“I don’t sing to avenge my family, but because other innocent people who know nothing about politics continue to die,” says imprisoned Congolese rapper Idengo.
“I wanted to change the country with my music — it will help me to create a new Congo,” he adds.
Idengo — real name Delphin Katembo — is the only surviving member of a family of five devastated by conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and exemplifies the challenges faced by dissenting artists as the bloodshed knows no end.
A military tribunal in December convicted Idengo and fellow rapper Muyisa Nzanzu Makasi over song lyrics deemed dangerous and detrimental to President Felix Tshisekedi and the DR Congo’s army.
Tshisekedi placed the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri under a “state of siege” last May, aiming to intensify a military offensive against rebels, with soldiers replacing civil servants in key positions.
But the measures have not stemmed the killings, stoking anger among the local population and driving the two rappers’ emotionally and politically charged music.
The men, who hail from North Kivu, spoke with AFP from their prison in the provincial capital Goma where they are awaiting an appeal hearing.
Tired of their promises
Idengo, now 25, had a precocious passion for politically conscious rapping.
He says he was only around 10 years old when he produced his first song, “Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights), and gave his first concert at 14 in his hometown of Beni.
He was first imprisoned for his songs in 2019 and ended up behind bars again early last year for the track “Politicien Escroc” (Cheating Politician).
Another single, “Effacer le Tableau” (Wipe the Slate Clean), prompted his latest arrest in October and led to his 10-year jail term on accusations of urging people to kill soldiers, police officers and UN peacekeepers.
A YouTube music video shows Idengo dressed in torn fatigues, pretending to lop off heads with a bush cutter.
“They sacrifice us for money, we’re tired of their promises,” he sings, alternating between French and Swahili.
Idengo’s lawyers argued in court that psychological trauma explained the explosive lyrics.
His friend Bienvenu Sondu says Idengo’s mother was killed in 2013 or 2014 and his father was killed “sometime later”.
“Several other” relatives were “massacred” by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group, he says, adding that Idengo’s brothers are dead.
The ADF is the fiercest among dozens of armed groups operating in the mineral-rich east of the DRC.
Muyisa, for his part, never got to know his father following the massacres, living with his mother and failing to finish university studies in IT management.
Younger sister Wivine remembers how he started singing at their local Catholic church when still in primary school.
“He loves peace, so he began searching for peace,” she says.
Muyisa, 29, recounts starting music — “the revolution” — in 2020.
“If things change tomorrow, I’ll move on to something else. But what’s happening here pushes me to make my voice heard,” he says.
“Bob Marley used to say music can change anything. I don’t want to be a saviour, a hero, but I’m trying to awaken consciences.”
Muyisa received a two-year prison sentence for insulting the head of state.
Speaking at his trial with Idengo, Muyisa said “nothing” had changed despite Tshisekedi’s promises to put an end to the killings.
“That’s why I say that the people in government are louts, idiots. But I didn’t insult the president, I reminded him of his work,” he insists.
Portraits of Patrice Lumumba, independent DR Congo’s first prime minister who was assassinated in 1961, and of Laurent-Desire Kabila, the president who met the same fate in 2001, adorn the walls outside Idengo’s recording studio in Beni.
“His conviction is shameful. The Grand Nord population is behind him!” Cesar Mutukufu Mukombozi, a 30-year-old fan, told AFP near the recording studio.
Inside, three young musicians work with a synthesiser, aiming to create new songs to show that the fight for freedom continues.
“Everything he sings about is reality. They want us to die en masse without speaking out,” said 19-year-old student Francine Soki.
“He’s innocent! It’s a farce,” said one of them, known as “Barareddy Zero”.
Idengo hoped to host a concert in prison to honour his heroes Lumumba and Kabila.
But the prison director refused, fearing the event would help detainees escape.