The poet Eric 1Key has described it as ‘Rwandan folklores re-imagined’ and the feminist/panafricanist/poet Amata Giramata has called it ‘revolutionary’. In this they have not been far from accurate, the Ijoro Project, a collaborative effort of producer Yannick MYK, MC R.Phantom and Sogokuru, is uniquely creative stylistically and in terms of subject matter. Hiphop rap has for many decades been a form of expression through which many a society channel their rage, joy and feelings of pride. It has evolved significantly since what might have birthed the rap movement, Gil Scott’s ‘The Revolution will not be televised’. It has been tainted by consumerism, sexism and under-representation, but for all its faults, it does remain one of the most important musical genres because of its simplicity, the room it allows for creativity and how seamlessly it mixes with other musical genres. The Ijoro Project is a reminder of the basic principles of rap: relevance, contextual uniqueness, and lyrical magic.

The whole project has been tailor-made to fit Rwanda’s myths, legends and the mundane shared interests of the Rwandan society while maintaining the cool, unapologetic attitude of rap. Each song triggers a sense of nostalgia for any Rwandan born before and during the 90s and makes references that evoke familiarity in the listener’s mind like the immediate wave of emotion that hits you when you stare at the album cover which plays on the image on the cover of most notebooks in Rwandan primary schools. This pattern repeats itself through out the EP, with striking imagery accompanying title tracks like ‘Mucoma’, ‘Bakame’, ‘Ndabaga’.

To echo Giramata’s thoughts on this EP, the artists have really done a good job incorporating Rwandan slang into the lyrics, something that makes it all the more relevant to the times. I wanted to learn more about the process which went into making this EP and so I had a conversation with Sogokuru, Remy and Yannick to find out more.

First of all, thank you for taking your time to speak to me about the Ijoro EP. I want to start this off by asking you about what you feel was the general reception.

Remy : To be honest it took me off guard. When Yannick and I had discussed the concept of incorporating new age Hip Hop style into making songs in Kinyarwanda, we figured it would create a buzz but it has been more than that; we have received support and recognition from other artists and peers as well. Further more it wasn’t received as just ‘hype hip hop you can dab to’ music but also as art.

Sogokuru: It’s funny because I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of surprised reactions. Like “bro I didn’t think the project would be THIS cool!! Y’all blew my mind” I mean thanks , it’s cool but y’all always think it’s a game at first you know. It says a lot on how much credibility is given by Rwandan people to Rwandan emerging artists. Like people are usually so ready to support Drake or Rihanna but are not trying to invest a second in upcoming local artists.

Tell me about why you decided to work on this project and how the idea came about

Sogokuru: I don’t feel like the idea of working on the project came about in some kind of eureka moment, I feel like it happened step by step . Of course we had this common mentality of wanting to bring something new and fresh to the Rwandan hip hop scene. And as days passed by, I would be more and more convinced by that because Yannick was sending me crazy beats and uploading mad tingz on his soundcloud. 2016 He sent me Maguru and Ndabaga too, then I could see the direction he was taking. I proposed to put maguru on the mixtape I was releasing that year in order to introduce him to my audience, and it went well. A year later we had everything set, we discussed ways to release it and in no time people were bumping to it almost everywhere.

Remy: I was sitting in a bedroom with my brother and I said to him; I don’t understand why Rwandan music seems so stagnant and repetitive, it would be so creative to take this new age hip hop sound that has everyone excited and use it to make songs that would make people go crazy. To which my brother replied saying he had thought about it as well. Months later he made Maguru and then he made Ndabaga, he sent me both songs and I genuinely loved them but Ndabaga had only one verse, I suggested I add a verse. At the time we were living together New York. We had discussed making a whole project of songs like that but never did it, months later I moved to New Jersey on my own and when we met up I spoke to him about the idea again and it was then the he told me he had already been working on a couple songs, so I told him to send them to me. After I heard them, I wrote my verses in one and the next week we met up in New York and I recorded my verses.

Ijoro has managed to familiarize old Rwandan folklores in an unprecedented way. By combining rap and the folklore narratives, you’ve been able to attract interest of millenials and anyone who didn’t know about these stories. Would you say that the Rwandan culture/history is rich enough to inspire more projects like this?

Remy: Rwandan culture is rich enough to inspire millions of projects like this and all artists in Rwanda and around the world. When yannick came up with the idea to use imigani for the lyrics, it was simply because that’s what he drew inspiration from, it was really not planned that people would gravitate towards it or find it that amazing to incorporate our culture into the lyrical content.

Sogokuru: The Rwandan culture is so rich it’s overwhelming, you only realize that when you decide to tap into it. Due to Rwanda’s complicated history, a lot of Rwandans have been viewing our culture as something uncool that doesn’t hold so much weight on the international level. It ended with a lot of rappers and artists wanting to simply emulate the west which compromised a lot of their authenticity making them less relatable to people around them…But I personally think the Rwandan culture has a lot of cool things to fuel artistic projects. It’s just sometimes you need someone to kind off blow the dust of the books and present it how people want to see it.

