Encounter with The Culture

Growing up poor in the 80’s in a small village with no electricity somewhere at the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaïre then), I didn’t know what television was till I was about eight or nine years old. My grandfather’s small radio operating with batteries, which I pounded gently and exposed to sun rays for recharge (miracles of science!), was my only source of music entertainment. I remember the distorted sounds of soucousse, rumba, zouk machine, reggae, funk, and pop due to bad reception when my granddad wasn’t listening to the News about wars ravaging almost every part of Africa. I don’t recall listening to any Hip Hop music back then. My most memorable encounter with Hip Hop was right after the end of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda when I moved to Brazzaville, the capital city of the other Congo. For the first time, we had a TV set at home. I was finally able to put faces to some of the familiar vocals that rocked my eardrums. I began to connect the pieces. For instance, watching Michael Jackson’s play with his zipper in his dance routines answered the question “Who’s bad?” The more I paid attention to details in the music videos, the more I realized the influence of television on my surrounding.

For the couple of years that I attended a private school in Brazzavile, somehow I ended up in the circle of cool kids. Cool kids are those who want to look like stars on TV and who other kids want to emulate, you know! I didn’t grow up with what they had. They wore t-shirts with Hip Hop legends on them, didn’t button their shirts, sagged their pants, wore boots or fresh sneakers on the regular. Some of them would clip fake earrings on their lobes and put on a US flag bandanna to look exactly like their idols. Those kids were also called branchés (plugged in or connected). They read comic books, magazines on music, sports, played basketball in the streets and talked a lot about rap and movies. They had interests. I did not have much. I was a shabby boy from the village who couldn’t speak their language. Some of them sang along to French rap songs. I could barely articulate my needs to go to the bathroom in class. On the other hand, my English was almost nonexistent. It’s only recently that I realized Dr. Dre didn’t say “wawawess” in California Love but “Wild Wild West”. But I didn’t care. Nobody cared. And that’s exactly what I loved about this art form. The I-don’t-give-a-fuck-as-long-as-it-feels-good attitude.

With time I developed a certain thirst about the content of the music. I needed to know why black people were angry and why they used more words on a standard song than anybody else. I had to learn the language. I studied over time, used TV and radio as more as learning tools than entertainment sources. Beyond speaking French, and English later, I wanted to understand the lyrical content of rap songs. Luckily some music magazines included posters of celebrities with lyrics of their hit songs in their issues. But again, I did not have the level to comprehend. I could only grasp a few words after cross-checking with my pocket dictionary. For the slang, I had to wait till the early 2000’s with the availability of the Internet in Rwanda to do my own researches about the meaning of some songs. That helped me a lot improve my English as well. Soon, I was hooked and started writing to myself in a journal format. Then somehow I stumbled upon rhymes, today they call me a Hip Hop Poet.

I have consumed more Hip Hop culture than any of my African cultures without moving from the continent and I have come to realize that Hip Hop goes beyond the beat, the dance, the graffiti, the dressing, the hair styles, the gestures, the slang… it is the most influential culture of our time. It’s too present, too loud, too bright and so versatile it can’t be contained. Right now somewhere in a deep villages, kids with no shoes on are rhyming on a bucket beat.
Africa has thousands of Hip Hop heads, MC’s, producers, dancers, etc who have been influenced by The Culture and are now redefining their continent with the same fire the pioneers started with. I am happy to know that many are doing it justice.
Hip Hop is alive.


Powa 254 - 1key
Iyadede Sabrina (on the guitar) & 1key jamming at Pawa254, Nairobi, Kenya.


