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Music therapy on the streets of Goma

DANNY KUBUYA, also known as King D, takes to the stage wearing red sneakers and a blue cap turned backwards. He raps in Swahili. “If I were president, I would make those who have nothing feel valued.” “Yeah,” his backing group intone as they jiggle from side to side. “I would teach the people to look after our nation’s riches.” “Yeah,” repeat the boys behind him, slicing the air with outstretched fingers. “I would stop women from being raped.” The audience of three nod in approval. A goat, tied to a fallen tree trunk and scavenging for food in the dirt, bleats noisily.

It is a Saturday afternoon in Goma, a town sandwiched between a lake and a volcano in embattled eastern Congo, and a local pop group called Life Song are halfway through teaching a rap lesson. Their 15 students are a mix of boys from their own run-down neighbourhood and children they have found listlessly roaming the streets. These homeless youngsters spend their nights curled up in doorways on folded cardboard boxes. Their stage is a slab of concrete in front of a half-painted wall, a collection of old car tyres propped up against it (see picture).

At 12, Danny is the youngest, shortest and quietest of the boys off-stage, but oozes charisma on it. His swagger alone sets him apart from the rest. “We took him to one of our shows to perform with us and the audience loved him,” says Robert Rubenga, one of Life Song’s three members. “His lyrics are powerful.”

That is partly because they are grounded in bitter experience. If Danny were president, he sings, he would plant more cassava so that nobody in Congo has to go hungry (some 15m across the country are severely underfed). He would bring electricity to a country where less than 1% of the rural population has electric light. He would stop the fighting in Rumangabo, a village where his aunt and cousins live that has been intermittently attacked by looting militia for over two decades.

When Mr Rubenga first met Danny, he was trying to make money carrying bags for shoppers in a market close to the lake. High on glue, he was huddling with friends in an alley at night. He had fled his home after stealing $10 from his mother’s handbag, following orders from a local teenager whose gang he wanted to join. Terrified of his father’s temper, he took to the streets. “My mother forgave me but my father did not. I was scared,” he says.

From the moment Danny uttered his first rap, Mr Rubenga saw his potential. He had been roaming one of the shabbiest bits of Goma with another band member, Etienne Hodari, when they encountered a posse of street kids. “First we bought them drinks and biscuits, then we sat in a circle and asked them to sing or rap something for us,” says Mr Rubenga. “They were not shy, they like to think of themselves as gangsters.” Danny started showing up to the weekly classes.

The band can offer music lessons, but not much more, as they are strapped for cash and often go to bed hungry themselves. Their income from performing in bars and at local concerts is meagre; Irene Baeni, the group’s third and only female member, also sews and sells clothes to make ends meet. Though Congo is famous for producing talented musicians (and for its breezy rumba beats), earning a living in the industry is tough. Many stars are financed by wealthy political patrons. Before elections their music tends to turn into propaganda and be peppered with shout-outs to rich officials.

Yet the country’s problems, exacerbated as they are by predatory and inept leaders, have provided inspiration for generations of lyricists. For their part, Life Song say they want to use music to “tap into people’s consciences”. One of their raps reminds the audience that those who sleep rough are really “just like us”.

Danny no longer does. Over a number of rap classes, he began to confide in the band members. He eventually gave them his family’s address. After six months on the streets, Mr Rubenga escorted him home. “His mother was so happy when she opened the door, she was crying and crying. She had thought he was dead,” he remembers. In a region where children are killed or kidnapped by armed groups nearly every week, her fear was well-grounded.

Life Song’s students turn their lives into rap. In the West that might be called music therapy; in Goma it amounts to three musicians and some scruffy boys, hopping around in black volcanic dust, watched by an audience of goats. But in a place where music is as ingrained as hardship and war, tunes with a message retain the power to inspire people and change lives. They might change more if the politicians paid heed to Danny’s rhymes.

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