Duo Brings Pop Music of Rwanda to Broader Audience

Mohit Dubey

The floor-shaking rhythms and heartmelting vocals of Rwandan R&B superstars Meddy and The Ben will fill the ’Sco this Saturday. The show, which will also feature the drum stylings of Oberlin College Taiko, is sure to be one of the most physically moving events to hit the ’Sco this semester. Meddy and The Ben were the top two most popular hip-hop artists in Rwanda, though the duo now lives in Chicago, where they network with and empower other Rwandan artists in the U.S. through their label, Pressone Entertainment. The message that Meddy and The Ben wish to convey through their music in venues from Rwandan radio stations is a positive one. In an interview with the Review, The Ben said the group encourages listeners to treat others with compassion and to look for ways to make others happy as often as possible.

As they proclaim in their recent hit single “Ndi Uw’I Kigali,” Meddy and The Ben are from Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.

The duo met as children in Sunday school, years before they considered becoming pop stars. Growing up, Meddy and The Ben listened to gospel artists, especially the Australian group Hillsong United as well as pop icons like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly and sought to fuse these two genres into a musical style that reflected both their social and spiritual characters. “Music defines the one who sings it,” The Ben said. “It is a way to understand someone’s way of life, history and culture.” Nowadays, The Ben enjoys listening to British pop artist Sam Smith — whom he sees as a master of the art of songwriting — as well as African humanitarian singers.

The Ben was born in Uganda, where his parents sought refuge during the Rwandan Revolution of 1959, and came to Rwanda at the age of 10 to a music scene broken by genocide. “The genocide affected music in Rwanda [in many ways], from asking musicians to be a part of making the worst happen to removing artists who did not do that,” The Ben said. Now, he sees his generation of artists as picking up the pieces and reforming Rwandan music with a peaceful message of recovery. “We are promoting love in the country,” he said. “That’s what we are bringing to the table.”

In recent years, the duo has come to know its fair share of personal struggle. They decided to move to the United States in 2010, seeking to grow their music and their message internationally with the final goal of returning to Rwanda with a new perspective. “Rwanda is small, so being big there is still local,” The Ben said, speaking on the way their music fits into the international pop scene. For him, coming to the U.S. has been a lesson in patience. “When I came here, everything changed. I had to start over, … but I have learned to wait for the blessing,” he said.

Just last year, after five years of making connections in the U.S., The Ben performed for the United Nations gathering in New York. Meddy and The Ben continue to pursue connections with people of all ages and on all levels, from the political to the social to the physical act of dancing. If their hip-moving rhythms aren’t enough to get students to come out, The Ben and Meddy will also offer exposure to music that could not and does not exist in the United States. “If college students come to support us, not only will we appreciate them, but they will also get knowledge of the world, the music and how we do things. … They will be learning things they have not learned before,” The Ben said.