Listening to Rwandan Popular Music with Victoria Netanus Grubbs

Victoria Grubbs

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Victoria Netanus Grubbs, a Black feminist sound theorist and abolitionist educator. Victoria is currently the Black Studies Collaboratory Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley. She completed her PhD in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University in May 2021. 

Her current book project, Kumva Meze Neza: Sounding Blackness in Rwanda, examines how popular Rwandan music worked in the aftermath of genocide to produce a collective social body. Drawing on five years of participant observation among Rwandan music industry professionals and their audiences, her work demonstrates how shared investments in the sensory experience of Blackness produce formations of togetherness that defy traditional organizing categories.

Listen to the podcast below or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Podcast Transcript

Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast, recorded in the Ethnic Studies Changemaker studio. I’m Julia Sizek, our host. And our guest today is Victoria Netanus Grubbs, a Black feminist abolitionist educator and the Black Studies Collaboratory Postdoctoral Fellow. She completed her PhD in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University in 2021. Her dissertation examines how popular Rwandan music produces a collective social body in the aftermath of genocide, and it’s based on more than four years of participant observation among Rwandan music industry professionals and their audiences. Welcome to the podcast, Victoria.

Victoria Grubbs: Thanks, I’m really happy to be here.

Sizek: So let’s just start out by understanding Rwandan music in the context of African popular music. What’s distinctive about Rwandan music in the Afropop landscape?

Grubbs: So Rwanda’s popular music is resonating within a global context of Black diasporic music. And there’s two really popular, kind of, broad– I’m using this term intentionally– really broad genres right now. Hip-hop and Afrobeat. Hip-hop drawing on a lot of African spoken word and poetry traditions, and griot storytelling traditions, and Caribbean DJing and toasting, and American emcees and DJs playing funk and R&B hooks, and– It’s a long history.

Localized African subgenres of hip-hop, like an example, Ghanaian hiplife, Nigerian blues and funk especially from the ’70s and ’80s. Coming out of East Africa, Tanzania’s bongo flava was early hip-hop style that was really influential. And Gengetone coming out of Kenya and kapuka also coming out of Kenya. And Ugandan styles, like Lugaflow. So that’s– Hip-hop generally is pulling from a lot of that– It’s still a very transatlantic, still very diasporic sound, but it’s pulling from a more spoken word tradition.

And then there’s Afrobeat, which is dance music. And it’s recognized globally as dance music and extending that pan-African legacy of iconic African artists of the ’60s and ’70s, like Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, and incorporating rumba, which is coming out of the major cities in Congo, like Kinshasa and Brazzaville, and major cities in then Belgian-occupied Congo by way of Cuba. So we got early jazz, and electronic house music, and then also house music coming out of Cape Town, Nigerian funk, Nigerian soul.

So you can see they’re like– they’re growing simultaneously, but using different, I think, vocal delivery styles. But also always transferring sounds between these– I don’t want to make them sound like completely independent genres. But those are two styles that popular artists right now can go into a studio and say, I want to do Afrobeat, or I want to do hip-hop, and be immediately understood by the producer of what they need to do.

Also in Rwanda, like parallel, there’s a strong gospel tradition, especially in choirs. And the choirs are also recording a lot of popular music, drawing connections from local spiritual practices of singing, drumming, and dancing, but also influences of the church, whether it be, like the Catholic Church, or Methodist and Adventist and Pentecostal churches, which all have different sonic landscapes of their own. Something that I know less about, but something that I’m definitely interested in, and it’s definitely influential in Rwanda to think about the different kinds of auditory practices, I guess, that the church brought in and placed in relationship to spirituality.

So there’s an obvious, I think, noisiness to perhaps a Pentecostal sound compared to the quietness of a Catholic sound. So I think that there’s a lot of– I don’t know– a really interesting dynamics, even within the gospel tradition, but– and also, I would say that within the gospel tradition, there’s a really localized subgenre of music, which is music for Memorial. Music for memorializing the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. And that music is a political project, but also, I would guess, a grief project, a mourning project, also a financial project, because there’s usually money from the state for recording this genre of music also, which makes it something that artists will be– that wouldn’t maybe traditionally be recording gospel music per se might venture into that style to record a memorial song.

