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Fablice Manirakiza is a rapper
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Fablice Manirakiza is a rapper
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Conversations
8 April 2014

Fablice Manirakiza is a rapper

Interview by David Havea
Photography by Richard Turton

Rap music has an image problem. Growing increasingly distant from it’s hip hop roots, the genre has become more concerned with shameless bragging and blatant materialism than empowering the disenfranchised or providing political commentary. At the same time, it’s moved on from its humble beginnings as an underground scene to a mainstay of the mainstream. So much so, that it seems perfectly normal for legendary gangster rap artist Snoop Dog to feature on a track by pop singer Katy Perry. These days the stereotypical rap star is more likely to have a clothing line than an interesting point of view. All of which makes the emergence of a talent like Fablice Manirakiza, of Melbourne based rap group The FLYBZ (pronounced Fly-Beez), an invigorating breath of fresh air.

 

Fablice certainly looks like a young man who could confidently pick up a microphone. When I meet him in the offices of Multicultural Arts Victoria, he could have easily just stepped off the set of a rap video clip. But underneath the LA Lakers beanie atop his head, Fablice’s ready smile and friendly demeanour quickly dispel any rap artist attitude stereotypes. In fact, dispelling stereotypes seems to be the norm for the young artist. Barely out his teens, Fablice’s youthful enthusiasm is tempered by a maturity beyond his years. And although his music sits firmly in the rap genre, Fablice doesn’t aspire to be the next Jay-Z or Kanye West, preferring to find his inspiration in the likes of Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley.

At the young age of 21, Fablice has already achieved a lot in the musical field, recording a full length album of original material with his nephew G- Storm under the FLYBZ moniker and recently releasing a single featuring iconic Australian songwriter Paul Kelly. Impressive feats at such a young age, but even more so when one discovers the hardships Fablice has endured during his young life in his native Burundi and later during his time in a refugee camp in Tanzania. The small African nation of Burundi, once colonised by Belgium, has since endured many years of civil war and wide spread poverty. At the age of 11, Fablice was taken by the local militia in an attempt to make him a child soldier. Fortunately, Fablice was able to escape this bleak future and now aims to raise awareness and spread his message of peace with his music.

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DAVID HAVEA: Fablice, good to meet you! You are originally from Burundi in Africa, tell me about where you are from.

FABLICE MANIRAKIZE: I was born in Burundi but in 1993 we were forced to leave the country. Burundi was colonised by the Belgians. They had divided us into two tribes, they said whoever has the tall nose is a Tutsi and whoever is a short person is a Hutu. This is the same as what happened in Rwanda which used to be one country with Burundi but was separated by the Belgians. When they left, they left the power with one tribe which led to fighting. So in 1993, me and my parents were forced to leave the country because of the civil war and we became refugees in Rwanda. After a couple of months, we were told to leave Rwanda as well. We didn’t want to go but the fighting in Rwanda in 1994 was terrible so we managed to go back to Burundi. When we got there, there was nothing left for us so we had to start a whole new life. But my parents were strong and they managed to put us back on track even though there was still a civil war going on. Then when I was eight my parents were killed because of the tribal war; my mum was Hutu and my dad was Tutsi and I was trapped in the middle.

I managed to stay strong, but I was eight, in a third world country and I’d just lost my parents

That must have been extremely difficult. Did you have other family with you in Burundi at the time?

I did have other siblings but they had their own children so they had to take care of their own families. So for me, I felt a bit excluded but I managed to stay on track and stay at school. Even though it was tough for me, I was using drugs and all that, but at the end of the day I would still try and stand up because before my parents passed away we would spend hours every day praying to God. It made us understand that we could look up to God and he would understand us. But another hard thing came in my way when I was 11, I was at school and a truck full of soldiers came into the classroom and selected me to go with them to become a child soldier.

They just pulled you straight out of the classroom?

They said “All tall boys stand up, you’re coming away”. Luckily, after two weeks I managed to escape, but then I was living in fear because I knew they were looking for me. I couldn’t go back to school and started to feel like I was born in the wrong country. So from there I got into more drugs, sniffing petrol and drinking alcohol. I was lost. But I had a sister who had been living in a Tanzanian refugee camp for 10 years so my other siblings organised to take me there which was a relief for me. I remember crossing the border, it was tough because we had to do it illegally and cross the rivers during the night.

That must have been a scary experience!

When you’re used to those kind of things you just think it’s life and you can’t escape it, you know? I lived in the camp for 3 years but after that time I was even thinking about going back to Burundi.

Why was that?

Well, it was a refugee camp, and we were just living on the edge of the world. The camp was like a prison, we had limitations about where we could go but because the government wasn’t giving us enough food we had to go from there to find food to survive. Still, if we got caught we could have been shot. But there wasn’t enough water or electricity. It was tough, they were bad slums. We would wake up in the morning at 6am start walking to go find wood, get there at 12 and walk another 6 hours home.

And you did that for 3 years? That must of seemed like a long time.

