Music transcends barriers and borders. It’s the language everyone understands regardless of their tribe or race. It is the soul of unity, love and peace. It can bond even the worst of enemies and has been used before to forge reconciliation in broken societies. However, if misused, music can also sow seeds of hatred like it happened during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Music was among the tools used to advance genocide ideology during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The name Simon Bikindi rings a bell for those who witnessed the genocide. The renowned musician at the time used his music to incite and moral boost the killers.
After the Genocide, Bikindi was the first creative artiste to be brought before an international criminal court and was charged with using artistic creativity to incite Genocide. He was sentenced to 17 years by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Bikindi was born on September 28, 1954 in Rwerere, Gisenyi in the Western Province. When war broke out in October 1990, Bikindi was a renowned singer, composer and director of Irindiro ballet.
He was also a civil servant in the ministry of Youth and Sport and a member of the then ruling party, the National Republican Movement for Development and Democracy (MRND).
During his trial, Bikindi’s radical songs were cited as having “manipulated the history of Rwanda to extol Hutu solidarity with the specific intent to disseminate pro-Hutu ideology and anti-Tutsi propaganda and thus to encourage ethnic hatred.”
His voice dominated the airwaves and his songs were played many times over the Radio and on Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, (RTLM) during the Genocide.
According to eyewitness reports produced during Bikindi’s trial, many of the Hutu killers sang Bikindi’s songs as they hacked the Tutsi with government- provided machetes.
“His songs called upon people to go and kill. Songs give morale and that’s what he did exactly,” says Dieudonne Munyeshoza, a Kigali based musician who is at the fore front of promoting reconciliation through music.
During the his trial, it was heard that Bikindi consulted with the late President Juvénal Habyarimana and military authorities on song lyrics before releasing them to be played on the Hutu power radio station, RTLM.
Munyeshoza, aka Mibilizi is among popular musicians in the country today, using music to restore hope, promote reconciliation and facilitate in the healing process.
Munyeshoza says musicians and journalists have the power to do the right thing but during the genocide, they did wrong things.
“Whenever these songs were played on radio, the militia immediately went out to kill, and the radio personalities who played them are accomplices. Music is a very dangerous tool once used badly because the more you hear something, the more the chances of believing in it,” Munyeshoza cautions. He says music was used in encouraging Hutus to kill Tutsi before adding, “Today we use the same tool in rebuilding our country and restoring morals that were shaken by the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Healing music and promotion of reconciliation
Off Muhima road in the city centre, after the Post Office building there is a dusty small road that goes to Sainte-Famille Church (Holy Family Church). Opposite the church is a multi-purpose hall that has a small office at the back. One would be forgiven for thinking that it is a washing bay, because of the car washing activities that take place there. The small office behind the hall is fenced with bamboo reeds with well arranged chairs inside but filled with people.
It was not long before I realised that people had come to book Munyeshoza to perform at various commemoration activities as well ask him to record special songs for them. I had the opportunity to interact with a few individuals who explained why they were interested in his music.
“I came here to ask him to attend our function in Rwamagana because he’s songs give hope to victims. In our area, we are planning to hold a commemoration event and there’s no better person whose music can related with victims like his songs,” says Felicita Mukarugira, a genocide survivor.
Munyeshoza notes that music has helped people heal over the last 20 years since the Genocide ended.
Born in Kimbogo in the Western Province on September 25, 1975, Munyeshoza first experienced the genocidal regime brutality at a young age.
In 1990, he was accused of being a spy for Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and was arrested and held at Gitarama prison. He was only 12 years at the time. He had never experienced such torture and brutality.
“We were confined in a cave for a period of six months. Later, I was released and returned home. In 1993, I joined the RPA,” he recalls.
As soon as we started talking, I realised there was still a grieving heart inside the soft spoken and smooth voiced musician.
“I lost family members in the Genocide and I did not know how to deal with the grief. I failed to cry or to talk about it. I had nightmares and weird dreams. When I recorded my first song, Mibilizi, I felt a heavy load lifted off my shoulders. It was a feeling I had never experienced,” Munyeshoza recalls.
After releasing his debut album in 1997, Munyeshoza decided to pursue a career in music hoping to help others heal. “One of the challenges that we faced after the Genocide was to try and talk about these issues without hurting someone and that was next to impossible. I decided I would make my songs light and preach the gospel of hope”.
