Over the past three years or so, I’ve been conducting research on the controversial Rwandan musician, Simon Bikindi. By the early 1990s, Bikindi was arguably the most popular musician in Rwanda. He was known for composing songs about love, marriage, family, and the beauty of Rwanda, developing an original style of music that fused elements of popular music from neighboring Congo with those of more traditional Rwandan music. In the early 1980s, Bikindi took the helm of the junior section of the National Ballet before venturing out on his own and forming his own private troupe, Irindiro ballet. Irindiro soon became the supreme musical force in Rwanda, winning several major competitions, touring throughout Africa and Europe, and rocketing Bikindi to national stardom. To this day, as I’ve discovered over and over again in my field research, his music continues to elicit a great deal of excitement and awe from Rwandan listeners, and many still consider him a genius.
After the RPF invasion of October 1990, Bikindi’s songs began to take on a more overtly political tone. When the explicitly anti-Tutsi/pro-genocide radio station, RTLM, went on the air in July 1993, the announcers flooded listeners with these new songs, deploying them in a propaganda campaign intended to cultivate fear, anger, hatred, and violence against Tutsi and Tutsi sympathizers. As to whether this was also Bikindi’s intent or not is a matter of debate. In a fashion typical of traditional Rwandan poetry, his lyrics invite multiple interpretations, and Bikindi himself has adamantly denied that he composed these songs with the purpose of inciting genocide; to the contrary, he avows that they were about promoting patriotism, fairness, honesty, transparent democracy, an end to war, and equality and harmony among Rwanda’s three major ethnic groups. Nevertheless, in June 2001, the ICTR indicted and arrested Bikindi, charging him with genocide, or, in the alternative, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, murder as a crime against humanity, persecution as a crime against humanity, and direct and public incitement to commit genocide. In December 2008, the judges ruled to dismiss all charges except for incitement, though Bikindi was not convicted for the music itself but rather for a speech he allegedly delivered using a P.A. system while traveling with a vehicular convoy near Gisenyi. In their final ruling, the judges clarified that they believed that Bikindi’s songs did indeed incite genocide but that he was not responsible for how they were used by RTLM’s announcers; furthermore, because they were composed before 1994, they fell outside of the temporal jurisdiction of the court. Though the judges did not directly convict Bikindi for his musical output, they cited his status as a celebrity musician as an “aggravating factor”; that is, because he had achieved such fame as a musician, the judges determined he wielded the influence to incite genocide through his speech. Bikindi was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, retroactive from the date of his arrest. He’ll be free in 2016, at which point he’ll be 61 years old.
Bikindi’s music and trial touch upon several broader issues that are of interest to me, including the causal role of music in inciting mass violence; the prosecution of speech and other forms of expression within the contours of international law; the complexities inherent in the censorship of music (Bikindi’s music is prohibited from being broadcast or marketed in Rwanda today); music’s ability to invoke memories on both an individual and collective level; and music’s ability to construct, shape, and reinforce certain mythologies and the social identities that emerge within them. These are the main issues I’m dealing with in my dissertation (to be finished by spring 2012!), and my hope in creating this website is that I might run across other interested folks who have their own questions and ideas to share. In light of this, I’ve also created this website as a place to pool together various Bikindi-related resources and make them more easily available to others. If you have anything you’d like to contribute, be sure to let me know. Also, I’m just in the beginning stages of building this website. I’ll be creating more content and functionality throughout the coming year. As I go along, any comments or suggestions are most definitely appreciated!
Audio Samples: Audio samples of some of Bikindi’s songs that RTLM broadcasted in the months leading up to and during the genocide.
Lyrics: English translations of songs that I’ve rendered with the close assistance of Rwandan friends (coming soon).
Trial Documents: Important documents related to Bikindi’s trial, including English transcriptions of each day’s proceedings.
Photos and Video: (coming soon).
Links and Other Resources: Lists of relevant books, articles, and websites (coming soon).
Forum: a place to exchange and debate ideas related to Bikindi’s music and trial (coming soon).