Rwanda’s new ‘international anthem’ goes viral

There is a new national “anthem”, (and obsession) for all people that profess a love for Rwanda. 
A dancer smiles for the cameras at the shoot. (Courtesy)
A dancer smiles for the cameras at the shoot. (Courtesy)

There is a new national “anthem”, (and obsession) for all people that profess a love for Rwanda. 

Perhaps what’s unique about this new “anthem” is the fact that it has gone beyond being just a national anthem — it is an international hit. Also, it has a video clip of its own to accompany it, shot on location at random “happy spots” around Kigali city. 

It is called the Happy Song/Kigali-Rwanda version, and it is an un-official version of the song, Happy, by American R&B singer, Pharell Williams, that was released in 2013. 

Though it may be called a version of Pharell Williams’ Happy, the Rwanda version keeps the lyrical and instrumental content of the original song intact. But everything else changes with the song’s video, which is completely altered and replaced with clips from Rwanda all through the video. 

Since the lyrics have not been altered one bit, let’s take a sample of lyrics from the original version:

The first verse goes:

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way …

This is followed by the chorus …

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

As far as the Kigali-Rwanda version of the song goes, it is the chorus that nails the intended message, spirit and mood of the song. 

This amateur version of the song was uploaded on the popular video-sharing platform, YouTube on August 07, 2014, and became an instant hit. At the time of compiling this story, on Friday August 15th, just nine days later, it had been viewed 11,273 times, with 106 likes (while another four people chose to strike the ‘unlike’ button instead).

The clip opens with the words, “Inspired by Pharell Williams”, then the song’s title –Happy in Kigali-Rwanda, the official version, against the backdrop of Rwanda’s national colours.

Then comes an energetic street dance by a young man I later learn is a dancer with a local dance troupe, the Phantomz Crew, based in Nyamirambo. Actually, this particular section is shot on the vibrant streets of Nyamirambo’s Biryogo area. Ibrahim Zethy B-Brauz is the dancer in question, and he is the captain of his contemporary dancing troupe.  

Thereafter, the video literally takes the viewer on a guided tour of the city of Kigali, but with deliberate emphasis on the city’s happy spots and moments.

I would say the video is an inner journey through its originator’s perceptions and notions of the beauty and life that she believes define present-day Rwanda. It could also be viewed as a positive depiction of the literal heart of the city in particular and the country by extension. 

The first thing that strikes you about this video clip is the fact that it captures only situations and scenes involving ordinary and largely anonymous individuals and groups. Nowhere in the video is a politician, diplomat, government official, or high-ranking public figure of any sort featured till the end. 

What we see instead are ordinary street scenes of humble but happy citizens going about their day-to-day tasks. We see market women and fruit vendors delicately balancing fruit baskets on their heads as they look for the next buyer; we see scenes with troupes of traditional dancers happily performing their dance movements, and there are scenes depicting yoga and live street-painting sessions. 

In all, there is a lot of art, young people, and urban vibe in the video. Actually, most of the scenes were shot at some of the better-known art houses in town (Uburanga Arts Studio, in Kimihurura, where the bulk of the shooting took place and Inema Arts Center in Kacyiru. 

There are also scenes with processions of motor taxis, those from the recently-held KigaliUp Music Festival, and random street shots from the heart of Nyamirambo’s Biryogo area. 

The video further captures some of the city’s architectural land marks, like the UTC complex, Grand Pension Plaza, and the Kigali Convention Center. 

The brains behind the Happy Song/Kigali-Rwanda version:

This seemingly crazy idea was the brainchild of an American lady who goes by the names; Kimberly Ross.

Now in Italy, Ross lived and worked in Rwanda more than five years for an international NGO. An artist and freelance photographer in her own right, she invested part of the time of her stay in the arts, visiting some of the art studios in town to buy a painting, or simply to network with fellow artists. 

Bosco Bakunzi, the founder and owner of the Uburanga Arts Studio in Kimihurura, remembers Ross as a regular client of his at the time. That was then.

“A few weeks ago, she (Ross) called me, telling me about this idea she had of producing a happy song about Kigali.” Bakunzi was immediately impressed with the idea, and explains why: “Many people out there still think Rwandans are the most sad people in the world, but we’re not!” he says emphatically. 

“I loved the little kids doing traditional dance! I couldn’t stop smiling when filming them,” explained Ross. 

Many online comments and words of thanks have been pouring in from people all over the world that have seen the clip. 

Kenny Theophile Nkundwa from Kigali wrote: “I love this video. Twenty years later Kigali is one of the most vibrant cities in Africa, cosmopolitan, creative, dynamic youth and above all one of the most clean cities in the world, I love my Kigali with its magnificent hills!!!”

The Berg Family, all the way from Kibogora to the South-West of the country wrote: 

“I’m so happy to live in Rwanda! Specifically in Kibogora, Rwanda, in the southwest corner of the country, right on beautiful Lake Kivu!  The people are so loving and kind and beautiful. We’ve made so many dear, dear friends in Kibogora. The culture is very family-oriented; the food is THE BEST — so delicious!  The weather is as perfect as it gets anywhere in the world, and it is always so green! We love Rwanda. Thank you for making this HAPPY VIDEO. You’re right. It does show a whole other side of Rwanda than of what people usually think when they think of this wonderful country.”

Many more comments came in from curious viewers across the globe, either pleasantly surprised, or even shocked at positive impression of Kigali that is depicted in the video.   

According to comments attributed to Kimberly Ross on the YouTube platform, “over a thousand people and close to a dozen local groups participated in the making of this video.”

“We consider it more than just a cover of Pharrell Williams’ music video — it’s an opportunity to show the world a side of Rwanda that defies the many stereotypes painted by the country’s tragic history. It’s a chance to showcase all the dynamic people and the positive vibes in Kigali today,” she further wrote, concluding:

“We hope that this video can be a catalyst for a broader discussion on the experience of people living in Kigali, as well as on the media’s portrayal of Rwanda and even Africa in general... which all too often focuses on negative aspects of the past rather than its vibrant present and promising future.


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