Sizek: That’s really interesting. So, I think– and this is part of the broader theme of your work– is that how people think about and listen to and participate in popular music has a lot to do with their national identity. Can you tell us a little bit about how music has become really central for Rwandan national identity or lack thereof?

Grubbs: I think that music is always trying to evade capture by the state, specifically also inherently Black music. So it’s not that the music is producing an investment in national identity, as much as the value of the music is always trying to be taken up by the state, and incorporated into their project of state-making and statecraft. So when you see popular artists performing the narratives of state power, and when you see popular artists performing the narratives of party lines or a particular history, there’s an investment in that that is often monetary. But beyond that, there’s an investment in that that is a recognition of the value of their work, which is something that a lot of artists are looking for. They want to– it’s hard out here for all of us, let me say. So to feel, like as an artist, that somebody sees value in what you’re doing and thinks that it matters is also at play here.

Sizek: Yeah. So let’s dig into one specific example that you look at in your research of precisely this phenomenon of the state trying to capture the value of the work of an individual artist, which is that of Bruce Melodie’s big, I guess, two hits. Do you want to tell us a little bit about these songs before we take a listen?

Grubbs: So I want to move a little bit slower than that. Because I think it’s not that– With the examples that we’re going to listen to with Bruce Melodie– Bruce Melodie re-recorded his song with another studio with a specific intention. So I think we can listen to the first one. And I can give you a little bit of context before we do that.

Sizek: Yeah, let’s do it.

Grubbs: So the song came out in 2017, in May, I believe, and it was produced by a producer named David Pro, alongside a music video that was a widely viewed music producer at that time named Ma-RivA. I just want to shout these people out, because they do great work. And the video was also really popular. And it showed girls shaking and smoking hookah and Bruce Melodie and his friends drinking out of red solo cups and dancing around. And everyone’s just having a great time. Musically, it’s a perfect pop song for Rwanda. So I think that’s a really good place to stop and take a listen.

Sizek: Oh, that’s such an infectious song. It does actually just make you want to go party.

Grubbs: Right? It’s a party vibe. And it was very successful in being circulated on the radio for that entire year. And 2017 was also an election year for Rwanda. And that was a really watched election, because it was Kagame running for a third term, which was– which had required the altering of the Rwandan Constitution, because typically, you were supposed to only take two terms. Typically, as in since he had taken power. And he was the first president also since the Genocide.

So the year was being watched because there was a lot of, I think, Western critique of African presidents taking long presidencies and taking lifelong presidencies, not participating in their idea of democracy, or feigning performances of peaceful transferences of power within the model of state that the West is trying to promote as their own. So it doesn’t necessarily look good from that perspective that he changed the constitution. But it was a election where 98% of the population voted for Paul Kagame to take this third term. And that is also considering that voting in Rwanda is required for everybody over 16. So everybody has to vote. It’s different than here, I think it’s important to note that there are lots of ways that the state can look and operate, but in the same ways, capitalism still finds its way in.

So all of that to say that the song was re-recorded in consultation with some RG Consult Group– is what it says, if you look up the citation. So the song was re-recorded with new lyrics, which changed the original lyrics. So the original lyrics, twaneye, twatsinze– we drank, we got drunk, we were drinking, having a great time. It’s a story of, we didn’t have any problems. We were just hanging out, getting drunk regularly. That was the vibe. The twaneye, twatsinze was changed to we voted, we won. So from we drank, we got drunk to we voted, we won. So we can listen to the second version of the song.

Sizek: Let’s talk about just some of the differences between this version and the previous version, like musically. I’m not a musician. What’s going on?

