Primature, RRA, Convention, and such should be available for emerging artists at affordable rates. We need to build more venues, there are no stages in Kigali, you have to hire one. We need people to invest good sound systems, all the sound systems in Kigali are terrible, you have to import from Nairobi or Kampala to have listenable sound. A clever investor will put Cobra out of business by investing in a good sound system and be rich. Venues have to try and give artists residency, sign contracts annually to have an exclusive star at your venue.
Laws – we still need to relax noise-pollution laws, permits need to be made easier to get, insurance must cover events, fire brigade, and general safety. Even if a Rwandan Artist wanted to showcase the beauty of Kigali, getting a filming permit takes weeks, we need to streamline the process. We need a minimum wage for artists, you can have a singer paid $5 a night when the bar makes $3,000. Artists should be paid a minimum price, an affordable wage they can live on so they can dedicate themselves full-time to music. Then the venue owner has to do more to promote the show or lose out. The show becomes THE show, not a side-show. We need copyright law enforced, Radios have to show how often the played and how much they paid for local music. Require stations to play 70% Rwandan music, then charge Radio stations a set tax per year which goes into developing the arts. Another reform to spur cultural tourism is to put Tourism under a Culture ministry, to develop our cultural product and raise our tourism revenue. It is our culture, not just gorillas, that is the secret key to success in tourism.
Sponsoring – this is always a demand of artists, to be supported no matter what, but understand it comes with conditions. Just like in the private sector, you are expected to fulfill certain criteria. Artists must understand that, but government should also provide more sponsorship but on stricter criteria. We can recognize our artists, give then Intore status and stipend for representing the country. Government can sponsor studios, stages, equipment, courses, if not money directly. Sponsoring music videos, promotional tours, buying airtime on major music channels for Rwandan Artists can also help both promote them and Rwanda in general.
Archiving – one thing we can do to give artists credit despite our small market is archiving. We need to document and catalogue our music history and current music. We need to create an online digital library to preserve our music, to curate what is best to preserve according to each era. We also need to give recognition to works that truly represent Rwandan excellence or capture the time. The best works should be taught at university, the works of Rugamba are worthy of study as are many others, for their literary and poetic skills.
In Part II we look at the artist and the industry in better depth