What are your strongest musicalinfluences and how did they pour into this project?

Sogokuru: I draw musical inspiration from so many artists that I cannot precisely define who influences me the most. Nowadays the music we make incorporates so many elements from so many worlds, I could wake up feeling like James Brown and go to bed feeling like Celine Dion. The music I end up putting out there is music that I want to resonate with people like me. Always hoping to paint a picture of us. And that’s exactly what Ijoro is to me. A nice family picture with baby Trapagassa , father Folklore and mother Street all posing for Yannick, Remy And I.

Remy: American Hip Hop is the main influence, personally I keep up more with the American Hip Hop scene and UK Hip Hop scene more than the Rwandan Hip Hop scene. It’s a bit of a shame to admit this but no Rwandan Hip Hop artist has excited me in the last 4 years.

Yannick: My biggest inspiration is Papa Wemba (R.I.P).

I understand that you worked on this project together despite being apart geographically. Describe to me how that worked out?

Remy: My brother sent me the records on Whatsapp, I wrote the verse and we met up and I recorded. As far as Sogokuru, it’s all done through email, he recorded himself sent his acapella track and a reference track and then Yannick put it together.

Sogokuru: I remember back in the days like in 2013-2014, Remy and Yannick would send me beats because they were more into producing at that time, and I was into recording and performing, I was always trying to communicate the kind of instrumental I was into, sometimes resulting in them catching my vision - like this one time they sent this crazy instrumental that turned into a record, and I had to get a new stage name after that etc (sogokuru). We sure are apart geographically but there is always been some kind of interesting symbiosis in terms of musical choices etc.

The Ijoro Project is available for streaming exclusively on the Rwandan music & blogging platform ‘Kigalicious’, how important is it to have this music on there as opposed to the usual music platforms such as Soundcloud and iTunes?

Sogokuru: Last year in May, I released a mixtape that I called Kanura, which was a compilation of songs that I made with the main objective being to inspire my peers and other young Rwandan artists to engage into making art and other things to express themselves more. The platform Kigalicious was already there, showcasing the activities of other young Rwandans, but in my opinion didn’t receive as much traffic as I thought itdeserved. In collaboration with the founder of the website and a designer, who happen to be my homies, we started a sort of flash marketing campaign to attract people on the website and at the same time on the music that I had just released. It allowed us to target a certain audience and there was more views on the songs than there would have been on soundcloud. That contributed to the website gaining more credibility and traffic and later on, it allowed for example the creation of an online boutique which was used to sell the creations of the designer.

Remy: It makes it much harder for people to fake. When you go on the website the project is right in front of your eyes and there is no way around it and nowhere else to find it, this brought a focus on it but also created a sense of belonging to the Rwandans. Soundcloud and iTunes compile many songs from many parts of the world, Kigalicious is about Kigali and about Rwanda.

‘Gatete Jimmy’ is the only track that features the three of you. Tell me about some of Gatete’s moments that you feel are unforgettable and why you chose to immortalize him with this song.

Remy: My whole family is made up of football players. My uncles all played semi-professionally and as I said on the track my father himself was a striker. Yannick and I started playing football around the age of four. We came to know Gatete Jimmy during a time when Rwandan football was the main attraction in the country and my father would bring us to league games and national team games and this man Gatete was scoring non stop. And I remember just feeling this overwhelming joy every time he thrived on the field.

Sogokuru: Gatete Jimmy was like a young god bro, the hype he created was transcending everything. I remember people referring to him in slang whenever they wanted to talk about being slick in this or that; all the kids and myself would look up to him you know, like a model of excellence – not all of us wanted to become football players.

What can we expect from you in the near future? Any luck we’ll be seeing a debut album from any of you?

Remy: I don’t mean to disappoint but we have nothing planned as far as an album, the way we go about music for Yannick and I at least is by inspiration. We don’t plan, things kind of just fall into place, whenever I have an idea or he has one we discuss it or we just record and send it to each other. I can’t speak for Sogokuru because I’m sure he has been working hard on his music but for Yannick and myself, things usually just happen. All I can say is that it won’t be the last you hear of us.

Sogokuru: Yeah I’m working on a project and if all goes well, it will be my debut album - I want to collaborate with as many Rwandan artists on it so that if it turns out to be successful, we can celebrate together. People don’t really believe in that anymore but I’m sure we can find a way. We’ve been studying ways to make it happen. I mean I even had to go to a marketing school to understand a few concepts better. Therefore to the artists out there holla at me if you are interested in being a part of it, my email is sogokuru@kigalicious.com

Yannick, Remy, Sogokuru, thank you very much for speaking to Mellowviews.

Mutsinzi is a writer for Mellowviews and software developer.