I.Rugamba Breaks The Shackles To Discuss Men's Mental Health Through Hip Hop & Dance

I.Rugamba presents 'Broken Shackles' at Queensland Multicultural Centre (Brisbane) on 6 April.
Grace has been singing as long as she can remember. She is passionate about the positive impact live music can have on community and championing artists. She is an avid animal lover, and hopes to one day own a French bulldog.

Life is one, long journey for hip hop artist I.Rugamba.

His journey began as a young refugee of the Rwandan Civil War, and has traversed through migration to Australia, international dance tours, music collaborations, and now winds through his latest work 'Broken Shackles', a show exploring his newfound purpose of fighting for men's advocacy and mental health.

War and fighting changed the course of I.Rugamba's life, so survival runs in his veins, and his chosen arena battles not with guns, but with the arts of music and dance. "I was born in Rwanda, in a very secluded, rural village," he shares.

"Because of the war in '94, we left Rwanda and we've been refugees in Congo and then Kenya, then Tanzania, then Malawi. Then we went to Mozambique and finally South Africa. After South Africa, I came to Australia.

"My dad has been a musician ever since I was born. My mum passed away when I was very young. I started off as a dancer, not a singer. My dad started these dance groups teaching young children. I learned traditional dance through him, and we collaborated with some high-end performers in South Africa.

"Growing up, I went to the State Theatre of South Africa and learned drama and dance in 2008-2009. After that, we came to Australia. Me and my dad started another dance group here, and I started teaching formally."

I.Rugamba's work was soon recognised globally, leading to an international journey. "We've worked with organisations like BEMAC and Multicultural Australia. Last year, Stellenbosch University in South Africa was conducting research on histories, its indigeneity in the arts and cultures, and what they do to bring social cohesion and people together.

"Me and my father were identified for the work we do. We went to South Africa to participate in the workshop representing Australia with the Australian High Commission of South Africa. That has got us into other opportunities, there was another programme in Canada so we were called to Canada. Another college in America called us to work with them, so it became a tour trip."

Most artists focus on one art form, but I.Rugamba absorbs and expresses both equally. He does, however, observe their differences and benefits. "Dance is the purest form of expression. You have to be in yourself to express with the body truly.

"With a song, I have to sit down and think about things. It's not prompt, it cannot just come now. Whereas dance is the expression of now. A song can hide a lot – pain, happiness, but dance cannot do that.

"The body has a way of releasing, and to a seeing eye, you can tell whether they're happy, whether they're sad. You can tell their rage. Songs can mask things. Music is more for if you want to use your mind, but if you want to get away, dance is the one you go for.

"They're two things like medicine. All medicines should not be used anytime, anyhow. Maybe you're going through something and you listen to lyrics because those lyrics support you. If you lean on them too much, it's like a drug. You find yourself in that cycle over and over again. So music is a medium to freedom, and also something to use in moderation."

I.Rugamba chooses to centre his music around positive themes. His song 'I Am' is about personal triumph, while fan favourite 'I'm In Love' highlights cross-cultural collaboration.

"'I Am' is about the crossroads, that decision 'do I let what I was going through contain me or come up and be triumphant through it'? I realised I am my problem, but I'm also my solution. I was my own saviour.

"['I'm In Love'] is done by an artist I was mentoring, Melania P, she's Maori. The song is written in Swahili and goes into English, then Maori and Kinyarwanda and a little Waganda, so it was a mash of languages. We were looking at how to bring cultures together; can we use music? The song was beautiful. I think it's my best song. On my Spotify it is my most liked song."

'Broken Shackles' is a music and dance programme that employs song and narrative to encourage open dialogue and healing around men's mental health. It was inspired by personal experience, I.Rugamba shares.

"My own story, and every other man I've met. I've lived in Australia for 14 years, and as articulate as I think I was, as knowledgeable or artistic, I still found myself in lonely places. In most cases, with no help. Sometimes through my own pride, sometimes because it was not there.

"Most piercing was the loneliness. I realised when I was falling, there were so many people who were falling with me. There's a big problem of time given to men and mental health. That inspired me to tell an Australian story and narrative that has painted this picture of who we are supposed to be, but inside we are sons.

"We want to love, we want to cry sometimes. I couldn't find a place for that for men, where we can be normal people without having to be strong or resilient all the time. The main theme of 'Broken Shackles' was the theme 'I am'. . . my own Superman, my own anchor, but also my brother's Superman, my brother's anchor.

"Men don't speak up, and because we don't speak up, we can't be helped, nobody knows we have a problem. I've lost a few friends to suicide. I've lost family. I've lost a son myself.

"All the things that I've gone through, you look at the life of men; we become like these numb sponges. So my music, my art is based on the advocacy of men, because there's a lot we have to learn. Especially as we come from violent backgrounds with war.

"We are in a place where there is peace, there is law, but our minds are still very freshly wounded. That's why I thought, if I start speaking up, say my story, share my experiences, maybe other men will come out and start sharing.

"We can reduce family violence, reduce suicide, if people just start speaking up. That's why it's 'Broken Shackles'. We can walk, we can put our hands in the air freely. We don't have anything binding us from freedom."

I.Rugamba presents 'Broken Shackles' at Queensland Multicultural Centre (Brisbane) on 6 April.

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