While at his office, I happened to interact with one of the people who had come around to get some of his music which he insists has helped him to heal.
Not only are people getting healed but they are reconciling. Munyeshoza met with a man who killed his family during a visit to the prison. “We shook hands and had a conversation. I forgave him long ago and that is how we are going to achieve reconciliation. It had to start with me and many are getting inspired to do the same.
That is why I recorded a song titled, Icyo dupfana cyiruta cyodupfa— ‘the bond we share is much stronger than the grudge we have for each other’.
He says it is time to work towards developing our country and we need everyone to participate. “Otherwise, if we don’t forgive and reconcile, we shall only succeed in going back to the past and that’s something that I never want to see again.”
Using art as a form of healing and encouraging reconciliation
Using art to tell the genocide story and as a means to heal and reconcile people has been used a lot in Rwanda over the past years. It has been used in form of theatre plays, movies, art exhibitions, music and storytelling.
However, most people believe art is supposed to be entertaining but Munyeshoza disagrees. “It is not all about entertainment. There’s a form of art we call edutainment that is intended to give a positive message that can enrich people’s spiritual and mental wellbeing.”
Various songs have been recorded by musicians across the country, short documentaries have premiered, and theatre plays have played a part in the healing and reconciliation process.
After interviewing Munyeshoza for an hour, I could see the passion in his eyes of wanting to use art; music in particular to foster reconciliation.
“Deep in the villages we have young men and women who would like to contribute to the reconciliation process through their music talent but have no financial ability to do it. The government and various stakeholders should look for these children because we still have a long journey to go. These young men are the best people to continue the reconciliation because they grew up in very tough times,” the singer notes.
As we parted ways, I asked him if he had any last message to his fellow Rwandans during this commemoration period: “I would like to send a message to three different groups of people. First are the perpetrators. They should openly give testimonies about the atrocities they committed; show victims who haven’t found their people where they burried them and publicly ask for forgiveness.
The second group is children born of rape during the Genocide. These children are sometimes stigmatised by society. We should endeavour to help them not to feel ashamed and encourage them to leave a better legacy than their parents. The third group is survivors. I encourage them to stay strong during this period and continue to work towards a better Rwanda.”
Musicians speak out
Music is a miraculous instrument used to heal the sick. After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, people were emotionally and psychologically “sick.”
Their hearts were wounded, betrayed and neglected, but music has helped in repairing the hearts. The Bible tells us that angels are always singing in Heaven. This means that when one sings their heart relaxes.
For reconciliation, it is about making music that will have a positive impact on people’s lives. Music does not fade even after 100 years, a song can be played but a speech can be forgotten instantly. Besides, people can’t reconcile without forgiving each other and music plays an important role in soothing hearts and that can eventually lead to reconciliation.
Actually I would like to say that much as musicians abused the music industry back then, they were backed by radio journalists who would play their songs. For music to have an effect on people an artist has to ask questions such as; what message am I sending? How will it benefit people who will listen to my songs? Musicians such as Simon Bikindi sang songs that spoilt this country but thank God we are singing songs that are building the country and it is through these songs that people are getting healed.
We have a big role to play as artistes because the songs we make are what people’s hearts and souls feed on. Music reaches far places and has a strong impact on people’s lives. For example, when my people listen to my songs, they start believing the message that am giving to them.
Secondly, people will reconcile over music. Some people might have a strong liking for a particular artiste and will actually put their grudges on the side because of their love for this particular musician. On another note, I would like to ask artistes to get involved in reconciliation activities; they can give radio talk shows urging people to come together and build their country, pray and give advice to people and attend government programmes.
As a musician who records and performs commemoration songs, I believe that music heals the heart. I used to listen to the late Kamaliza’s song, Humura Rwanda Nziza when I was six years after the genocide had been stopped, although I can’t say that it helped me a lot, it gave me hope for a better tomorrow.
In the same way, I want to believe that our songs will still be here long after we are gone. They will educate the future generation, bring them closer and give them a clear picture of the times their forefathers lived in. Music doesn’t stop with someone; it lives on long after someone has ceased to exist. I believe this is how music is contributing to the reconciliation process.