Let’s face the music. It is time that we have a candid understanding of the sacrifices behind the live entertainment scene and the working conditions of musicians in Kigali. So, the next time you relax with your favourite beverage at a venue where our local performers provide nostalgic melodies, inspire you to gyrate or provide your wedding party with modest entertainment, please remember this is not without a cost.
I have some credentials on this subject as I am part of this community and have been for several years; I perform locally and continue to do so in locations ranging from tenements of Cyahafi, Kimisagara to the eclectic Nyamirambo and across the Remera scene.
My rite of passage ocurred within the bohemian confines of the infamous Fantastic Club located in the core of Kigali city within days of my arrival in Rwanda.
It is a place that many people choose to avoid as it is not comparable to grandeur of Las Vegas and requires one to be brave.
Most musicians receive beggarly wages. This amount ranges from Rwf5,000 to Rwf10,000 ($6-$12) for one night’s 4-5 hour performance, without benefits and for work of equal value across venues. Occasionally, there is an inconsistency because two four-star hotels in nearby Kimihurura pay twice as much.
The wage disparity creates problems for all involved. Managers exploit this inconsistency by ‘poaching’ musicians within hours prior to a commitment or musicians may get a better deal with short notice.
The issue is exacerbated by the middle-men who purportedly possess the skills to find opportunities. These intermediaries exact a hidden fee thereby reducing an already low wage. They may also, without any explanation, choose not to pay a performer or decide re-negotiate the terms of payment at the end of the performance – usually in the early morning hours when there is a tab to pay and mouths at home to be fed.
A musician usually risks replacement if dissatisfaction is expressed. No civil enforcement mechanisms exist unless you are prepared to commit a criminal act. Business arrangements are conducted in the absence of written agreements when responsibilities are not defined, understandably, there is a legal minefield ahead.
There is a perception that female performers are women with low morals. When some performers innocuously dress the part, this reinforces the stereotype thereby proportionally increasing the occupational hazards evidenced by the unwelcome propositions from male fans.
One must be wary of the performance implications of Marvin Gay’s Sexual Healing or Inner Circle’s Sweat. There is a well-known middle-man who is notorious for propositioning female performers in exchange for an opportunity to perform - pun certainly not intended.
Delivering a good performance requires quality and functional equipment. At the low rate of remuneration, musicians cannot afford to own their instruments.
Managers, frequently with no knowledge of music business, procure low quality equipment without doing the essential homework. In contrast, the food, service, liquor, utensils and cutlery found in these performing venues don’t seem to suffer the same fate.
Performance disruptions by police due to noise complaints are not uncommon and this is frequently accompanied by the seizure of equipment. Club owners usually react by asking musicians to play at such a reduced level that even the mice under the stage can relax uninterrupted.
Musicians are compelled to compromise the quality of their services because the choice of business location was done without consideration to residential needs. Further responsibility must be shared by the local authorities for overlooking this fact when granting a business licence.
Why support music industry There are many rewards that emanate from protecting our musicians.
According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the Nigerian music industry is expected to be worth $86 million by 2020. When Sweden was put in the world spotlight over 40 years ago, the explosion of pop music was the reason, not Volvo automobiles. This legacy currently places Sweden in the third spot globally for exporting popular musicians.
We have to start somewhere. Many musicians have financial responsibilities with families to feed, clothe and school; they are no different from those they entertain. Many successful artists began their careers in places not very different from those described here.
Let’s take a hard look at the working conditions of our local musicians and the factors that would destroy their growth and ultimately stymie of our arts and culture.
Strategically, our musicians need a strong organisational base and assistance to make this happen. This, I believe, requires assistance from outside the local music community, perhaps at the local government level. Until this happens, music remains only a means of daily survival. Is Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights and Justice the answer or should it be Get Up, Stand Up?
The writer is a project and compliance manager at MobiCash Rwanda. He is also a writer and musician.
Views expressed in this article do not represent those Business Times.