Grubbs: So this– I feel the citations are obvious to most people. I think you would hear it without being musically experienced or trained and say, that sounds like the same song. So, I think, that a lot of that happens because the rhythms and pitches are the same, even though the songs were re-recorded, perhaps with slightly different instruments, because it was produced in a different studio. You never know what instruments a producer will have around or will have on their computer or their hard drive.

So the basic core of the song is reproduced nearly identically the same kick pattern, snare pattern, the same chord changes, the same vocal melodies. And the really only distinct difference that you would hear is a difference in the vocal performance. It’s got a lot more energy in it. It’s got more forward direction in it. It’s a lot less laid back. It’s a lot more driving and aggressive. And, I think, this tempo of the new one is also a little bit faster, so it gives it a little bit more of that get up and go energy.

And also then there’s this very dramatic lyrical shift. So the lyrics transfer from a message of a memory of, oh, we didn’t have any problems, because we were just hanging around drinking, to we voted, we won, twatoye, twatsinze, we voted, we won and now we don’t have any problems. We’ve solved them all. And I think really importantly, the lyrical shift here goes to calling all of the people together, abanyarwanda. Abanyarwanda are the people of Rwanda. Like calling all abanyarwanda, turishimiye, we are happy. Like all into one feeling about this particular event.

And then saying in the chorus, we’ve done what the foreigners failed to do. So you can form a group around an inside and an outside– a perimeter around success. We, the winners, did what the foreigners failed to do, and we brought everybody together. That being the ultimate goal, a national unity. So we brought everybody together because we chose our old man. And you hear his papa voice. That’s Paul Kagame’s voice at the beginning or the intro to the video, saying, we can do anything together. And he’s speaking in the tone of voice as a father with a child, like it’s very tender and paternal. So, yeah, the song takes a lot of popular inertia and turns it into a very, I think, effective celebration of a state project of national unity.

Sizek: Yeah. And that’s– I think it’s interesting as well because it is sort of a hyper-nationalist song. In some ways– In the same way that, I think, country songs in America have come to serve that same void. Like, I’m proud to be an American. And this is sort of, like, I’m proud to be Rwandan. But you also– one of the things that you’re looking at is how they are not just producing Rwandan identity through these songs. So can we talk a little bit about the other sort of, identity politics or identity formation of these songs?

Grubbs: This is a lot of songs I now listen to. I think that what’s interesting to me about Rwandan music is that it’s being produced in a context that is immediately and specifically, this generation living in a state of reconciliation, let’s say, a post-traumatic state of reconciliation. What that means is that you have experienced some kind of violent rupture in your community, and you are also actively living together. And so any music that comes out of that context and can produce a sense of togetherness or a sense of collectivity, I think, is going to be important for us to listen to and to understand and to take seriously. That’s serious social work. And I think that’s also something that the state recognizes that it’s serious social work that this music is doing.

And arguably, the kind of togetherness that the music that I’m seeing being produced in Rwanda– and maybe we can listen to a couple of these examples of more contemporary songs, even some stuff that just came out this year, even just last month– is that in its sonic landscape, citing a much broader reference point than Rwanda. It’s not citing a specifically localized national history, in the way that the state is. And even the way that the state is citing a specific local nationalized identity, it’s around a particular sort of class status and presentation of royalty. And so there’s a very sort of, narrow state project, I think, in terms of identity. And then there is the multiplicitous broad diasporic project of Blackness that you hear in the songs that are being produced. So maybe play the one by B-Threy.

Sizek: It sounds very of the time. It sounds like it could be playing on American radio in many ways. So what– I guess, one question is what’s the circulation of music that you’re seeing with these Rwandan music producers? Where are they listening to music? How are they getting their ideas? And then how are they putting that together with what they want their songs to be about?

Grubbs: Yeah, that’s a great question. So a lot of artists want their work on YouTube, which is why music videos have become really important. If you can’t get the funds together to make a video, people will make lyric videos, or some put up an image some way to get your content on YouTube. I think, within the country and the region, YouTube is still really accessible to people in ways that paid streaming platforms aren’t. Because YouTube, you can use it pretty effectively for free still– knock on wood. So more recently artists are– Rwandan artists are putting their music on platforms, like Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, but it’s not as accessible to most.

