Lion Imanzi on his career journey as MC, singer and journalist

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Lion Imanzi during a past Primus Guma Guma show. / File

MC, musician and journalist, Lion Imanzi, as known to many, is notably one of the few celebrity MCs to stay in the limelight for many years.

As he reminisces the genesis of his career, to him it is one that was not planned for, but rather what destiny could bring together.

Imanzi’s father being a Rwandan diplomat to the United States, saw the MC began his education in the United States before switching to Belgian schools after his was father transferred there. His family later moved back to Rwanda where the young Imanzi studied High school. It was in secondary that he studied sciences which he performed well and chose to pursue at the request of his parents. This wasn’t however where he felt he belonged.

“As a child, I felt more like an artist as I loved to draw, paint and sing. Somehow, I felt like my life would eventually take a turn because in those days parents had selected paths that they had wanted one to take for them to succeed in life. I understood why they wanted me to be a scientist, which I followed and fared well but somehow I knew I had to come to arts and I did,” he says.

He started off initially as a lead singer, and part of the Galaxy band back in the 90s mostly doing renditions of stars like Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown, because of his proficiency in Kinyarwanda, English and French.

“It comes off as a surprise to many people today but all through my youth I was very shy and could not express myself in public or talk to people and look them in the eye but when I became a performer, it gave me all the confidence that I needed. I enjoyed because it helped me express myself artistically but also helped me in my personal life,” he reveals.

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Lion Imanzi during the Primus Guma Guma show.

Venturing into emceeing

His self-gained confidence would later prepare him for bigger gigs other than singing. He describes his breakthrough into emceeing as one that happened by ‘accident.’

“After school I went on to work for someone who had an electronic store and was interested in organizing the 1993 Miss Rwanda beauty pageant. He had everything planned out including an MC who worked for Rwanda Television at the time but at the last minute, he bowed out of the deal and only accepted to do the job on condition that they raise his pay,” he narrates.

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Lion Imanzi at his first gig as MC during Miss Rwanda 1994 beauty pageant (December 1993). / Courtesy

Jacques Ndagirintwari, the organizer of the beauty pageant went into panic mode until Imanzi chose to take up the job. This was the first time he was to step on stage as emcee.

“Asked why he took on such a ‘big’ job he had never done before, he responds; “I take my life like a sponge. You may do things around me and it may seem like I am not paying attention but I am and if necessary I can step in and do the exact job you are doing.”

“While he (the organizer) was preparing for Miss Rwanda, we were viewing a lot of tapes from Miss France and many other beauty pageants that he often brought along from his trips. I asked him to get me a nice suit and just like that, he trusted me to do the job.”

The experience turned out to be better for him because it was then that he began his emceeing career.

“At that time the job required proficiency in French, a language mostly used at that time and it became a great deal for people to discover that I had talent and did not only speak Kinyarwanda but also French and English,” he says.

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Lion Imanzi during his recent emceeeing job.

Doing radio journalism

Imanzi recalls that at the same exact event, a certain gentleman who was supposed to do the radio add unfortunately did not fulfill the work ethics and his employer therefore did not want to give him access.

“He had to use someone else and I took up the job and replaced him. For some reason, people just trusted that I could do the job even though I had never tried it because of the confidence I had and perhaps because I look trustworthy. May be it’s an aura,” he says.

Even though his emceeing and journalism career have been a success, for him the singing is what he enjoys most. Music to him is therapeutic, yet is the least practiced today.

“Music is my first true love but I have myself to blame for not doing everything necessary to highlight that part of my career. The way people in Rwanda enjoy music is different from how they support it. If you are a family man like me, you then realize that it will not put food on the table and so I prefer using the other aspects of my life, radio, commercial and Emceeing to provide for my family so that I can make music freely the way I want and not become a prisoner of it. I’m a perfectionist and want to put the best out there of what I can do. Loving music is what brought me to be part of Albert Rudatsimburwa and Jean Mutsari with a common background in journalism, music and eventually being members of the same band.

How his stage name Lion Imanzi came about?

Born Rene Maurice Habamenshi, the celebrated emcee chose to go by another name which was Habamenshi, adopted from his father.

Through his experience in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, several life occurrences bred the birth of his new name Lion Imanzi, as he narrates.

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Imanzi was born Rene Maurice Habamenshi.

“At a certain point after fleeing Rwanda and trying to assert my identity I thought about how I could find back my way to who I truly was. For a long time I did not want to associate myself with Rwandans while in Europe, North America and Canada where I fled to as a young adult.

Eventually, I didn’t feel at home even though I could adapt and at some point I needed some people I could relate to and therefore decided to go back to my community (Rwandan) but chose to first work on myself. That’s when I thought of getting a Rwandese name that is not my father’s.

It is then that the name Imanzi z’ingabo from a character in a book and cut it short to Imanzi to make it simpler for everybody to pronounce.

“The name Lion came from a street boy who just called out to me and said ‘Lion please give me some change’. Up to this day, I do not know why he called me Lion but it’s probably because I had dreadlocks on and looked like a lion to him. Since I had always admired lions and because of their bravery and therefore took it upon myself to keep the name.”

To this day, the father of four is known to many as Lion Imanzi and does not intend to change it anytime soon.

His signature dreadlocks that he had kept for a long time and desired to keep for a lifetime, were cut short by his genetic receding hairline.

“Dreadlocks always looked nice to me especially because I had joined the Rastafarian club where my icon artists had them. I however did not think that people with a bald head like me should have dreadlocks and decided to finally let go of them”.

What he didn’t anticipate however, was the reaction of the people who caused a backlash on social media.

“I never thought they would care. At some point I got annoyed because I did not think that it was any of their business.

“Someone then pointed out to me and told me ‘you are a public figure, and  don’t belong to you but I never accepted it and even today when people call me a celebrity or a star, I resent it because I feel I want to own me and what I do,” he noted.

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Imanzi at a Nubian Gypsies beerfest 2016 performance.

The 45 year old is a singer of the Nubian Gypsies, an old school band, where he performs although not quite often. He however intends to venture into music, something he is mostly passionate about.

“I want to venture into more meaningful music. Topics like love, unity and standing up to yourself are no longer news to the ears. But it should not stop because we cannot say it enough and it still has to be through music and enjoyable to listen to.”

editorial@newtimes.co.rw