Vaga Vybz: From a 'Vagabond' to dancehall maestro

Reggae-Dancehall Vaga Style” is how Vaga Vybz describes his music. After experimenting with virtually all musical genres in his formative years, the singer eventually settled for a fusion of Reggae and Dancehall.
Vaga Vybz (S. Ngendahimana)
Vaga Vybz (S. Ngendahimana)

Reggae-Dancehall Vaga Style” is how Vaga Vybz describes his music. After experimenting with virtually all musical genres in his formative years, the singer eventually settled for a fusion of Reggae and Dancehall. 

Like most Reggae musicians, he subscribes to the Rastafarian belief and way of life. And like most Dancehall artists, he goes by a stage name – Vaga Vybz. His real names are Nyarwaya Emmanuel.


“Stage names always have a story. You know the term vagabond –someone who moves around aimlessly from place to place. That is what I was,” he begins to explain the origins of his artistic moniker.


“Well it reached a point when I had to move around with the purpose of creating vibes. This is a name that was given to me by friends who saw me struggle from studio to studio and from genre to genre because in the beginning I was not an established reggaes dancehall artist, I was just a person who loved music.”


So much of a wandering musician he was, that his first album, Lighters was a diversity of different genres;


 “I had Hip hop on it, RnB, Dancehall, and a little reggae because I was just getting into reggae at the time.

Eventually after that I looked at the whole piece and I was like where is my strength and where is my weakness? That’s when I decided to come up with my own reggae-dancehall Vaga style.”

Vaga has lived the musical life from the day he was born, literally. He first graced a big musical stage in 1997, at the National Theater in Kampala, Uganda, and has never looked back.

In 2003 he recorded his first single – Juncture, a fusion of Dancehall and Hip hop. Between 1997-1999 he played with traditional troupes in Uganda and Tanzania, and from then on to this day he has been playing with live music bands.

In Rwanda and the region, fans know him for some of his songs like; Love, BadGyal, Man a rasta,Jam, and Serious.


Or you could have spotted him on Rwanda Television for the better part of last year, as host of the Abbey Star Project, a televised music talent contest.

2016 was a busy year for the singer as his time was divided between this show, and pushing his music to not only the Rwandan, but also East African audience. So much so that he had to put off the release of his third album, initially slated for December last year.

He was booked for multiple shows in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, all in December.

“Dates clashed, so on Christmas day I performed in Dar es Salaam instead of Nairobi and after that went to Madagascar just to check out artists there and connect with them as I prepared for the New Year’s show in Zanzibar. I relaxed a bit then moved on to Kampala with the aim of getting either Apass or Irene Ntale to do something with them but the time was so little I didn’t finalize with bookings for any of the two.”

He decided to return to Kigali instead, to continue work on his third album which he promises will be out at the end of this month.

The early days

As a child Vaga Vybz lived and grew up in Nairobi and Kampala.

“Childhood influences always count. I grew up around a group of musicians. As a child growing up in Nairobi I grew up around different musicians who were into music but not necessarily reggae and dancehall. Most of them were bands and whenever they went for practice I would be around.

When I moved from Nairobi to Kampala I kept around people like Joanita Kawalya and Sgt Kifulugunyu and Rasta Rob MC and I was greatly influenced by all these people. Also I can’t forget the Buju Banton experience when he came to Uganda. All these things had a role to play in my later decision to take up music as a career.”


On Reggae-dancehall

“My connection with reggae-dancehall first of all starts with me being a Rastafarian,” he explains. “As much as I would sing Hip hop, RnB and all these things, I found reggae-dancehall to be the only kind of music that connects me to my real self.

If anything can just get me to be me, then that’s what I want to give the people. I don’t want to give people something I can imitate and do, or something that I can just do because I can do it. I want to give people a part of me.”

He described reggae as “the kind of music you can listen to with your whole family”.

“Reggae is a type of music that is not censored because everything is worth listening to. There are no ‘F’ words and no radio edits. If I had to listen to a rap song perhaps at some point I would have to block a child’s ears or even tell them to go out of the room. I wanted music that I can play with my children and my family around and not be ashamed of anything, music that can touch and positively influence anyone.”

He is keen on a more contemporary reggae format as compared to the classical one-beat sound associated with Bob Marley.

“When it comes to music we’ve seen different talents rise from different corners of the world, and this has been because of their uniqueness. That’s why when I’m doing music I try to do something that is me, something that is not any other musician. Even when I borrow an idea from another musician, I try to deliver it in my own way. I’ve refused to do the hardcore raga because that’s what almost everyone is doing, and I’ve refused to do the old reggae and instead try to deliver it in my own way –simple, but to fit everyone’s ear.

We’re in a different generation where the youth try to listen to music that has a different touch. They view old music (goldies) or classics as music for their parents and if we’re trying to bridge the gap between the parents and the young generation then we have to do something that is not any of the two but something in-between. It’s not an easy thing because the music keeps changing as the years go on. You have to keep updating yourself. Everyday young talent will come up, and the best way to fight this young talent is improving your style as a daily check or every time you’re going to work on a new project.”

 As a self-professed rastafarian, he espouses that good old sense of fraternity with fellow reggae-dancehall artistes in the struggle, and fellow youths in general;

The Vibration Band, his creation boasts seven instrument players, including renowned audio producer Pastor P, who plays bass guitar. Pastor P also produce’s Vaga’s reggae songs.

Recently he also created the Zion Train, a forum where local dancehall artists meet to discuss ideas and see how they can take their craft to the next level.

“We have so far recorded two all-star songs; Ndabikunda, and Nyampinga and are in the process of recording the third. I decided to create a family and this involved every active dancehall artist in this country. Even the ones that are still underground are welcomed so that if they have a problem we can find a way to help them.

Every end of month I always put up a show and most of them are free because we want to get these guys used to performing, I want them to get used to battles on stage, to have that hype and confidence for this kind of music.”

As we wind up this interview, he bemoans what he terms lack of unity among reggae musicians in Rwanda;

“Reggae still has a big, big problem in Rwanda yet it’s supposed to be the example. Most of the reggae artists believe they know a lot. They believe they are on top of everything. Most of the legendary reggae names in Rwanda don’t want to corporate with the other upcoming names and this kills the whole reggae vibe.”

“I went to Bebe Cool, told him I’m just an upcoming artist in Rwanda, I need something from Gagamel and immediately he gave me an artist called Styles. I put him on a bus and brought him to Kigali, gave him a place to stay, we went to studio and recorded a song – Man a rasta. We shot a video and he went back to Kampala with it. Bebe Cool himself uploaded the video on his Facebook page and said “this is work. Gagamel going international. Rwanda connection.”

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