In Congo, hip-hop gives youth a political voice

by @katieolamb October 11, 2015 5:00AM ET

In the DRC, where war is waxing and free speech is waning, music is deadly serious business

Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Street Dance crew rehearses at Yole!Africa, a youth cultural center in Goma, a city in the violence ravaged eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Natalie Keyssar

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — On a rocky backstreet in this large eastern city, shirtless dancers fool around on a pockmarked concrete square — gyrating, jumping and periodically spinning on their heads as United Nations planes roar overhead.

Past the good pairs of high-top sneakers stowed under a shrub, another beat is pulsing hard. In a small, sweaty room a singer crouched atop a speaker is urging a crowd in backward caps bearing slogans like ‘DOPE’ and ‘USA’ to sing: “Yes, yes, tuko pamoja. Yes, yes, tuko pamoja … Everybody say: YES, YES, TUKO PAMOJA!!”

In Swahili the phrase connotes a deep sense of oneness, translating directly as “we are together,” but in a region wracked by decades of war the words don’t feel the least bit corny.

The devastating war in eastern Congo ended officially in 2003, but the legacy of that conflict continues to permeate. Today more than 30 different armed militias operate in remote parts of eastern Congo, where they randomly rape, pillage and hack people to death with machetes.

But within the barbed-wire confines of Yole!Africa, a youth cultural center in Goma, young Congolese are fighting to create a very different DRC. 

FARDC soldier and singer Pascal Paquebot chats with friends at Yole!Africa after a recording session. He thinks that fewer young men would join armed groups if they had more recourse to cultural centers and studios.
Natalie Keyssar

Through their songs, hip-hop artists at Yole call out the government's corruption and ineptitude while at monthly “baraza” sessions they sit down and dissect socio-political dynamics — such as what exactly President Joseph Kabila might be up to.

“For us, we feel that we are free to talk about sensitive things, that’s why we say that as soon as you join Yole you have joined another world,” Yole coordinator Ganza Buroko said. “When people are shut down we have to develop new strategies to rise up.”

This is the kind of talk that happens at Yole, and it's happening at a time when the freedom to speak out in Congo is shriveling up. As Kabila nears the end of his second term and a proposed 2016 election looms, undercurrents of political anxiety are winding through the country. The president is fueling much of the uncertainty himself by refusing to say whether he will step down when his term is up.

This January, after Kabila's government tried to tinker with the electoral laws in order to extend his rule, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and were met with a vicious crackdown. In  Kinshasa, the capital, 38 people were shot dead by authorities. In Goma, five people were killed.

This year at least five people have been forcibly disappeared in DRC, while pro-democracy activists and musicians with political leanings have been targeted, arrested and detained in what rights groups describe as a pre-election crackdown.

In March, a group of activists, foreign journalists and an American diplomat were arrested at the Eloko Makasi music studio in Kinshasa after gathering for the launch of Filimbi, a new youth movement designed to encourage political engagement.

A day before, musicians had recorded a song based on Filimbi’s themes — youth, democracy, and a transparent electoral process for 2016. Six months later, two of the activists who were arrested have yet to be released.

These incidents have reverberated hundreds of miles away in Goma, where the response to them continues to manifest through music and activism.

Hip hop artist Jobson "Jobs'' Katondolo, left in black jacket, jams with local hip hop artists at Yole!Africa. Memories of the war-torn years he knew as a child are what keep him going. "I have to hope that one day things will be better,'' he says, "that's why I'm writing my songs.''
Natalie Keyssar

Finishing up an afternoon jam session at Yole, Jobson “Jobs” Katondolo, a tall, somewhat gangly 27-year-old, says he's tired of a political system he sees as riddled with graft and hollow promises.

“When I look around at the situation, I feel bad that I don’t see any change,” says Katondolo. “Starting with politicians, it’s as if they don’t want things to change. If I start naming them all, I won’t have time.”

Raised in Goma close to the Rwandan border, Katondolo has seen crises unfold around him for as long as he can remember. First, at age seven, he watched thousands of Rwandan refugees flee the bloody genocide into his homeland, then known as Zaire.

Two years later, when he was nine, it was his turn to run. After Katondolo and his family were forcibly displaced from their home during the First Congo War in 1996, they spent days walking almost 300 kilometers along the dirt road from Goma to the northern city of Butembo. 

