Music Review: Why the Ijoro Project is Revolutionary
Photograph: Chris Schwagga
But even more than the myths- Ijoro brings up old and recent Rwandan icons- that illustrate the culture of Rwanda just as much as Imigani.
There has been a lot of talk, rightfully so, about the lyrical genius-ness of the artists on Ijoro but this review will be looking at the social symbolism and significance of the project. When I shared Ijoro, I called it revolutionary and here is why.
The project shows the importance of normalizing Rwandan slang. I think this is one of my favorite things about Ijoro. I am a big supporter of Afrikans producing art in their mother tongues. Ijoro itself pushes the audience to recognize everyone’s power in adding value to Kinyarwanda- not just any Kinyarwanda but the slang. Somehow, some people can tolerate music in Kinyarwanda but engage in respectability politics and force artists to code switch when it comes to slang. Ijoro is unapologetic in its use of hood politics or what we’d call Kinyarwanda slang. It is common that we participate in polishing up Kinyarwanda but the fact that Ijoro gives and creates the space for slang to exist and be celebrated is important. The matter of the fact is that just as pidgin is fundamental to the identity of a Nigerian, so is Kinyarwanda slang to a Rwandan. Ijoro attempts to bridge the generational gap that has been caused by respectability politics in Rwanda (at least for the younger Rwandan). It allows for co-existence to occur, to humanize slang, it adds value to it and encourages us to leave policing of language out of art.
Ijoro is the epitome of cultural memory. Like many Afrikan cultures, Rwanda kept ancestral wisdom and communal knowledge in the form of short mythical stories, called Imigani. Back in grade 3 when my high school used to still teach Kinyarwanda, my favorite time of the lesson was the Imigani section. However, I doubt if you asked my siblings who Ndabaga or Maguru is, they would know. I’m not even sure they know of the popular Ngunda! Like many things, unless they actively look for these stories, the culture of passing on Imigani is slowly dying just as the gap between older and younger generations is widening. Ijoro reminds us the significance of Imigani to Rwandan culture. Ijoro makes those who don’t know these characters curious. From Maguru, the gifted yet humble hunter to Bakame, the witty bunny stories of wisdom. In addition to this, why not put on the map the Mulan story that never made it to Disney, Ndabaga! After listening to Ijoro multiple times, I would want my siblings to hear it too because you really learn about the characters. These stories are as important as the people of Rwanda. The ancestors exist and speak through them; they send us apologies, encouragement and advice through Imigani.
But even more than the myths- Ijoro brings up old and recent Rwandan icons- that illustrate the culture of Rwanda just as much as Imigani. On various tracks, we are taken on a journey to discover some of the important names of the Rwandan Kingdom such as Rukara rwa Bishingwe, Cyilima II Rujugira and Kigeli II Nyamuheshera, among many. I don’t have to explain how radical it is for a young Rwandan to know this much lineage and later on lyrically play with it. I’m sure there are many of us who don’t know who Gihanga is. As a cultural narrator, one interested in identity liberation, this is one of my favorite things on the project.
On Jimmy Gatete, the song talks about Jimmy Gatete, the football player that stole most Rwandans’ hearts. Before any other sports were popular in Rwanda, football was part of the Rwandan culture itself. As the song plays, you can vividly remember (or visualize) the joyful noise of Rwandans at Stade Amahoro, the crazily exaggerating Sports narrator on the Radio Rwanda or passing by a bar full of loud, cheering Rwandans watching the match. To most, Gatete Jimmy was more than just a football player; he was a symbol of patriotism and a unifier. But this is not the only icon on the track. How many of y’all know who Mimi La Rose is? That’s homeboy from Orchestre Impala (who also get a shoutout on the track). Impala were popular in advancing Rwandan music globally. Igisope is also a big part of many Rwandans’ culture. It is one of the biggest influencers of today’s Rwandan pop music. Even more, Mimi La Rose (and the band) were revolutionary in the ways they challenged what it meant to be a man and pushed against gender expectations and roles.
It is important to highlight the implication of the project being introduced by Mellowviews and distributed on Kigalicious. Both platforms were started and continue to be run by young Rwandans. Ijoro, as a project by 3 young Rwandans is very intentional and straightforward about the Rwandan-filled project. The project could have been dropped on Soundcloud, the views wouldn’t be any different but you can tell that there is a deliberate desire- authentic to their identity- to support Rwandan driven platforms. It is revolutionary that they felt (conscious or not) the push to work within growing Rwandan platforms, particularly those dedicated to Rwandan art.
It is phenomenal having Rwandans working hard, developing their own ideas of art that incorporates who they are- and defending it. To see teamwork that goes into the production and distribution. It is provocative! It moves away from traditionally accepted Rwandan music and creates space for us to expand our creativity. Granted they are not the first or only artists to do this, it is phenomenal to see the pool growing. It encourages freethinking. It is important to allow young Rwandans’ art to exist outside RnB and succeed.