Yo 'Iss RY. A conversation with Ryan Gakuba.

by Mutsinzi | Oct 2, 2017

We met at Brioche(Gaculiro, 5pm). Much of what I knew about RY before then was based on on-line data. Bits and bytes of information that came in the form of 140-character tweets, and the music on his SoundCloud channel. Of particular interest to me was his second single ‘Lately’ that featured the brilliant singer Gisa. It was a moody and melodic rendition of bars and vocals on a smooth hip-hop beat. RY’s verses are a fluid tidal mesh of emotion that flawlessly flow. They’re mature, dark and candidly expressed.

RY spoke to me about production, his creative process and his musical influences. From this, I discerned in him a sheer energy to create. RY mentioned the crucial role that mental health plays in his music and the need to create music that addressed the issue. “There’s got to be a balance in the music we listen to.” Observing that Hiphop music was often insensitively created, RY said “Most rappers, despite going through periods of depression, don’t want to talk about it because it’s not cool. But I don’t care!”

At 18, RY shows a firm grasp on human emotion. How listeners interpret his work is of great interest to him. “If I write a verse and you listen to it, it’s not my verse anymore, it’s yours now.” Ryan recognizes the mirror effect that music can have on listeners. His focus on mental health is aimed at portraying depression as an illness that should be talked about and not stigmatized. In his book “Shadowlands”, William Nicholson captures the mirror effect of art concisely in the words “We read to know we’re not alone.” And this is what RY has set out to do with his music, to remind his listeners that they’re not alone.

Production in Kigali can be frustrating. Music producers driven more by the need to make money than creative endeavors, do not understand artists’ visions. This is what led RY to taking matters in his own hands. “I bought a mic that I installed in my room. I record my verses, do a bit of mixing, and send the result to a friend to do the final mixing.” RY and a group of his friends are essentially running a remote DIY operation. Beats are sent over email and thoughts on the music shared via text and phone conversations. It is not the perfect setup but it works well in their context. It is a sign of the quiet seriousness in RY. “Producers here are not serious. I would have to tell them how to do their jobs and that’s how I knew something was wrong.”

There’s a curtain of mystery behind the creative process and it can often be thought that creativity is a result of some lucky visit from a muse who whispers genius into the artist’s ear. It’s plausible but rare and misleading. The creative process is to put it plainly: a lot of work! RY’s creative ritual reflects this clearly. “I go to my room, lock myself in and search for beats on YouTube. It takes time to find the perfect beat and even more time to find the right words. It can take a couple of minutes sometimes—or hours on some days.” RY stressed the need to be sober while he’s writing. “When I’m writing, it’s got to be me who’s writing!” Ryan’s process is disciplined and focused and it is a model that works, perhaps even worth emulating.

For an artist like RY, there should be ample recognition of his music, his sound, and that of those like him. However, there is a lot that’s stacked up against such exposure, contextually speaking. Language can often be a barrier to consumption of music and art. In Rwanda, popular local music is often in Kinyarwanda and this can quiet down a lot of talented artists producing their work in English and French. And then there’s the inadequate and inefficient platforms that curate local music. There seems to be a narrow-minded approach to curation which limits talent discovery. But perhaps this is the wrong way to approach this problem. RY thinks that music is a universal language and even though it is a factor in attracting local audience, it is not the only one. “It’s true that language can determine the size of your audience but music is a universal language. And I’m not just targeting Rwanda, I have my sight set beyond borders.”

There is some truth to Ryan’s argument. Based on the number of plays on his SoundCloud channel that rise almost exponentially on a weekly basis, there might be another way to create exposure for artists. Streaming platforms are already doing this with enough decency and all hope is not lost. Still, there’s got to be more effort put into creating exposure for artists locally. We wouldn’t want a case where Rwandan artists are appreciated more beyond borders than at home. Imagine Cesaria Evora without the love from her petit pays Cape Verde. It is almost inconceivable. Ryan remains hopeful and his hope lies mainly in the young audience. “Our generation is making moves. Things are changing.”

My conversation with Ryan lasted for about an hour and a half. It was cut short by night time which came too soon and we had to part ways. I knew that later that night, Ryan would lock himself in his room, play a beat, and start rhyming. Perhaps it would be at 2:50am — the title of his upcoming project.