That war saw Zaire invaded by neighboring Rwanda, and Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko — famous for his cheetah cap — replaced by rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila. When Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son Joseph was appointed to rule to resource-rich African country under its former name, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The war that followed, the Second Congo War, left in its wake a generation of former child soldiers and a society traumatized by mass rape, senseless killing, and humanitarian crises. Involving the armies and militias of nine African nations, the war claimed the lives of five million people. Many died from treatable conditions such as malnutrition and malaria.

Memories of those war torn years, Katondolo says, is what keeps him going. “As a citizen, as someone that has been fighting for hope, I have to hope that one day things will be better,” he says, “That’s why I am writing my songs.”

Gentil Mulume, 22, learned the hard way that now is a dangerous time to speak out on politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Natalie Keyssar

The way things are now in Congo, it’s dangerous to be speaking out. Gentil Mulume, who carries a USB drive attached to a Manchester United ribbon around his neck, learned that the hard way.

Earlier this year, Gentil and other members of the Goma-based movement LUCHA (Lutte pour le Changement or Struggle For Change) decided to protest the Kinshasa arrests. They held up signs in the center of town and told passerby they didn't need to intimidated by political leaders. For that, Gentil was beaten by police and detained for 24 days.

“Taxi drivers, mamas, students, all different kinds of people were coming to listen to us,” he recalled at a secret meeting. “Because we don’t have freedom of speech in Goma.”

In recent months other LUCHA members in Goma have been targeted. In one incident, a 28-year-old member was assaulted on his way home. Forced into a car with a sack over his head, he was driven to an unknown location and led into an empty room, where his kidnappers abandoned him.

Another LUCHA member arrested at a demonstration was made to lie under a faucet while assailants poured water into his mouth and eyes for about 10 minutes to simulate the experience of drowning.

In June, Gentil was adamant there was little authorities could do to stop protesters from speaking out. “Even though we have been through a lot of problems,'' he said, "we still believe we are the only chance to change things here.”

But this September he and three other LUCHA members from Goma were convicted of "inciting public disobedience'' for protesting the Kinshasa arrests. They were sentenced to six months in prison and 12 months probation.

Yet as young Congolese fight for a voice, the electoral system is also stacked up against them. In the lead up to the proposed 2016 election, the government has yet to take any steps to enfranchise an estimated five million new voters who have turned 18 since the last election in 2011.

Katondolo says he knows this story all too well. Several years ago he wrote a song called “Mazao, Art on the Front Line.” “As a child of war, I live with the consequences,” read the lyrics, “always the same system that betrays the people. They rigged our elections and martyred our brothers.”

Yole coordinator Ganza Buroko says young people in Goma are thinking deeply about “whether it is time to act” as the situation in DRC heats up.

Ten years ago, four brothers in a refugee camp came up with the idea of starting a recording studio. After one of them won an American Idol-like competition, they used the winnings to set up the Maisha Soul studio in Goma.
Natalie Keyssar
Dube David, aka "Double-D," one of the artists who records at Maisha Soul. He raps in Swahili, French, English and Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.
Natalie Keyssar

Across town at Maisha Soul, a recording studio set up by four brothers — Eric, Innocent, Prince and Achilles — there is a similarly revolutionary vibe.

The studio was conceived while the brothers were in a refugee camp. When Innocent won the local equivalent of  “American Idol” more than 10 years ago, they used the winnings to set up their dream. Today, the studio attracts characters such as Dube David, who refers to himself half-jokingly as Double D.

The 22-year-old rapper, slickly dressed in a polo shirt, gold chain and sunglasses, is fresh back from a year of study in Uganda and has been busy penning songs in Swahili, French, English and Rwanda's official language Kinyarwanda so his messages can “go all over Africa.”

“Artists are also political here,” explains Double D. “A lot of people are singing about politics, like 'don’t put children in the army.' That type of thing is still happening here. Not just in my village, all over.”

When rebels kidnapped several of his young relatives on their way to school, Double D felt compelled to rap about it. “When they take little children and put them in the army they die for free,” he says. “When you see that it makes you cry.”

The last time a rebel group took over Goma was in 2012, when the Rwandan-backed, Kalashnikov-bearing M23 marched in and took over with almost no resistance. A regionally brokered peace agreement soon put an end to that, and former M23 commander Bosco Ntaganda is now on trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Still, a complicated constellation of militias continue to operate in remote areas.

In late June, Double D was preparing to give a free concert with his band, the Real Fight Band, in the northeastern city of Beni. Last year, rebels there hacked more than 250 people to death with axes and machetes. “I’m going to invite all the people of Beni to hear my message,” he said, before stepping into the studio to have a meeting with a DJ.