First thing first, shout-out to the pioneers
Without their work, we’d have no careers
Quit my job, became my own marketeer
Started from a blog, one-man team, now we fuckin here
Before I brag about my deeds, respect to the engineers
The designers, the architects- Nyirarumaga, Biggie and Pac
And every storyteller laying their soul on every track
You all put art in my heart, I put poetry in rap
From my early start, I just wanna give back
Design thinking till life imitates art
This is only a spark of a young star
It’s going dark when I go all lights
My bars are lit, put some welding glasses on or go blind
I’m a rare phenomenon like the eclipse, watch how you view me
Don’t mistake my silence for an ellipse when you review me
I aim at everything you say I am, if you thought you knew me
By the time you’re done defining me, it’s already a new me
I invite you to judge me, maybe you’ll see your own insecurity
Wish I could be your mirror but I bet you’d choose the selfie
Self worth is self-given or else it’s worthless, I pick what’s healthy
My spirit is so wealthy, all the Rothschild money cannot buy me
I’m priceless with a bank account constantly empty
I quit writing commercials to write my destiny
I gave up my Swatch, Irony, I gained in time
Now the world’s on my watch like a sentinel full-time
Look in the sky, I’m a hawk holding the message tight in my claws
I ain’t got no time for tiny beefs, I don’t fight small wars
Only Rwanyonga’s curving arrows would make me fall
Before you know I metamorphose, I’m a fly on your wall
Feasting on every shit that’s dope, I’m anti-AI, pro recycle
My recitals revive memories of lost souls
Call me a psycho but we all talk to dead people
You say “Rest in peace” I say “Rest in power or return for yours”
My poetry is traditional medicine for those looking for hope
It’s bitter just like the life of survivors trying to cope
With the hole in our souls that cannot be filled with alcohol
Cold hearts know no sunny holidays in these area codes
If your back’s against the rope, catapult and soar
It’s fucked up at the bottom when you got no condom
And this sick crazy bitch called life trynna fuck you live
Sometimes I wonder how many times one has to survive
To make it in this life before crossing to the other side
Millennials waiting for a white savior then I realized
Just like the devil, Jesus is a lie
At least the devil is in the detail
Well Jesus in the Bible retail
You know what those entail- Fantasy for sale
I’m breaking bad like Mr. White, about to go Heisenberg
This is just the intro like the tip of my pen is the tip of the iceberg
My vision is so clear it feels like a premonition
I got no reason to fear my final destination
I’m the architect of my dreams, this is my inception
They raise buildings, I build minds – perception
I talk fusion, they hear collision at the intersection
Confusion, not just my words, my actions are lost in translation
You can’t see through the crack yet, wait till I blow the wall
I’m coming out with a black belt, the system is about to crumble
Africa, rise, planet of the apes, I’m proud to be a Cesar
If time is a female, I’m about to seize her
I speak truth to power, I’m not a pleaser
What did you think this shit was? H.I.P H.O.P
H for His story, Her story, they’ll be told, by any means necessary
I for I coz nobody can fight for my mine like I
P for Power, knowledge or money, whatever it takes to get respect
H for Honor, for we’re kings and queens; not slaves or objects
O is for the oath that goes beyond the physical dimension
P for Progress even when it seems slow, it’s better than no motion

1keynote on #YourMusicYourVoice

Before the Event

About a month ago, when I received an email from the Goethe Institute in Rwanda to participate in a workshop/concert project in Kampala, Uganda, scheduled from 1st-5th October under the theme #YourMusicYourVoice on which Megaloh & Ghanain Stallion, who were on an African tour, would perform, I thought “Who are these guys?” So I looked them up and damn they were hot! I don’t speak German but music has no language. It is the language of the universe. I felt the anger, the protest in their Hip Hop. That’s when I felt the hell-let’s-do-this vibe in my guts. So I emailed back Goethe with a yes. A few days before the event, when Goethe Zentrum Kampala asked me to send a short bio with details about how I use social media to address social injustices, I thought “Okay, it’s serious! Let’s do this!” When the poster was out and I was officially representing my country in such a noble cause, I thought “This is awesome!”