So I would say other than that, in a local circuit the radio is still very important. And songs travel hand-to-hand on thumb drives, or just bring the whole computer. Bluetooth from your phone to whatever local DJ you can get to play it, maybe add a little soda if you can to get them to play it for you. And DJs– In nightclubs, if you can get your songs to DJs, they’ll play it. So if you are looking for music, you’re probably either listening to the radio or searching on YouTube.

Sizek: And what about this specific song that we just listened to? How does this play into the popular scene? Is this a normal song or sort of, like a typical song on the radio?

Grubbs: Well, you know, B-Threy would like to say that he’s an original artist, and I think he’s really talented. I think he’s really pushing ahead. This is a genre that he and a collective of artists that he was working with out of a studio called Green Fairy Records was calling– is calling Kinyatrap. So this is a reference to trap music, which is an evolution of the southern US hip-hop style of trap music, but in Rwanda’s native language. Kinyarwanda being the native language of Rwanda.

And also, there’s efforts within these diasporic genres to always localize, to always make it feel your own. B-Threy is also coming from a specific part of the capital city of Rwanda that has a very urban, all-night, 24-hour kind of energy, as opposed to other parts of the city, which maybe are a little quieter or sleepier. So, I think, you can also hear his environment in that reference to trap music in the first place. Let’s listen to the one by Double N, Abaswa.

Grubbs: This is an even, I think, more contemporary style, even pulling from the American drill style, which is also a subgenre of trap music. So thinking about how you also hear the umuduri, which is a local traditional Rwandan instrument. Which was, I think, another example of that intention to really try to localize these diasporic genres. And so this artist calls this style rap gakondo. Gakondo meaning tradition, or roots, or culture, so culture rap. And if you want to play just quickly, the track umuziki, you can hear that local instrument just as a solo instrument with a vocalist.

Grubbs: That’s just a lovely example of how the local sounds get incorporated these diasporic styles, which then have the intention of being heard around the world. That’s the desire, to put them on YouTube. You want to put them on the radio. You want the DJ to play your song, because you want this song to travel. And I think that’s also a real characteristic of this diasporic Black music is that it wants to travel. It’s catchy. It’s music that holds on to you. It’s music that you take with you. It’s music that gets in your body. So that’s the intention to make a hit is really that desire to make a song that’s going to grab onto you, and you take it with you and go somewhere with it. Yeah.

Sizek: Yeah. So maybe to turn toward the other side away from the producing music and the intention of producing music to talk about listening and listening practices. Because that’s one of the things that you’re really interested in doing is trying to focus on not only the way that this music gets produced necessarily for an international audience, but how people talk about and embody the practices of listening.

Grubbs: Yeah. I think it’s something that we need to be more intentional about. I think listening is really under-theorized. I think we’re not as reflective about it in our everyday lives, as we need to be. And I think we consistently underestimate the fact that perception know is theory-laden. I think I’m citing somebody there that I should say, but it’s not coming to me at the moment. But there’s an influence of the world on how you might imagine you yourself as an individual to experience sound, for example.

So it’s not natural or inherently instinctual that when you hear a sound you respond a particular way. That’s entrainment. That’s learned in practice. It’s experience in the world and observing the people around you and imitating what you see. So even in the ways that we use our voice, even in the ways that we use our voice to reach out to other people, we’re performing a very narrow set of sounds that– our voice is capable of making all kinds of outrageous noises that we generally don’t make, because it’s unattractive. It’s an appealing.

You will lose social– to the people around you, perhaps in another world in another context, that’s not true. So, I think, it’s important that we really take care to think about where the values that we place upon the sounds that we hear come from, and why things sound a particular way to us, why things feel a particular way, what makes something feel the way that you think it should feel or doesn’t feel the way you think it should feel, what makes you comfortable with your evaluations of what you hear. Because sometimes we’re so confident in what we think we hear, and we can be completely wrong, you know.