MONUSCO soldiers patrol outside Goma. The United Nations has one of its largest peacekeeping missions in the eastern part of the DRC.
Natalie Keyssar

Since M23 withdrew from Goma, life has been relatively peaceful in the city, excepting a handful of incidents: fights, ATM hold-ups, the occasional night shooting or drunk officer throwing a grenade, and a June attack on the airport that left at least seven people dead.

The United Nations has one of its largest peacekeeping missions in the world in eastern DRC (known by its French acronym, MONUSCO). Armored vehicles and UN patrol troops in their sky-blue helmets are a fixture in Goma’s militarized landscape. Yet around town there is an underlying sense of flammability, a feeling amplified in rural areas, that war could erupt at any time.

Selling sugar cane at the market in Kibumba, some 25 kilometers north of Goma, Heshima Elizabeth laughs when asked about the security situation in the village. “What security?” she asks, “There is no security here because people are seriously dying. People are entering our houses at night and killing us.”

The town is reached by a dirt road that hugs the Rwandan border and has in the past been subject to regular ambushes. 

Jalouis Karobanuto, 45, with his daughter in his fields in Kibumba. Since 1996, he has been forcibly moved from his home nine times. A mass grave with 38 of his relatives is about a kilometer away.
Natalie Keyssar
Karubanuto points at a hole in his roof that he says is from recent shelling. Peace, he says, is fluid at best.
Natalie Keyssar

Walking between rows of cabbages and potatoes, farmer Jalouis Karobanuto, 45, says peace is fluid at best.

The army has successfully pushed back M23, but security has deteriorated since the units moved in.

“We have some worries about the new units here. The commandos have started disturbing people, asking people for money, looting, stealing cows and we fear this may deteriorate,” he says.

While considered less brutal than rebel groups, the Congolese army are well known for perpetrating violence against civilians, and their presence is no guarantee that rebels won’t infiltrate.

Earlier this year unidentified rebels abducted two UN staffers and three residents from Kibumba, including Karobanuto’s brother-in-law. The UN, he says, ended up paying more than $10,000 to a Rwandan bank account to secure their return.

As Karobanuto weaves through the vegetable beds a group of children alongside him place leafy branches around the base of a tree. They are mimicking what they have seen their parents do, he says — making mock refugee shelters.

Since 1996, Karobanuto has been forcibly displaced from his home nine times. One wall inside his house remains riddled with bullet holes, and 38 of his relatives are buried in a mass grave a kilometer from where he lives. They were killed by Rwandan Tutsis who had crossed the border to seek vengeance on the Hutus who had killed about 800,00 Tutsis.

More than two million Hutus fled to the Congo and ended up in refugee camps like the one near Karobanuto’s house in Kibumba.

Life is tough in the village and aside from soccer, there is little fun to be had. Farmer Bisimwa Elie, 27, says unlike in Goma there isn’t even money to celebrate birthdays.

Pasqual Paquebot turns up for a jam in full army fatigues and a forest green beret.
Natalie Keyssar

“Goma youth are supported by their parents to organize feasts and so on but here … Here there are many things to buy and sell so we are just thinking about how to get $50 to buy a goat and then to sell it,” he says.

Returning to Yole is like stepping into a different world. Instead of tending to their crops, hip young Congolese are hard at work organizing the upcoming Salaam Kivu International Film Festival. Each year the 10-day event brings together artists, dancers and activists from around the world who lobby for social change through critical creativity.

Pascal Paquebot, a round-faced commando and musician who turns up for a jam in full army fatigues, says there needs to be more places like Yole in eastern Congo. “I think young people would stop joining armed groups if they had more things to do,” he says. 

On most afternoons in Goma, the city buzzes with basketball and soccer matches, gospel choir practice or boxing training. At Yole, while dancers bust their moves out front, Katondolo can often be found in the editing suite working on his latest rap.

“People fear a lot for me,” he says, taking a quick break. “[They worry] that maybe I will be attacked one day because I’m singing about very sensitive themes.”

Perhaps Katondolo is blasé about being a revolutionary, or perhaps he's just a quiet pragmatist shaped by a society riven by the vicissitudes of trauma. Either way, to him there is no other option but to keep speaking truth to power, even as stories emerge of people being arrested and tortured for doing the same.

“I expect everything, anything can happen even if you don’t talk,” he says quietly. “If death has to find you, it will find you wherever you are.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation.