If you have attended the KigaliUp music festival over the years, there is always one solid performer, Joey Blake. His performances are always filled with energy and good vibes— you can’t dislike him. A lecturer of music at the Boston-based Berklee College of Music, Blake first came to Rwanda with a group of musicians known as ‘Musicians without Borders’, which is when he met Jacques ‘Mighty Popo’ Muligande, the organiser of KigaliUp. Mighty Popo told him about his dream to establish a music school, to which Blake responded that whenever he was ready, he could call on him to come and help. The two embarked on the journey together as the school evolved from Nyundo School of Music and Art to Rwanda School of Art and Music. Rwanda is the first country Blake visited in Africa and, he says, it was love at first sight. “Rwanda chose me because it was the first place I came to in Africa and I fell in love with it,” he says. It all started with a trip to come and conduct music workshops with young adults who were going to do music programmes in the community of children with HIV/AIDS. With his experience and know-how, Blake believed he could make his own contribution to the growth and development of Rwanda’s music industry. When he arrived in the country, he noticed most bands playing live were made up of people from Burundi or DR Congo. It is a vision he shared with Mighty Popo, to change things. Today he says the fruits are there for all to see. He got so involved, later, he moved to Rwanda and got a house in Kigali and twice a year, he travels to Boston to teach. As they say, the rest is history. “It’s growing. I think the level of the musicianship has risen since the school started,” says Blake, when asked about his view of Rwanda’s music industry. “I remember when I first started coming, most of the live bands that I saw were from Burundi or from Congo or from somewhere else outside of Rwanda, but now all of that has changed. There are lots of rising young artistes and so we just need to install more variety of style and delivery and that’s coming,” says Blake who performed at KigaliUp this past weekend. Blake believes for an artiste to grow and become visible outside their country, it takes a lot of support right from the start and from the country of origin. He believes it will happen with time but mostly it is still work in progress. One way is to have strong international festivals that can give artistes exposure on the big stage. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many music shows got cancelled and some are just picking up. As time goes on, Blake says Rwandan artistes will have more platforms to showcase their talents. But for that to happen, there is a need to invest more in culture, monetarily and physically, if young artistes have to make ends meet through music and also for the industry to be lucrative. That also goes with the change of mind-set. If you are planning an event, let’s say a wedding, why do you budget for everything, including food and clothes but when it comes to the band or musician, you allocate them the smallest budget? This is something Blake thinks should change. Once a society understands that musicians depend on music for a living, then they begin to value their work and pay them accordingly. Because of those challenges, Blake says some of the school’s graduates have to move to other countries to earn a better pay from their craft. Blake says that when these young musicians end up in other countries, the country loses an important resource. “We have at least three graduate artistes who decided not to stay here and move to Kenya, some are in Bujumbura, some are in Dubai, and what that means, you end up losing your jewels to some other country because they can’t get the support they need at home,” he says. “There needs to be more support, people need to really support them,” he says of young artistes, adding that there is a lot that goes into building a strong music industry, beyond singing and videos we see on TV or YouTube. It also means that if people understood how much goes into producing and mastering music, and the number of people involved, they would give it the value it deserves. He also believes artistes can diversify into other areas, such as writing and more. Music is a calling As a music teacher, Blake says deciding to be an artiste is a big endeavour which requires dedication that isn’t present in a lot of other industries. “When I teach my classes at Berkeley, when my students first come into the class at the beginning of the semester, I ask them why they came to Berkeley. I ask them, ‘did you come to Berkeley because you’re a musician and you just have to do it or did you come to Berkeley because you want to get famous?’ “I tell them if you want to get famous, there are cheaper schools to go to because the truth is, as an artiste, if you’re not willing to do it and not get paid for it then you are probably never going to get good enough to get paid for it because you won’t put the time in,” he says. Being a musician has everything to do with passion, you do it with all your heart because you love it. Getting paid is a reward that comes with doing it well but not the main goal. Unlike in the past, today artistes put ahead being famous rather than being musicians who are recognised because of their musical works. “There’s a tendency with popular music in Africa. They use a lot of what they call auto-tune, which makes your voice sound kind of a little mechanical and whatever. So, most people don’t recognise the singers. They recognise the songs and the groove,” he says. He further adds that that is probably the biggest reason why many artistes in Rwanda and on the continent do not get as big as they should because they don’t touch people. “You can’t touch people with an electronic sound as you can with the human sound. The sound of the human voice is the thing that moves people to feel things, and so my biggest advice is that more of the younger artistes coming out now need to realise that their voice is enough. They don’t have to add electronics to it,” says. Blake knows quite a number of musicians including the late Jay Polly, Knowless Butera and many of the school’s graduates such as Ariel Wayz, Igor Mabano and Yverry, among others. Moving to Rwanda Like many African Americans, Blake decided to relocate to Rwanda because it felt safe here. The Covid-19 pandemic found him in Rwanda where he continued teaching online and when in-person teaching resumed, he started going to Boston to teach and then return ‘home’ to Rwanda. One of the things that first struck him when he moved to Rwanda was the sense of safety and security. “I just remember walking around at night and it was late. But it was safe and it’s been like that. It feels really safe here,” says Blake, adding that as a black man, it was the first time he saw armed police officers or soldiers and never felt any sort of apprehension that they were after him. “That was the first time I felt safe somewhere and I remember when I went back to the States, it really occurred to me that I didn’t feel safe in my own country. So, this is my country now,” says the father of two who is not married. His oldest son who lives in Washington D.C, is 38 and the youngest is 21 and lives and studies in Germany. With both sons grown and independent, Blake balances his time between Rwanda and the U.S.