Day 1 – Intro

On the night of the 4th of October, I took the bus from Kigali to Kampala and was picked up from the station to the hotel the next morning. The hotel was nice. The best part was the location: less than two-minutes walk to Kisimenti, Goethe, and Kamwokya for Meddy’s chicken (and everything else one may need on this planet). Since some of the international artists/activists had already arrived, we got to share a drink at the barbecue on Goethe’s rooftop. There was even fireworks in the Kampala sky. Not exactly for us but since we were there, we took it as a personal welcome. It was beautiful energy all over.

Day 2 – Presentation

The morning began with a presentation of my work. I focused on my latest projects: The Expericment and La Voi(e)x de la légende because someone said “You are as good as your last work.” A couple of artists/activists, international and Ugandan got to share their journeys as well. The experiences were so enriching and brought to light our African realities into similar perspectives even though we live in different geographical and historical contexts. We easily related to each other’s struggles. Then came the Q&A. It was intense. In a good way. I still cannot get around some of the questions. For instance, how does one answer to;

  • What have you achieved in your country in terms of social justice for your people?
  • How do people react to your music in your country? What about the government?
  • As an artist/activist who criticize your government, are there instances where you have been in trouble because of something that you said? How did you get out of trouble?
  • Are there available legal bodies in your country to defend you in case you get arrested for protesting and voicing certain opinions? If yes, where does the funding come from?
  • How far will you go to defend your ideals?

It’s not like I had never thought about these questions. They are usually part of my work as a conscious artist. It’s just more challenging when you have to answer and sometimes you don’t have the answers. Unless you have the experience of Monza who said “In Mauritania, I have been arrested many times for speaking out against the injustice. The government is the judge. The people are the lawyers.” The irony of life did not miss the rendezvous. As we had these discussions, one of the artists could not freely participate because he was going through a series of intimidation, persecution, arrest and even attempt to murder. Why? Because he was/is using his voice to protest the motion to change the constitution that would allow Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to become another Mugabe.

In the afternoon we visited a studio in Muyenga where NewzBeat is produced. As the word suggests, it’s the news delivered on a beat. Journalists are rappers and they just don’t rap the news, they research and create new ways of engaging with everyday realities. What was even more inspiring was the fact that Xuman, the creator of the new-on-the-beat format known in French as Journal Rappé in Senegal, was there to witness at first hand the ripple effects of his creation.

Left to right: Xuman (Senegal), Monza (Mauritania), Nash emcee (Tanzania), 1key (Rwanda) and Ntare Patience (Burundi). All are Hip-Hop except Patience, who is a reggae man.

A little bit later we visited the Youth Sharing Centre in Nsambya where Abrahamz gives free hip hop dance classes and cyphers regularly, especially to street kids. I felt blessed to be there and learned a couple of moves. So next time you wanna battle me on the dancefloor, there is gonna be some serious poppin’ n lockin’.

Day 3 – Arts And Activism

We kicked off the morning with fresh discussions related to how we do what we do where we come from and what are the receptions/perceptions in regards to our opinions. I felt blessed to be on the same platform with artists and social activists who make moves that influence change in their societies. It was great to be surrounded with people who have the same ideals as mine and who have been living up to them. Some of the topics that were unearthed surfaced were related to identity, home, the role of the artist in the society, North-South relations, colonization, decolonization, democracy, freedom, free speech, poverty, corruption, justice, equality etc. Check out some of the quotes on Twitter #ArtsnActivismUG

Outspoken talking about his struggle as a social activist in Zimbabwe. Right to Left: Patience (Burundi, Outspoken (Zimbabwe), the moderator, Nash emcee (Tanzania), 1key (Rwanda), Xuman (Senegal) and Monza (Mauritania)
Bobi Wine (Far left) courageously joined the panel a bit late after his house had been subject of grenade explosions. Later on that day, he was taken to jail.

After the talks, there was more talks. This time live on NTV with Douglass on his show The Beat where we got to share a bit of our arts and what to expect at the concert.

Left to right: Juma (Kenya) talking about how he uses music to for refugees plight. I’m paying attention just like Megaloh and Douglas, the host of The Beat.

