This is the first of an occasional series profiling historical figures singers, thinkers etc.
The genocidal wedding singer
At this moment Simon Bikindi, a former wedding singer is locked up in a United Nations Detention Facility (UNDF) in Arusha, Tanzania awaiting a sentence that could see him spend the rest of his life behind bars. The accusations are very serious – writing songs to incite genocide and participating himself in murder. How could an entertainer be accused of such terrible crimes? Hassan Bubacar Jallow, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda said Mr Bikindi, 52, had “used his renowned talent for use in a criminal enterprise”. Who then is this Simon Bikindi and how did he end up in Arusha?
Simon Bikindi was born on 28 September 1954 in a little village called Akanyirabagoyi in Rwanda’s mountainous Gisenyi Province. He was a child prodigy on the inanga, a musical instrument similar to a zither. He went on to become Rwanda’s most popular singer, compared to both Michael Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron. He set powerful rap lyrics in English, French and Kinyarwandan (the language of both Hutus and Tutsis) to traditional tunes. He would also supplement his income by working at weddings for the wealthy. But as Rwanda degenerated into chaos in the 1990’s Bikindi’s career would take a sinister turn.
I need to take a detour here and look at the historical background and how the hatred between Hutus and Tutsis emerged. The stereotype has been (for many Rwandans too) tall, slender Tutsi and shorter, squat Hutu. But with intermarriage it is often very difficult to tell. This was illustrated during the massacres when the Hutu murderers often had to look at identification cards before deciding who they should kill.
Colonialism has undoubtedly played an important role in this conflict. Rwanda was carved up by European colonialist powers in the late nineteenth century. Originally it went to Germany but after WWI it became a Belgian possession. Both the Germans and the Belgians favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus. This was a time of racial pseudoscience and the Tutsis were seen by the Europeans as a superior race -“Caucasians of a lesser breed” as one African writer put it. Belgian rule solidified this racial divide. The Belgian colonisers were utterly obsessed with the differences between Hutu and Tutsi. Scientists arrived to measure skull size. Tutsi’s skulls were bigger, they were taller, and their skin was lighter. The Belgians even went around measuring noses. If all this wasn’t enough they came up with the brilliant idea of issuing each citizen issued with a racial identification card, defining everyone as legally either Hutu or Tutsi. Tutsis began to believe the myth of their racial superiority, and exploited their power over the Hutu majority who thus began to resent them.
It was in 1994 that things came to a head. In April, a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, was shot down. Blaming the Tutsi for his murder, Hutu extremists seized power and launched their own African “final solution” and indeed it was the biggest genocide the world has seen since the Jewish Holocaust – a well-prepared and coordinated plan for the elimination of the Tutsi population as well as Hutu moderates. Many operations were carried out by the army but the Interahamwe, the Hutu militias, were also responsible eliminating the “cockroaches,” the dehumanising term they used for the Tutsi. The genocide ended after 800,000 deaths in 100 days with an invasion in July 1994 by Tutsi-led RPF exiles.
Now we can get back to Bikindi’s role. In the months leading up to the genocide, Bikindi allegedly consulted with the Rwandan government and military authorities about song lyrics that were to be played on the Hutu radio station RTLM (Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) It is important to understand the significance of radio in Rwanda; almost no one reads newspapers or owns a television, so radio is the thing. The government even gave away free radios as part of its propaganda drive. RTLM was to play a very dark role in Rwanda’s genocide, coordinating the mass killings. As an article from the New York Times put it the radio station “gave death tolls like weather reports and exhorted murder squads to hurry to villages where the work’ wasn’t going fast enough” It was Bikindi’s music that was blaring out during the hundred days of murder and mayhem. Although Bikindi himself was actually out of the country at the beginning of the massacre.
What were these lyrics that have been blamed for inciting genocide? The two songs cited in Bikindi’s indictment for inciting genocide are ”Bene Sebahinzi” (”Sons of the Father of the Farmers”) and ”Nanga Abahutu” (”I Hate Hutus”). The latter song has a curious title. Nowhere in the song are Tutsis mentioned by name. In the song the Bikindi sings about the kind of Hutus he hates – the ones who break ranks with other Hutus.
I hate these Hutus, these de-Hutuized Hutus, who have renounced their identity, dear comrades.
I hate these Hutus, these Hutus who march blindly, like imbeciles.
This species of naïve Hutus who join a war without knowing its cause.
I hate these Hutus who can be brought to kill and who, I swear to you, kill Hutus, dear comrades.
And if I hate them, so much the better.
These songs need to be interpreted. When Bikindi sings about Hutus renouncing their identities he is referring to marrying a Tutsi. And naïve Tutsi are those who supported the invasion. But although Tutsi are not mentioned by name, it is clear that his Hutu audience knew what he was referring to. Eyewitness accounts say that many of the killers sang Bikindi’s songs as they hacked or beat to death hundreds of thousands of Tutsis with their government-issued machetes and homemade clubs.
Bikindi and his lawyers have denied the charges and have used a number of different defence strategies. They say that charges violate his right to freedom of speech. This brings up the whole question of how societies that proclaim free speech deal with those who use that freedom to propagate hatred. The second argument is one that is chillingly familiar to any student of twentieth century history: It was the government that was responsible. Bikindi had to follow the rules – the classic “I was only obeying orders” defence. He sang at government rallies but he was a mere entertainer. It was not his fault that people went around killing each other. He claims that the song ‘Nanga Abahutu’ and the others were in reality a plea to stop the senseless killing. A former mistress, a Tutsi said that he was not the monster that he is being portrayed as. He had actually defended Tutsi neighbours who were being attacked by Hutu thugs. She feels he was just being opportunistic. He actually said: “If I hear the R.P.F. is coming to Kigali next month, I’ll write a song for them.” (The RPF is the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.) There is another irony here. Although he is also accused of taking part in some killings himself after he returned to Rwanda toward the end of the 100 days, Mr. Bikindi is on trial primarily for his lyrics. If he had “only” killed he may well not have been dragged before the International Criminal Tribunal. It is his songs that converted him in a defendant. Soon we shall find out if he is to spend the rest of his life in prison for those lyrics.