‘The way we are speechless doesn’t mean our heads are empty’ - an analysis of Rwandan hip-hop and its ambivalences as a youth cultural expression tool in Kigali
Anthropologists have frequently used music in general and popular music in particular as a means to gain a perspective into everyday realities of young Africans lives. Attempting to place myself amongst this range of researchers, I use the position of Rwandan hip-hop as a point of departure to examine how young men in Kigali relate to and shape their realities in terms of politics, freedom of expression, and the creation of space and opportunities in the Rwandan society.
My study is based on two and a half months of fieldwork in Kigali during the period between August and October of 2013. The empirical material upon which my arguments rely consists of interviews with young hip-hop Rwandans located in Kigali, who were almost exclusively male. It is also drawn from classical anthropological methods of participant observations and daily partaking in the lives of my informants. My analytical understanding of this material is mainly based upon notions of agency and structure, and contextualized within contemporary Africanist scholars’ research on modern music and youth.
By looking at the historical context of Rwanda, the current state of youth in Kigali, and the contemporary atmosphere of politics and hip-hop music, I seek to understand the contradictive role of music as an arena for youth to express themselves. Through the stories of young hip-hop men, I describe and communicate their perceptions of constrains related to historical and socio-political sensitivities, feelings of fear connected to outspokenness, and alternative means to voice their opinions.
I illustrate how these young men use innovative strategies and metaphorical language as a way to negotiate with some of these constrains as well as to influence each other and embody senses of oppositional opinions and collective empowerment. I also examine how national politics and governmental initiatives have increasingly become intertwined with the music and how it is trying to take advantage of its attractiveness as a youth medium.
Ultimately, I discuss how the impact of Rwandan hip-hop can be seen as double-ended, serving the interests of both governmental policies and the youth who in different ways are trying to liberate themselves from political constrains, and how this affect the empowering potential of the music.
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