It felt like a lifetime. But there were chances to immigrate to different countries. They came to interview refugees and see what the next step is. For me, I couldn’t go back to Burundi, I was ready to get killed out there rather than go back. In Burundi, you could get killed by your siblings just for the land so my sister had nothing left there for her too.

"I'm passionate about doing anything that can make my voice be heard."
Fablice Manirakiza

Did they want to send you back to Burundi?

The government of Tanzania need to send refugees somewhere so they asked us if we wanted to go back or not. We said you may as well kill us here. I remember from there, we were accepted to go to Australia which we knew nothing about. I used to smoke in Burundi and the matches I would use had a kangaroo on them and said Australia, so I would always be confused thinking “What is this Australia?”. I had no idea! We just hoped it was somewhere protected and safe. The other crazy thing is that when you get accepted the people there could be jealous of you and do things like witchcraft. Man, I’ve seen a dog wearing thongs and smoking! It was crazy.

That is crazy! It must have been a relief to be accepted though.

I remember the first time getting on the plane, it was a miracle to me! I was 14 at the time, and the experience of getting on a jumbo jet, with a toilet in the sky and people serving me food! I felt like I was a president, it was really a miracle happening to me. When I got here I started school in a language centre and I spent about half a year learning English, then I started in year 7 at school. I just finished VCE in 2011 and started a course at RMIT in International Business and just finished that. And I was really excited to get an opportunity to work at Multi-Cultural Arts Victoria as a youth officer.

I hear you’re working on a lot of projects here now?

It’s given me an opportunity to do what I love, because I always wanted to do music, especially after the death of my parents because I needed the world to hear that there are people crying while some laughing, that there are people dying from no freedom or from hunger while people here complain about their phone’s brightness.

And I do a lot of talks in schools about this.

Do you enjoy doing those talks?

I do, I love it. We do workshops, I get to tell them stories and do some music things as well. It’s good because some of them don’t know what’s going on out there, they see ads on TV about people dying but they don’t know what’s really happening. That’s what my ambition is, to try and change the world in some way. You know, we are human beings who all live under the same sun. I read the Bible a lot and one of the conclusions I’ve come to is don’t hurt anyone how you don’t want to get hurt. It’s a shame to know that there are people who are controlling us in the wrong way.

Music is obviously very important to you now but what role did it have in your early life? What’s music like in Burundi culture?

Well, I had a tough life then, where I couldn’t even buy thongs. To be a musician in Burundi you’ve got to have cash so for me it wasn’t even in my mind as something I could do. Sometimes I would make drums and play them together.

Even here part of the Burundian community is the drums and I remember back home I used to want to join the drumming team because I love the sound and history of it.

So you had a bit of exposure to music at a young age?

Well, I really wanted to learn it (the drumming) but you needed a lot of financial support and I didn’t have that so I was just mucking around with it. But I was always creative in my childhood, I used to make cars out of wire, that’s how I survived when I was young, I used to sell them and I would make drums out of anything really.

What was your first exposure to hip hop and rap music then? When you arrived in Australia?

I was young! Even when I was 10 or 11 in Burundi there were cinemas where you could pay 50 franc and go in a watch music videos of 50 Cent or Ja Rule doing their thing. I would think “Man! There’s a paradise out there we just don’t know how to get there”.

And this was before you could even understand the words right!?

Yeah, even now there are people there (in Burundi) jamming that stuff and they have no idea what they are talking about!

Do those artists influence the music you make now?

Yeah, in terms of the beats. And also reggae as well.

But I’m the kind of guy who does everything really, I’m passionate about doing anything that can make my voice be heard. I’ve just done a song with Paul Kelly, it’s a song called ‘Child Soldier’ and it’s more of a reggae thing.

So communicating you’re message is the most important thing to you?

I want to do something positive. There are many heroes in the world, like Bob Marley or Nelson Mandela who did things to make human rights heard and that’s what I want to do. There are different ways people will see things or understand things. Look at people talk about asylum seekers now.  But do these people come here because they don’t want to live in their country? They just want to survive, like everyone else.

People here might think it’s a good idea if we reject them, but we need to listen to them and hear the reason why they are running away because it’s hard to be killed by your own people, it’s crazy. For all these people who think letting in asylum seekers is the wrong thing, if they could go for one day and see how it is, they might not judge so much.

That’s very true! And because of the political stance of the Australian government on a lot of these issues, it seems to me that there is a growing opinion overseas that Australia is a racist country. Have you experienced any racism in your time here?

I don’t know, but I’ve always been someone who doesn’t care what people think about me, I don’t take it on.

I mean, I’ve seen my brothers and sisters being killed, why would I care about someone saying something to me? That is not going to break me, they are just words.

You’ve been through more than that. Speaking of words, when you first started writing rap lyrics, did you do it in English or Burundi?

I started writing in Burundi and I was trying to translate it into English because I wanted people to hear it who can help us. But it was really hard. It’s been hard but at the end of the day you just have to keep pushing. Chase your dream because your dream will never chase you.

I want more things that inspire me to...

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