September 17, 2020

Biggest Losers: The Showbiz We Knew May Never Return

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US-based Rwandan singer The Ben thrills thousands inside the iconic Kigali Arena

By the end of last year, any given day was party time. And when it came to weekends, the temperatures even went higher. Concerts, live shows in bars and festivals kept revellers on their feet from year in, year out.

Then suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Though the first case was identified on March 14 and lockdown became routine, government had by end of February began discouraging gatherings.

It meant that singers, club music mixers or Deejays, comedians, and everyone else making a living from entertaining people, couldn’t perform. Since then, the microphones are silent, leaving a yet to be determined number of people without a job.

Celebrated artist manager and event organizer Alex Muyoboke says it will take him years to recover, and is keen to emphasize he may never get back to his former self. He made his name managing successful local music brands like Tom Close, Urban Boyz, Dream Boyz and Charly Na Nina.

“Before the pandemic I had signed two contracts to stage first ever Silent Disco shows in DR Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. I had procured 700 brand new wireless head phones to make the shows historic. I had already made some cash-outs. Everything just came crushing down on me,” said Muyoboke.

He was to reap at least $17,000 (Rwf 16.3m) profit from those two shows alone, a considerable earning.

“It is a loss that will take me years to recover because it dug a very deep hole into my pockets. Imagine the savings I had struggled for years, gone just like that,” said Muyoboke.

Celebrated artist manager and event organizer Alex Muyoboke says it will take him years to recover

Former Urban Boyz crew lead singer Safi Niyibikora commonly known on stage as Safi Madiba was already in Canada preparing for concerts in Toronto, and had scheduled others in the United States. When control measures to curb spread of the virus began to be imposed, the showbiz industry was the first.

He incurred costs paying for air tickets, visas as well as other initial booking expenses which are not reimbursable.

“The Promoters might set other dates when the lockdowns are eased but I will never harvest as much money as I had anticipated. The shows may not even attract people this time because everyone is scared,” said Safi, who has actually opted to stay there.

Singer Igor Mabano, another brand name changing Rwanda’s music scene may have been one of the unluckiest. The weekend when lockdowns began, is when he had scheduled a series of shows. He had to reimburse people who had paid for tickets.

The cases of Muyoboke, Safi Madiba and Igor Mabano sound like they are individuals. They are are not. They are part of a long chain of businesses that would have gained from their shows, including thousands of bars.

We lost money, and got family time

No figures are available at the moment as to the extent of the whole industry and the impact accrued, but the fact that a country is silent tells a worrying state of affairs.

As of the end of last year, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector employed 11,371 people, according to 2019 Labour Force Survey compiled by the National Institute of Statistics. This particular survey was released at beginning of March this year.

While some few in the sector may have remained working, the vast majority of the 11,000 lost their livelihood. Now they have to start afresh, probably.

More than six months down the road, the impact of the pandemic has brought what may turn out to be lifelong lessons for some. It has also changed how some artists think.

Singer Pius Rukabuza or stage name Deejay Pius said: “The truth is, covid-19 hit us hard in very many ways but again it taught us the lesson of always planning ahead. Most artists spend every penny they earn assured that tomorrow an event promoter will hire him or her. With the kind of hardship we are going through, I hope no one will spend aimlessly.”

Singer turned medical practitioner, Dr Thomas Muyombo with stage name Tom Close said: “Being an artist doesn’t mean one shouldn’t spend time with family….the pandemic has been opportunity to be with family and opened avenue for creating quality music. It should no longer be the local market. Everyone has to go global as the only platform now is selling content through the internet.”

Arthur Nkusi, the CEO of Arthur Nation and himself a standup comedian, said as part of his other brand organizing events, he had booked global reggae legends UB40. The show is off with no plans for another anytime soon, but the pandemic brought him a new idea.

Arthur Nkusi said: “Streaming our content via internet is the only way to earn going forward but it is still a big challenge since most of us were used to earning money through our traditional way of live shows. Me as a comedian through Arthur Nation, we have started airing Seka Live comedy show through YouTube channel. We had to work out an alternative way to keep our fans, as well as keeping our careers moving. The new reality has also come with new costs; – we had to set up a production studio which wasn’t budgeted for.”

According to industry estimates, before COVID-19 a basic video shoot cost about Rwf 200,000 ($208). Today, the price has more than doubled because some measures like Testing Guns are required at shooting locations which have increased overall costs.

One person saw it coming

Divas duo Charly Na Nina have been household names for the recent years. It may be months or even years to see them on stage

Producer and events organiser Muyoboke, with all the other industry players we spoke to said this is the time they need government help more than ever.

Muyoboke said: “Let’s not beat around the bush. No artist in Rwanda is making enough money from music streaming platforms like YouTube to be able to pay for expenses like video shoot and studio…. musicians are starving seriously especially the young ones who can’t even earn that one dollar from streaming platforms like Apple Music.”

For one very big voice in the creative industry, Hope Azeda, the Founder and Artistic Director of Mashirika Performing Arts, just like everyone is counting losses, she did too. However, she had a smile on her face.

“You know, we are often called foreseers or abapfumu in Kinyarwanda. I felt this coming but I didn’t know what it was exactly,” said Azeda, fresh from organising what was considered, from public reactions, a successful virtual festival in mid July.

For several years, Azeda has ferried artistic groups from all over the world to showcase their acts in Kigali. The Ubumuntu Arts Festival is today a renowned brand.

Azeda said: “That’s why the theme of the 2020 festival 2020 was ‘Stop, Breathe, Live’. I came face to face with what I felt. The pandemic has hit us really hard, but as humans, we got the muscles to resist. As an artist this is the time to stop and revise our craft. We have woken up in a new world with different life gymnastics. The creative industry has crashed and needs to pick up itself with a new game. It’s hard but this is the time to embrace virtual reality and create for a bigger community.”

“We are having a serious issue of lacking digital studios and theatres to create our artistic projects and be able to showcase them virtually. There is an area that needs government intervention to set up such facilities… The internet is another big challenge. You can’t even have a smooth zoom meeting without experiencing connection problems.”

Hope Azeda, the Founder and Artistic Director of Mashirika Performing Arts

Government, with unimaginable needs on its plate, says it understands and feels what the creative industry is facing. In July, it announced a Rwf 300m (about 313,000 U.S. dollars) in grants to support initiatives from art enterprises and artists, promote access to resources, facilities and training opportunities free for artists, and engage Rwandans to learn about, love and buy made-in-Rwanda art.

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