Day 4 – #YourMusicYourVoice Concert

It was a pretty chilled-out day as we all needed to be fresh for the evening concert. By 1pm we were at Design Hub for sound check (and work on a paper costume for some of us, you know 😉 As for the rest of the show, it was legendary! You are definitely going to hear about #YourMusicYourVoice for a minute. On top of the concert, we did two songs and two videos featuring all the artists on the poster and more legends from Uganda. Meanwhile here’s how my performance looked like…


I had so much fun, I learned a lot, I met amazing people, I ate delicious food… I can’t ask for more. It’s been enriching in every sense and I am grateful to Katherina for thinking highly of me, to Anja for treating me with such respect and consideration, to Lara & Flora for making shit happen, to Anne Whitehead for the “positive vibes”… it was well organized. Thank you!

To my sisters Yallah MC, Lady Slyke, and my brothers Monza, Xuman, Outspoken, Juma, Nash Emcee, St Nelly Sade, Sylvester & Abrahamz, HE Bobi Wine, Megaloh & Ghanaian Stallion, Koz n Effekt , Sparrow and everyone that I did not mention, thank you so much for keeping up the spirit of Africa and for making me believe in us more. Let’s keep in touch!

~1key, 1love

Eric 1Key – after the ‘Expericment’

Published on December 04, 2016 by Moses Opobo for the New Times

I was already familiar with Opobo’s work, which he shared on his Facebook page and we even got deeper after a few arguments related to how I view the work of entertainment journalists in Rwanda. He is absolutely right when he says;

The slam poet, rapper and blogger has cultivated another parallel reputation over the years – ranting. So much so that, day in, day out, he has to contend with the frequent question: “Eric, why do you like to criticize?”

When he asked me to meet him so we could discuss about my work, I said to myself, “I hope he did his research.” Indeed he did and we had a good couple of hours delving into the #Expericment series.

Basically it was testing the waters to see what business model could work out, and 1Key stretched his imagination and creativity to the limit. In all, he did four Expericment shows staged at different venues in Kigali, each with a different theme and concept; from politics to sex to identity.

Read More…

Thank you, Mr. Opobo for your interest in my work, and rants 🙂

All the best!

Celebrities Show with Eric 1Key

Published on Nov 1st, 2016 by the Celebrity Show for Royal TV

Usually my interviews are in English with some exceptions in French. Loukman Nzeyimana, a TV moderator, thought it would be a good idea to share the little I know with the mass that does not speak English or French. And he was totally right. So here is me in Kinyarwanda for 22 minutes.

Entre 2 Album Review: Apprenti_Sage

Track 1: Apprenti_Sage (“Wise Apprentice/Learning”)

Apprenti_Sage is the album’s opening track. Drawing on the Rwandan tradition of Kwivuga, which literally means bragging, 1key introduces and asserts himself as a poet and as an artist, who terrorizes his enemies! Within the tradition of Rwandan praise poetry there are numerous specialist sub-genres, including the poetry of dynasty, the poetry of farmers, and amahamba (“the praising of cows”). According to 1key: “Kwivuga was everybody’s poetry”. Created and performed by men and boys, kwivuga is about lineage and ego: “it’s about knowing who you are and ensuring that others know too” (1Key). In this case, 1Key identifies himself as the son of his personal hero, his late Grandfather Ngangare Rugambwa.

Kigali, Rwanda. 2016. 1Key performing Apprenti_Sage on the #Expericment. [Courtesy of Innovation Village]
Historically, males would learn kwivuga at initiation camps called Itorero, a Kinyarwanda word meaning “the place where you select”. At Itorero, pubescent boys were taught how to protect their country, to shoot arrows, to perform kwivuga, and traditional dancing. After initiation, boys would return home transformed, “as men with responsibilities” (1Key) also referred to as Intore (the chosen ones). In the Icyivugo performance, the performer may drop down to one knee, or throw his stick to the floor (as if to “drop the mic”), while boasting to the crowd about who he is and what he has achieved. Indeed, Icyivugo literally means “a self-introductory poem.” 1key’s Icyivugo, the final section of Apprenti_Sage, concludes with confidence. The wordsmith cements his artistic identity with his final Kinyarwanda line, which he delivers with impressive speed, and which translates as:

“I am the only key that opens the doors of mystery so that the deserving ones can enter my world.” 

