You probably have no idea who Bikindi was, but for nearly ten years, he was an obsession of mine and the subject of my doctoral dissertation. The journey I took to learn all I could about him and his music, and to finally meet with him in person (in a United Nations prison), changed my life in ways I’m still coming to understand.
Bikindi was a famous Rwandan musician whose songs were staples of political rallies and extremist radio that were instrumental in inciting the 1994 genocide. For this, he became the first musician in history to be tried and convicted for war crimes. He served 15 years and was released in 2016. His music is censored in Rwanda.
In sharing his songs with dozens of survivors and witnesses, and in meeting with Bikindi over the course of a week, I learned that it’s not at all clear he intended to incite violence. Some listeners thought his songs were merely patriotic, while others told me he knew exactly what he was up to, working in concert with the government to promulgate a campaign of resentment, paranoia, and “ethnic cleansing.” Some told me he should’ve been executed. I still don’t know.
Several years ago at an African studies conference, a colleague with inroads to Rwandan political circles warned me that I needed to be careful, that I could put myself and my Rwandan associates in danger if I kept pursuing the matter. With this knowledge, in addition to the emotional toll that the research was already taking on me, I decided to forfeit. I just couldn’t do it anymore, not without doing (more) serious damage to my mental health while possibly landing my friends in legal jeopardy. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about Bikindi and all that I saw, heard, and experienced in Rwanda, some of which is still difficult for me to talk about. I still struggle with the guilt that I should’ve done more to bring his story to light; there’s so much misinformation out there about him. I’d hoped to follow up with him once he was released. I had a couple of publishers interested and struggled for about a year to put together a book proposal, but in the end, I couldn’t figure out what I really needed to say and how to fit it within the confines of academic discourse. We’re warned to not make our research too personal, and on that, I’m afraid I utterly failed.
The week he and I spent together in that austere visitation room, just outside the deputy commandant’s office, we spoke of his childhood, of the scenes of brutal violence he witnessed, of his trauma, of the need to tell the truth, of forgiveness. He was kind, warm-hearted, bewildered by his imprisonment—a sympathetic figure—and we quickly grew to like one another. At the same time, I couldn’t forget that his music was the soundtrack to the torture and murder of approximately 800,000 people in only 100 days, the most intensely violent conflict ever in terms of killings per day. I remember my close friend and interpreter, Frank, getting into a shouting match with him. Many of Frank’s wife’s family members, including her father, were massacred by men who were motivated in part by Bikindi’s music. Frank had no doubt as to what Bikindi’s intentions were. Strange times.
He died of complications from diabetes while living quietly in Benin where he tended a small farm. Like I said, I still don’t know what to make of him, but whatever his crimes, I hope he’s at peace now.
Komera, inshuti yanjye.