KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Music in eastern DRC is changing its tune.
Muyisa Nzanzu Makasi, a 29-year-old rapper with a penchant for performing shirtless, chest laden with chains, grew up in the city of Butembo, in eastern North Kivu province. A decade ago, armed groups killed his father — a life-altering event that influences his music today. “I don’t sing to avenge my father’s blood,” Makasi says. “I just don’t understand why other people are still dying — what have we done?”
In recent years, as violence in eastern DRC continues to escalate, local music has become overtly political, with young musicians like Makasi, born and raised in unrelenting conflict, calling upon the Congolese government to restore peace, armed groups to lay down weapons, and civilians to refrain from collaborating with insurgents. This political turn is not without its risks: In December 2021, for instance, Makasi was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly insulting the head of state in a song titled “Pas de Président,” or “Without a President.”
“In this song, I demonstrate that there is no president in DRC,” he says. “Day and night, people are killed and abducted; their houses and vehicles are burned. In short, we are living in a nightmare. If he was really here, these things wouldn’t happen.”
A military court acquitted Makasi on appeal in May 2022, after he had served 10 months in jail, but fellow musician Delphin Katembo, who performs under the alias Idengo, remains in prison, sentenced to five years for allegedly insulting the head of state and demoralizing the army.
“He was only telling the truth,” Makasi says.
The regional spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo did not respond to requests for comment.
Music in the region is disseminated through local radio stations and public payphones, which serve as private listening booths and offer the option to transfer music to a cellphone. In early November 2021, according to Amnesty International, a nongovernmental human rights organization based in the United Kingdom, DRC’s National Censorship Commission, which regulates content for popular consumption, banned the broadcasting of seven songs critical of the government. (It lifted the ban on one of these songs, “Nini To SaliTe” — Lingala for “What Have We Not Done” — the next day following public outcry.)
Amnesty International criticized the ban, calling on the government to revoke a 1996 decree on content regulation, which allows the state to review any song before its release or performance and fine artists up to $500 per song. The commission did not respond to requests for comment.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Samuel Muhindo Ngoyamwaka, 25, is undeterred. A reggae artist who lives in the village of Kirumba and performs under the alias Ngoyam’S, he considers himself a voice for the voiceless. Recently, he produced “Amani Twatamani” (“We Want Peace”), in which he laments the ever-increasing insecurity in his homeland.
“I am telling authorities, ‘Enough is enough,’” he says.
Congolese authorities aren’t the only ones taking umbrage. Amos Mumbere Muembwa, 34, a musician from Walikale territory, recently relocated to Kirumba after threats from armed groups.
“In 2021, I was detained by an armed group after I sang about two armed groups still fighting in Walikale territory,” he says. “You, my young brothers, your place is in school, not in armed groups,” he sings. “Let’s build our territory together.”
“I showed them that they are the same and that they stop hostilities,” he says. “Since then, I have been receiving death threats because of which my freedom to sing is already restricted.”
Some musicians have expressed surprise at the outsized response from authorities and armed groups. “All I ask in my songs is that they stop attacking our country, that we have peace,” says Ringo Kasereka Musondibwa, 32, head of a popular rumba band in Lubero territory. “In this regard, the government has its share of responsibility, and so does the population. That’s what I’m trying to say in my songs.”
Among citizens, the response to these songs is largely positive. “These musicians have become our spokespersons,” says Kahumba Taheruka, 41, a Kirumba resident. “We need to stop threatening them. They sing out loud what we are whispering.”
Kasereka Muhingi, a musician and director of Centre Musical de la Communauté Baptiste au Centre de l’Afrique, a church-affiliated musical center, echoes this sentiment — with a caveat. “Music is able to transform a man’s entire life. As things are repeated in a song, people start to take ownership of it and are finally able to act,” he says, appealing, however, for less inflammatory language. “Some musicians are going too far both in terms of ideas and language. They have to be reasonable and polite.”
Benjamin Kasereka Mulavi, deputy mayor of Kirumba, acknowledges the importance of political music. “These musicians are like pressure groups that wake us up,” he says. “They call on us to do what we must do — that is, protect the population and its property. But they must avoid profane songs.” One example of lyrics that the state might find threatening, Muhingi says, is the proclamation that authorities are “thugs.”
Makasi now lives in neighboring Uganda, where he works as a taxi driver. Despite his ordeal in prison — where he says he was put in solitary confinement for more than 20 days, then tortured by authorities and other prisoners, who forced him to clean the toilet with his bare hands — he continues to produce music, making do with limited instruments and a chorus comprising people of all ages, including children and the elderly.
“My mother and others are telling me to stop,” he says. “But I will continue as long as the situation remains unchanged, even if it may cost me my life.” He sees singing for peace as his life’s work: “I pass on messages to the government to eradicate insecurity, but I am also making people aware of what is happening,” he says. “Because liberation is through the population.”