Introducing 1Key, the wise apprentice!

Musanze, Rwanda. 2015. Intore dancers performing at Kwita Izina (Rwanda’s annual gorilla naming ceremony). [Courtesy of the author]
In Apprenti_Sage, we are transported into the world of traditional Rwandese melodies. The introduction is dedicated to the bare boned and unproduced sound of the Inanga, the Rwandese instrument of storytelling. After 20 seconds, 1Key penetrates the piece with his carefully constructed poetry, while the beautifully springy sound of the Inanga persists until the end. The delicate pulse of 1key’s French lyrics are spoken with rhythm and purpose, before transforming boldly into Kinyarwanda for his compelling Icyivugo: “Yeeeee…!” (Final section)

Nyundo Art and Music School, Rwanda, 2015. Inanga. [Courtesy of the author]
Throughout his experimental and playful album, 1key creatively explores his most important, ever-present theme: Entre Deux, or “Between Two”, which his album is named after. In Apprenti_Sage, 1Key expresses tensions between two languages: Kinyarwanda, the native language of almost all Rwandans and the carrier of Rwandan identity and culture, and French, the language “brought [to Rwanda] on boats” and enforced on the population by Belgian colonisers. Is it possible to perform Rwandan culture and identity in French? In the third stanza, 1Key apologises to his ancestors for delivering his words in French. He expresses his regret and disgust at being imprisoned within an unequal system of globalisation, where the mastering of European languages is required to earn a living, and where “Rwandan culture” is treated as subordinate.

1Key bridges the gap between today and yesterday; between himself as a modern day resident of Kigali and his ancestors as he imagines them. As a multi-lingual poet and recording artist, 1key interweaves Rwandese oral traditions with modern digital technologies, creating a unique contemporary sound which is rooted in tradition. Inspired by the echo of his ancestors’ voices, 1Key aspires to write his life, to describe his view, and to fearlessly leave a message. He tells us: Je suis le message (“I am the message”). We are captivated, intrigued and excited to hear more…

Entre 2 is available on Soundcloud – Entre2 and for sale on digital stores iTunesSpotify, and Amazon. Eric 1key is very active on social media where you can find him discussing and debating all kinds of things. For updates and live info, follow Eric1key on Twitter: @eric1key, Facebook: Facebook/eric1key, Soundcloud: soundcloud.com/eric1key or email for bookings at ericonekey@gmail.com.


Song lyrics and translations

Apprenti_Sage (“Wise Apprentice/Learning” [Track 1 on  Entre 2 album])  

Prod. Barick (Kigali). Vocals: Yego Studio (Kampala); French, Kinyarwanda.

