Tracing the role of music in promoting reconciliation

In 2001, Rwandan folk musician Simon Bikindi was arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). In December 2008, the tribunal convicted Bikindi of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. The Chamber sentenced him to 15 years’ imprisonment.

In 2001, Rwandan folk musician Simon Bikindi was arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). In December 2008, the tribunal convicted Bikindi of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. The Chamber sentenced him to 15 years’ imprisonment.

At the time of the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, Bikindi was a well known composer, director and singer. His songs are blamed for having instigated ethnic hatred and attacks against the Tutsi.


Bikindi is a living testament to the reality that music was used as a tool to fan the ethnic tensions that led to the tragic events of 1994.


Yet the story of Jean-Paul Samputu, another Rwandan musician represents the other side of the coin – the role and place of music in fostering peace, unity and reconciliation in the post-genocide dispensation.

Jean-Paul Samputu. / Courtesy

At the onset of the Genocide, Samputu fled Rwanda and sought sanctuary in Uganda and Burundi, where he continued to pursue his music.

He returned shortly after the Genocide, and went straight to his village. There, he learnt that his parents and three siblings had been killed. Even more painful, he was informed that his father had been killed by Vincent, his father’s friend and Samputu’s own childhood bosom buddy.

Samputu’s life would never be the same again.

“The fact that it was a close family friend who had done this destroyed me. He was two years younger than me and my closest neighbour, my closest friend,” he reveals. He soon degenerated into a life of drugs, alcohol and even tried witchcraft, all in desperate search of remedy to his pain and anger.

Deep down, he wanted to avenge his family’s death:

“I wanted to kill Vincent. But I couldn’t find him, and so I started killing myself.”

It took him nine years to put a lid on all the anger and vengeful feelings. That was the point at which he realized that to move on, he had to take the initiative to forgive his father’s killer, painful as that may be.

That was at the beginning of 2003. The same year, he won a Kora music award for Most Promising African Male Artist. The Kora win raised his musical profile anew, and soon he was globe-trotting with not just music, but a message as well –one of forgiveness.

“It (forgiveness) is unpopular because it’s a hard topic and a difficult process. Some people don’t want to teach it to their children, even in the church, because they look in the mirror, and they cannot preach what they cannot do.”

In 2007, Samputu met his father’s killer for the first time. It was at a Gacaca (traditional court) session in his village. His mission was to forgive, not accuse the wrong doer. Later, the two even shared a meal.

Today, Samputu lives in the US, in the state of Vermont, where he still preaches the gospel of forgiveness.

In 2007, he was recognised as an “Ambassador of Peace” by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace.

Throughout the last 23 years of Genocide commemoration, there have been hundreds of remembrance songs – songs about peace, hope and remembrance, songs that tell the truth of what Rwanda went through and where it is heading. And every year, Rwandan musicians participate actively in national commemoration events bringing a message of hope to the Rwandan public.

Two decades on, the impetus has never subsided, with both the old and young generation putting out commemoration-related material.

At the 22nd Genocide commemoration last year, cultural and traditional musicians converged at the Kigali Serena Hotel to pay homage to victims of the Genocide through music. At the concert were such respected musicians like Cecile Kayirebwa, Dieudonne Munyanshoza, Susane Nyiranyamibwa and Maria Yohana, Intore Masamba and Muyango. The event was organised by the Association of Former and Current Student Genocide Survivors in Rwanda (GAERG). Proceeds from the concert went toward support for genocide survivors during the commemoration period.

Cécile Kayirebwa. / Courtesy
Maria Yohana. / File
Intore Masamba. / Courtesy

At the start of the Genocide, reggae musician Natty Dread was away on tour:

“I was in Athens, Greece as part of my world tour. While moving on the street one morning I spotted a newspaper with pictures of wounded people that had been rescued by the RPF,” he recalls.

Asked what role music played in stirring ethnic hatred he explains;

“I feel that musicians who did such a thing were misguided. I don’t know why they did that because normally musicians or artistes are entertainers and entertaining means making people happy and there are no boundaries for your audience or fans. You have fans from various tribes and nationalities and you want to have them all in one place.

So I wonder what really happened to them –whether they were at gunpoint to do it –I don’t know. I’m just trying to imagine. But at the same time I think that others did it willingly and happily, but really it’s a shame to artistes and musicians because we are the ones supposed to bring people together to promote peace, unity and reconciliation.”

Natty Dread. / Courtesy

As a musician, Natty Dread is known for his Rastafarian beliefs and the messages of “one love” he spreads through his reggae music. In Rwanda, he is the closest you can get to the legendary reggae musician Bob Marley:

“As a rasta and as an artiste I’ve performed with different people from all corners of the world, and when the music sounds good, we don’t really look at where we come from. We just say we’re a band in concert, and a concert is just a couple of instruments brought together to create one nice sound. So what we’re doing now in Rwanda is a concert, a concert where all Rwandans, including foreigners who live here make one nice tune which says peace and reconciliation –and the rastaman adds; “one love, let’s get together and feel alright”.

“Fortunately the Government of Rwanda led by President Paul Kagame came up with this genius idea of forgiveness. If he’d not done that, there would still be bloodshed today. One side would seek revenge and the other side would seek to defend themselves, so Rwanda would be a country of continuous genocide,” he adds.

“It’s a sad truth music played a role of dividing people, some artistes encouraged hatred and killing of innocent people,” Liza Kamikazi, another musician explains.

“The music industry was obviously affected just like other domains; we lost so many talented artistes. Some worked as individuals while others were part of bands and losing them left a huge gap in the music industry. In my opinion, it was a big challenge for the young generation who had to make their own way without reference.” But she contends that things are beginning to look up:

“I would say that the return of some artistes who were born in exile is what made the industry survive. Together with the artistes who survived, they did songs of hope , unity and re comforting the nation. Then as time went on, some new talents joined the industry.”



Ella Lilliane Mutuyimana, film director
The songs about reconciliation play a big role in fighting genocide denial. However, playing the songs during the commemoration period alone is not enough. We need to have more content in our songs to educate the masses and get them to spread to countries where Genocide denial is most common.


Mighty Popo, Director, Nyundo School of Music
Music is power to be reckoned with because singing is part of our culture that you cannot separate from our daily lives. Rwandans are a resilient people in general so the arts and positive music play a big role in the resilience of rebuilding the country by uplifting the spirit is to carry on the fight for total peace and reconciliation.


Joseph Bitamba, filmmaker and producer
I think music is a good tool for reconciliation, and it is very vital in driving good ideas to bring people together. In some circumstances, however, music can promote hatred instead of peace and human rights. Bob Marley is a good example. The main theme in his reggae music is peace and respect for human rights.


Nina Muhoza, musician
Music can help bring about reconciliation but also hate if done recklessly. There is need to spread positive message to enlighten people through our songs because messages are clearly transmitted through arts. This is why it is important that artistes use music to spread positive messages.

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