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Eric 1Key, an artist who represents a modern but complicated Rwanda

Eric 1Key (real name Eric Ngangare) is a multi-lingual hip-hop poet, spoken-word artist, blogger and advocate of Kigali’s blossoming live music scene. He has just released his Expericmental EP, a series of seven new tracks.


Born in 1981 to a Rwandese mother and Congolese father, 1Key spent his earliest years in exile, in Goma, eastern DRC. After suffering the effects of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – which contributed to a situation of severe poverty and violence in eastern DRC – 1Key moved to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, where he continued his secondary education. Three years later, 1Key moved ‘home’ to Rwanda, where he completed secondary school, and begun a government-sponsored degree in Food and Science Technology. Unable to envision a future in this field, 1Key dropped out of university and pursued a career in translating, and later advertising – in which he has been successful.

After studies in food and science, and careers in translating and advertising, and three years living and working in chaotic Kampala – home to lovers of literacy, and creativity – Eric moved ‘home’ to Kigali in 2015 – a city often characterised by its clean streets, and social order . The artist continues to feel a push-and-pull between the two cities, but has for now established himself at the heart of Rwanda’s fast-growing alternative cultural scene. He was already an enthusiastic participant of Kwivuga Kampala (Spoken Word Kampala), which was founded by Rwandese poetry enthusiast Nunu. ‘I’m not after spotlights and banging beats,’ Eric tells me. ‘I’m all about creating connections. When the music is live, the show is alive. It leaves everyone moved. There is room for mistakes and more creativity.’

Between November 2014 and February 2015, 1Key created his debut album Entre 2 (Between Two). It reveals complex contradictions and dichotomies in his own life. He addresses important questions in relation to language, education and the relationship between Africa and the Western World.
His outlook reflects the new Kigali today, where entwined linguistic and cultural influences feed into an increasingly diverse and interesting arts scene.

1Key is fascinated by the impact of digital technologies on society. In many ways, his album is a celebration of online space and its capacity for enabling musical collaboration and love. Indeed, Entre 2 is an embodiment of trans-nationality, with entwined musical influences that span various genres and places, as well as 1Key’s own movements – both physical and digital – which have seen him collaborate with Rwandan and Ugandan music producers and artists living in Rwanda, Uganda, France, Sweden, the UK and Canada. The artists that inspire him include Youssoupha, Grand Corps Malade, Médine, Rugamba Cyprien, Cécile Kayirebwa and Common.

Throughout the album, we hear multiple voices singing and rapping in Kinyarwanda, French and English – as well as in Swahili and Lingala. ‘I learnt most of my English in music – hip hop to be precise (I’m a huge fan) – and I find it cool, although limiting compared to the vast possibilities French offers. Maybe I’m saying this because my English isn’t as good as my French. I just find French more poetic. But not as much as Kinyarwanda is…’ His outlook reflects the new Kigali today, where entwined linguistic and cultural influences feed into an increasingly diverse and interesting arts scene. Indeed, Kigali is home to vast numbers of Rwandan returnees, who grew up in neighbouring countries – as well as in Europe and North America – and then returned to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

1Key transitions from ‘identity crisis’ to a position of certainty: a defiant and purposeful poet, and a believer in a united humanity – at once a Rwandan, African and, in his own words, Universoul.

1Key is tormented by the entrapments of a capitalist society. In Carpe Diem – the fifth track on the album – 1Key explores a dilemma between living in the here-and-now, or for the future. He asks the difficult question: What is more important: passion and ‘speaking truths’, or employment and inauthenticity? (Track 8: Raison d’Etre/Chasing Ghosts) As a conscious citizen of the world, who engages with current global debates, 1Key addresses subjects such as cosmopolitanism, patriotism, Pan-Africanism, Black Power, and Democracy.

He expresses deep concerns in relation to inequalities between the powerful and the powerless, or between ‘the voice’ and ‘the voiceless.’ (Track 7: Politricks) It becomes clear as you listen that Entre 2 is a coming-of-age album. In the penultimate track (Track 10: Universoul), 1Key transitions from ‘identity crisis’ to a position of certainty: a defiant and purposeful poet, and a believer in a united humanity – at once a Rwandan, African and, in his own words, Universoul.1Key bridges the gap between today and yesterday, between himself as a modern-day citizen of the world and his Rwandan ancestors as he imagines them. As we progress through 1Key’s multi-layered and experimental album, we journey through a world of traditional Rwandese melodies, soulful folk, celebratory rock, and conscious hip-hop poetry.

The album concludes with reggae beats (track 11: En Root), over which 1Key delivers his appreciations, while ‘en route’ to the future.1Key’s fans, friends and colleagues have self-consciously distanced themselves from commercial ‘copy-cat’ recording artists who entertain the masses: ‘There isn’t a lot of live music in Rwanda. A lot of artists prefer playback as it’s an easy shortcut to performances. It costs more to organise live performances, especially when artists are so often paid in “exposure” instead of money’.

Despite Kigali’s restrictive noise pollution regulations, and severe lack of investment in the arts, 1Key regularly entertains crowds at Spoken Word Rwanda. He has performed at Rwanda’s annual KigaliUp! Festival and has, more recently, organised a series of live shows: the #Expericment. 1Key was invited to perform in the opening of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), which was hosted by Rwanda in January 2016.Eric 1Key has just released his Expericmental EP, a series of 7 new tracks. ‘It’s experimental in the sense that it’s very raw and explores my new lifestyle, as an artist full time,’ Eric explains. He then laughs, ‘This can be felt in the first track Broke!’

Ceri Whatley

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