[Verse 1] [Verse 1]
Les pouces sur mon phone comme sur une manette I’ve got thumbs on my phone as a controller  
Je joue avec des lettres, je griffonne des textes Playing with letters, I’m scribbling lyrics
En fait, depuis que je les pose sur des pages net In fact, ever since I put them on Internet pages
Et que j’expose mon âme entre les lignes de mes rimes And exposed my soul between the lines of my rhymes
On m’appelle poète; mais est-ce que je mérite ce titre? They call me a poet; but do I deserve this title?
Pour être honnête, je préfère quand on m’appelle artiste To be honest, I prefer to call myself an artist
Au fond je ne suis qu’un esprit qui cherche sa forme I am just a spirit seeking its form
Je suis brut, sans filtre, mes pensées résonnent I’m raw, unfiltered, my thoughts resonate
Dans mes écrits, comme sur du papier carbone In my writings, like carbon paper
Avant la plume, je les calquais à la mine de graphite Before the pen, I used to express my thoughts with a pencil
Qui aurait predit qu’un jour mes ébauches auraient un bon accueil au public? Who knew that one day my drafts would be well received by the public?
C’est incroyable mais il y a deux décennies It’s unbelievable that two decades ago,
On aurait juré que j’étais dyslexique à force de juger mon lexique sur base des dicos amenés en bateaux One could have sworn that I was dyslexic, judging by my lexicon based on dictionaries brought on boats
L’apprentissage n’a pas été du gateau Learning was not a piece of cake
Apprenti-sage je suis devenu pour éviter les coups de batons Wise apprentice I had to become to avoid the blow of the cane
Que mes aïeux m’excusent pour ma forme sur ce fond May my ancestors forgive my voice over this background music
Si je m’exprime mieux dans la langue du colon If I express myself better in the colonisers’ language
C’est parce que c’est devenu une culture de survie It is because it has become a way of survival
Elle évolue au dépens de la nôtre et on suit, asservis It evolves at the expense of ours and we follow, enslaved
Aujourd’hui on se moque des nôtres Today we make fun of our people
Quand ils commettent des fautes dans ces langues étrangères when we make mistakes in these foreign languages
Et ça me révolte! And that disgusts me!
Laissez-moi être mélancolique sur ce sample de cithare Let me be sad on this sample of cithare
Laissez-moi me noyer dans ce pot de slam,  Let me drown in this pot of slam poetry
Cet art oratoire de mes ancêtres, c’est tout ce qui me reste This oral art of my ancestors, that’s all I have left
Leurs doigts grattent des cordes, les miens gravent des textes Their fingers strum the strings, mine type lyrics
Dans leurs notes et les miennes, tu peux lire l’envie de transmettre In their notes and mine, you can read the urge to pass on
C’est l’écho de leurs voix que j’entend quand les vallées respirent It is the echo of their voices that I hear when valleys breathe
Et peut-être pourquoi j’adore écrire le soir, leur mélodie m’inspire And perhaps why I love writing at night, their melody inspires me
A écrire ma vie, à décrire ma vue, à conter mon parcours sans peur to write my life, describe my view, and tell story fearlessly
Je sais qu’on ne vit pas pour toujours et tout comme eux I know we do not live forever and just like them
Je veux laisser un message… I want to leave a message…
Je suis le message I am the message
Qui vivra, entendra cette voix venue de nulle part Whoever lives will hear this voice coming out of nowhere
Portée par le vent d’un écho ancestral Carried by an ancestral echo
[Icyivugo] [Icyivugo]
Yeeeeee ndi ingangare ku rugamba Yes! Here I am, I am the strongest in battle
Mwene Rugambwa simpangarwa ndahangara Son of Rugambwa, none can challenge me, I challenge them first
Dore nje mu rukerera nk’igiteroshuma I attack at dawn as if it’s an ambush
Sinikanga, sinikinga I am not intimidated, I do not hide
Ikaramu narazwe na data ni yo ngabo y’amahina amakuza atagwabizwa The pen I inherited from my father is my unbreakable shield, my spear
Iyo mfoye simpusha ababisha bashahurwa n’ubwoba ntaranabegera I’m a sharp shooter, I don’t miss. My enemies tremble with fear before I even get to them
Abaswa banyumva nk’amahamba The small-minded don’t understand the intricacies of my poetry
Ndasiga nkisiga bagasigara basiganuza When I write I paint stories and leave them speculating about
Uko mbambura imizingo imirongo igahinduka amashusho How I can write this much and this good, how my lines become vivid pictures
Umushyitsi ukabataha mu nda bagahitamo kunyita umunyabufindo Afraid of my powers, they choose to call me a “magician”
Ndi urufunguzo rumwe rukumbi rurangaza amarembo y’amayobera maze agatahurwa n’inyamibwa mu ndatwa.  I am the only key that opens the doors of mystery so that the deserving ones can enter my world.