So I just think that part of my learning and part of my growth as a theorist in sound and as a scholar in sound is trying to slow down and really take care to think about, why did I hear that that way? What does it mean that I have this reference? What does that mean about me as a referent? I’m participating in this listening, so understanding that in another context, another person might hear such a thing differently. And what would that mean if, perhaps in another context, a person heard it the same as I did? And what might that mean if another person in another context heard that the same as I did, and it moved them in a particular way that was familiar to me? And now I find myself moving in a familiar way with other people, perhaps that I don’t even recognize myself in union with, but moving in union and in chorus nonetheless.

And I think that’s what diasporic music is doing. I think it’s producing a body that can see itself, and feel itself, and hear itself, I think most importantly, as a collective. And it’s not a state project. It’s not a national identity. It’s not something that can be voted upon or claimed to be by some military. It actually just has to be built by these producers in their studios, trying to make beats, listening to what they hear on YouTube, downloading these sounds, sampling these sounds, trying to make a hit, trying to make a song that somebody else is going to listen to, and have a little bit of influence on how the culture grows.

Sizek: Well, great. That’s so– I think it’s so interesting, because it points to both the ways that there are these intended modes of producing music to try to create a community, as well as the ways that people take them up are never the ways that are entirely intended, even if they might resonate with those original ways. And so you have a couple more clips for us. And. I want to listen to them.

Grubbs: Awesome.

Sizek: So can you tell us a little bit about these two other pieces that we have, and what we might be able to learn from them?

Grubbs: Yes. So I have another example of how earlier influences, I guess, of these local artists– So the first one is Miss Jojo. I wanted to just make sure that we hear her, because I think too many times the Rwandan music scene is dominated by male artists, and the women don’t get nearly enough airtime, they don’t get nearly enough money. And I think we just in the culture– I think globally, we just don’t see women in these leading producer roles either. And so, she’s just a really important voice to see. So she was producing songs a little bit earlier than the folks we heard, 2007 to 2012. And we’ll listen to one of her songs.

Grubbs: I think you can hear a lot of the influences in her music from the– Even though she’s a solo artist, she’s pulling from these ’90s girl groups, like SWV. Like having your girls behind you, having these backing vocalists, which I think was something that the other artists weren’t really doing at that time like she was. So I really appreciate her for that reason. And also, she keeps that classic Afrobeat clave in the back to keep consistent with that ’50s, ’60s, ’70s rumba tradition. So it’s also part of a larger African legacy in that way.

I think the last song, by Mavenge Sudi, is a little bit older example. So I like that we’re kind of traveling back in time, but it shows a more traditional solo artist’s style. Maybe with this style would evolve from someone playing this single string umuduri to now a guitar.

Yeah. In that song, Mavenge Sudi is actually citing his teacher, who is a guitar player named Gaetan Kayitare. And he was killed in the Genocide in 1994, but he had played and shared a lot of his songs with Mavenge. And Mavenge keeps those songs as a living tradition by playing them and recording them.

And I think you can hear the African roots of the blues when he plays them. I think it’s a really sort of, lovely, stripped-down, kind of pure example of those sonic elements of Black diasporic sound, because you have just this very repetitive but moving backbeat, and then you have just the two chords being played over and over again, in a circle. And then you have this poetry on top of it.

And so, those are the things that stand out to me when I see that artists from the ’50s– songs like this– to the ’70s, to the early 2000s in Rwanda after the Genocide when the industry was able to rebuild itself, to what’s happening now 25 years later, is that consistency. And that’s what makes me think that they’re invested in this larger global project and less focused on producing music that is specifically or inherently Rwandan. So when you see music, for example, like Ntidukina, it stood out. It wasn’t that that was an expected thing for him to do necessarily, but that it was a very insightful thing for him to do nonetheless. Yeah.

Sizek: Yeah, well that brings us really full circle, all the way from the ’50s to 2017, and beyond. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Grubbs: No problem, thanks for having me.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.


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