The Rise of Rwanda's Kinyatrap

Green Ferry Artists AntikDust at a Kinyatrap show Photo: MF and Eazy Cut/ Supplied)
Green Ferry Artists AntikDust at a Kinyatrap show Photo: MF and Eazy Cut/ Supplied)

On the first day of the new decade in Kigali, Rwanda, the streets are lit. In Nyarutarama, a normally serene suburb, an after party that started at sunrise pumps past sunset, hundreds of revelers spilling noise into the warm night. Across the hill in the party district of Remera, it’s business as usual: only the scattered crowd idling outside Kigali Arena don’t seem to be in the mood, ticketless and filled with fomo for the East African Party concert that’s happening inside. “Bushali sold out the EAP”, they lament on Twitter.

The most anticipated act at this concert, Bushali, is a pioneer, prodigy and poster child of kinyatrap, the maverick musical wave sweeping Rwanda. With a seamless lyrical flow whose cadence is reminiscent of kwivuga — the spoken word performed at weddings and other ceremonies — kinyatrap melds poetic tradition with unpredictable melodies and stirring beats, creating a distinctly Rwandan reimagination of trap music.

Bushali at the New Year Concert (Photo: MF and Eaz

(Photo credit: MF and Eazy Cut)

Its recent ascents has been shepherded by local indie label, Green Ferry Music. When Green Ferry’s founder Dr. Nganji created a trap-inspired beat in 2016 and Bushali freestyled some lyrics over it, they’d instinctively caught onto the potential in this serendipitous sound. Kinyarwanda being the national language, they dubbed it kinyatrap. “We wanted it to be that genre that everyone can join. Traditional music of Rwanda but with new technology", explains Nganji, a self-taught music producer since the age of sixteen.

After high school, he studied towards a computer science degree, but soon dropped out to pursue music production full-time. In the seven years since, Green Ferry has become one of the most influential music entities in Rwanda. Kinyatrap played a significant role in this, amassing a diverse multitude of stans, including a church pastor who recently thrilled his congregation by belting out a Bushali hit from the pulpit. 

"A really good fanbase is the thing we wanted, even before our music blows up on radio," says Nganji. Green Ferry’s decision to ignore the pressure to churn out hits and instead prioritize experimentation — “we never want to do the same as we did last time,” he stresses—is paying off. Their commitment to pushing boundaries, also conveyed through artists’ unconventional styling by Green Ferry’s fashion house, enhances Kinyatrap’s magnetism. Devoted fans offer monetary and in-kind donations to the label, and consistently turn up in large numbers for live shows. 

The concert on New Year’s Day is no exception. Bushali, tucked in the middle of seven artists, is set to steal the show. Following an interlude several hours into the event, the stage goes dark for a few seconds.  Clamor ignites as clips of the news headlines that surrounded Bushali’s recent arrest flash across a digital backdrop, peppered with screenshots of fans tweeting their support. Thirteen men stroll onto the stage, their faces concealed by ski masks and bandannas. 

As anticipation crescendos, one of the men starts rapping. He is still wearing a luminous orange mask — along with flared snakeskin pants and a tasseled leather jacket — but his gravelly, fast-paced flow is unmistakable. The crowd goes wild. Bushali is in the building. So is Slum Drip, a Green Ferry labelmate with whom he made one of the biggest kinyatrap hits to date, Nituebue. The hall vibrates as thousands join in the song’s call-and-response: "Nimuebue...Nituebe?"/"Is it you...Is it us?"

LISTEN: to Nituebue here

Solidarity is the message, a common motif in kinyatrap, and of particular significance in the context of a country where historical divisions fueled a genocide against the minority Tutsi population in 1994. While infrastructure, social services and economic growth are the typical focus of reconstruction, Nganji believes that music is also a priority. "Music changes people, their feelings," he says, soft-spoken but ardent. "Especially here, you know the history of Rwanda, if you can make something that can unite people, it’s really good. Even after the show you see people, they don’t want to go. They want to be together."

There is a collective, uninhibited exuberance at the concert: Bushali jumping onto the shoulders of willing audience members, fans flinging clothes at the stage. "I’ve seen videos of people [at kinyatrap shows] literally breaking barriers because they’re mosh pitting," says Tria Nkuruh aka Mucyo, a neo-soul artist who left a microbiology career to immerse herself in Kigali’s burgeoning indie music scene. “I’m guessing people mosh pit everywhere, but…to see it in Rwanda? I was shook." Mucyo, who recently collaborated with Bushali, views the intensity of audience responses as a reflection of the energy that he brings to his music: "very raw, very real."

His song Niyibizi, meaning "God knows", is a ballad of resistance against inertia and the crippling illusion of futility. In its music video, the shimmering eyes of an elderly woman pierce through the camera as she plays guitar, interwoven with visuals of Bushali hanging from a noose. Haunting melodies paint his resolve to do something remarkable with his life, and the self-loathing that comes from neglecting your purpose and potential. “He’s a poet,” Mucyo says, "speaking some truths... A lot of people can relate."

WATCH THE VIDEO FOR SONG HERE

In 2019, she tagged Bushali on Twitter when a mutual fan suggested a collaboration. A week later they were in studio creating the silky-smooth track Supa, which was recorded in one sitting. "He did not write a single thing down," Mucyo recalls. "He’s twisting his dreads, thinking of the lyrics, you see him saying it out to himself multiple times, then he jumps in the booth and lays it down, one take, done, out of the booth. He’s a genius… It really looks and feels effortless. He doesn’t force it."

LISTEN TO THAT SONG HERE:


This artful balance, of stretching your limits but never forcing it, is key to Green Ferry’s creative process. Nganji, an artist himself with two albums to his name, also does production for all of the label’s artists. He urges them to work with the conviction that excellence is unlocked through authenticity: "You don’t have to be shy, show us yourself, what you have, always show it. Bring your best." That approach is not lost on fans, and has fueled kinyatrap’s evolution into a thriving subculture that is beginning to dominate the mainstream. "Bushali is a legend already," Mucyo says. "He’s unapologetic, and I think it’s important for youngins to see that, to see someone not asking for permission to exist…The love he gets, it’s big."

But love doesn’t always pay the bills. According to Nganji, highly-paid local performers can make around two million Rwandan francs ($2 100) from a live show, a small fraction of what is paid to some of the international acts for whom they open. Artists cannot rely on royalties either, which are not paid out consistently. Green Ferry’s revenue is now largely sourced from online streams and downloads, and they have developed a large pipeline of as-yet-unreleased content to keep this lucrative market engaged.

"It was planned," says Nganji when describing Green Ferry’s key achievements: a reminder that while creativity is the engine of their success, business strategy is the driver. Without a background of privilege to draw on, this strategy often requires them to sacrifice immediate interests in the service of long-term gains. For example, in order to sustain their preference for artistic innovation over quick sales, they moved two floors up from a large office to a room on the roof—which is just big enough for one desk, a few chairs, and a payphone-sized recording booth. Out of this compact space, nineteen albums have emerged: including seven in 2019, and two so far in 2020. 

"We don’t want to do one or two years, we want twenty years in the game," says Nganji. "Twenty years and you know that for your kids, you have done something to help them grow." The kids are already taking note, and this knowledge energizes him. "The young generation have that confidence that those guys, they did it, so now even us we can make it,” he says, face lighting up as he recounts the enthusiastic kinyatrap renditions that young fans post online. "I like it. I say even if I die, there is something we have done."