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In Rwanda, a new sound blends rap beats with traditional music


Hip-hop is all about the beats and the flow. For two Rwandan artists, that flow sometimes comes in four languages...


PRO ZED: (Rapping in non-English language).

SUMMERS: ...French and English, Kinyarwanda and Swahili. This is kinyatrap.

PRO ZED: This is Zed, Pro Zed, Zedwinyamirambo, also known as Ngabonziza shema Darcin. I'm a music producer/rapper.


PRO ZED: (Rapping) Nothing but a cheat, guaranteed. (Rapping in non-English language). (Rapping) After one shot, two shot (rapping in non-English language).

OK, so I started around 2015. I was, like, 16 at the time. So I had to learn how to make beats, produce - started looking for tutorials on YouTube. So at the time, Kenny K-Shot, he came. He needed a producer. I needed an artist to work with.

KENNY K-SHOT: My name is Kenny K-Shot. I'm a rapper, songwriter. I was high influenced by American music - Eminem, Lil Wayne, Drake. Even when I was 8 or 9, I used to rap all of it. I didn't even fully understand English, but I used to rap it for my people. And I knew that I loved this genre that has beat and pump. You know, it makes me feel some way. Ever since I was a kid, until I understood what it was, I was like, oh, I can't call myself a rapper if I don't have my own bars.


KENNY K-SHOT: (Rapping) Yo, I started watching MTV in the beginning. Started loving rhymes and rhythm in the beginning. I had to learn the ABCs...

I didn't know any other producer who had the same vision as me - you know, who made the same kind of beats that I was making. 'Cause before that, I used to download beats - you know, tight beats - like, you go look Drake-type beat...


KENNY K-SHOT: ...Whatever, Lil Wayne-type beat, you know?


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Rapping) Insane beats.

KENNY K-SHOT: Because the producers here were more, like, not really on that level, on that...

SUMMERS: It wasn't the kind of music you wanted to make.

KENNY K-SHOT: Yes. And we had this vision of taking the random music on a whole nother level.

SUMMERS: They found fellow artists who shared their vision - more than a dozen, all unsigned. Then, during the early days of the pandemic...

PRO ZED: It was, like, 2020. We did this album called "Rwanda Rw'ejo." which means the future of Rwanda.


LOUD SOUND MUSIC: (Rapping in non-English language).

PRO ZED: It was easy for people to listen to our music 'cause everyone was at home. They didn't have anything to do. It blew up right away. We were all independent. It wasn't easy accepting new artists in the new - in the industry, in the Rwandan music industries.

SUMMERS: What made it difficult?

PRO ZED: There was still - it was like a monopoly, and they appointed people they wanted to do this kind of music they wanted.

SUMMERS: It was hard to break through. You had to know someone at a radio station or even be willing to pay for airtime.

PRO ZED: Even if you do it, they're going to play it, like, only once or twice. And after that, that will be done.


LOUD SOUND MUSIC: (Rapping in non-English language).

SUMMERS: Another challenge - their music sounded different. It wasn't like anything out there.

PRO ZED: We kind of, like, modernized it in a way. And we did these new kind of beats, new kind of sounds, and we talked about things that were not really being talked about in the society.

SUMMERS: Can you say more about that? You said you were talking about things that weren't talked about in society. Can you give us a couple of examples?

KENNY K-SHOT: We just said about how we feel, you know? We just expressed our feelings. 'Cause most of the songs that were mainstream were Afrobeats, and they were talking about love song, love song, love song, love song, love songs. So we just came up and we're like, you know, [expletive] everything. We coming for everyone - you know, talking about, like, things people could relate but never really spoke about. We just say things unapologetically.


LOUD SOUND MUSIC: (Rapping in non-English language).

SUMMERS: Rwandan rap music didn't really exist. People loved the American hip-hop sounds of the '90s. Pro Zed and Kenny K-Shot paired new beats with ancient songs.

PRO ZED: We don't want to have our own music to sound like others, you know? So we're trying to make it sound like Rwandan music, but using, like, ancient Rwandan music.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: It's elos (ph) on the track.

KENNY K-SHOT: Kenny here. So mixing the drill with the traditional music - sampling the traditional music in Rwanda with the slangs - and Rwandan slangs that people never heard before. You know?

SUMMERS: Can you give us some examples?

PRO ZED: Like, yahuzo (ph). There's this slang called yahuzo - yeah - which means, like, nah, I don't want this or something like that. Yeah.

KENNY K-SHOT: Get out of my way or, you know - but in this slang way - in another word that was not heard before.

PRO ZED: So this was like a collaboration of me and another producer. He actually made the beat, and I came up with the sample. So it started with the melody. I can play it for you guys and listen to it. This is how it goes.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: It's elos on the track.

PRO ZED: And after the melodies, there's a beat drop where the beat bounce.

SUMMERS: They sample an archival recording from western Rwanda.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Singing in non-English language).

PRO ZED: Sometimes we used to call a guy. He'd come with a traditional instrument and just say a traditional thing. Where - people in marriage, they call it speaking for cows. It's something like poetry for cows.

KENNY K-SHOT: For cows.

PRO ZED: You know, they're cows with the horns like this. That's why even the traditional dance women dance like this.

SUMMERS: So you're - and when you say, like this, you're raising your arms up, and it looks almost like the horns of a cow.

PRO ZED: It's a wedding, or it was like a ritual in a wedding, whatever. People used to sing for cows.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Singing in non-English language).

PRO ZED: So the sample - at first, it wasn't in the same key with the melody, so I had to change it, and that's how it sounds when it comes together.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Singing in non-English language).

PRO ZED: So that's like the intro of the beat. And then after that, that where the beat drop comes.


PRO ZED: (Rapping non-English language).

SUMMERS: Kenny K-Shot and Pro Zed are constantly innovating, pushing boundaries. The next boundary they hope to break is going international.

PRO ZED: First of all, the Rwandan music has to go outside the borders 'cause, right now, it's only in Rwanda. So I believe, in the future, like, Rwandan music will have, first of all, their own sound. And, like, Nigeria has Afrobeats. Like, South Africa has Amapiano. So we're trying to have our own sound. Maybe in the future we will have it. We will, actually. Yeah. We will.

KENNY K-SHOT: Yeah, yeah. So we are the big brothers of the new generation, the next generation, even the next, next generation. They're going to treat us like the Biggies in the '90s, and the Tupacs and stuff like that. Yeah.

SUMMERS: That's Kenny K-Shot and producer Pro Zed - two pioneering kinyatrap artists in Kigali, Rwanda.

Elsewhere on the program, we visit one of Africa's oldest national parks in the eastern part of the country.

He's staring at the car now. He's beautiful. I've never seen a leopard in real life before - just the coat, the way it walks. That's - I've never seen anything like that before.


PRO ZED: (Rapping in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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