The first concert I ever attended was circa, oh, let’s say 1999. Or before that. When did “Spice World” come out? Okay, it was before 1997.
After that Spice Girls concert, my life changed forever. In one parallel universe, I became gay on a pleasant fall evening in 1996 (I am taking “Quantum Physics” now, so I have the authority to assert such claims). In this universe, however, I fell in love with the fine art form that is the concert.
This summer I attended the first, and in retrospect the last, Rwandan concert of my life.
A quick setup, please: I had been in Rwanda approximately 57 days doing this and that. I had made my Rwandan friends (Philippe! Toni-Alice! The tall brother of Immanuel whose name I never learned but whose height I will never forget!) and we hung out together when we could.
One fateful Monday, my friend Philippe came to me with a proposition: “Matthew, you should come to a concert this Saturday. It can be fun!”
“A concert?” I wondered aloud, eyes tingling with anticipation. Could the Spice Girls be giving a second world tour?
“Yes!” Philippe exclaimed. “It is a concert for the most popular singer of Rwanda. His name is The Ben.”
After repeating that phrase, writing it down on a sheet of paper and YouTubing a video of said artist, I confirmed that I had not misheard Philippe: There was an artist whose stage name was merely his first name attached to a definite article.
That Saturday, bubbling with excitement, we went to the main stadium of Kigali to see The Ben. The event was supposed to start at 6. All right. Things in Africa go slowly. We arrived at 6:30, to show Africa that she could not, in fact, surprise us with her lateness.
At 7:30, we realized that Africa had bested us again. There was an International Anglican Church convention taking place where The Ben was supposed to perform. We had to wait outside in a dusty field, hearing people scream hymns in broken English and praising God in a language I did not understand.
Finally, the Anglicans lost their enthusiasm for yelling and left. We rushed into the stadium, a pack of quarks folding on top of each other to create particles of destruction (QUANTUM PHYSICS AND BEYOND! QUANTUM PHYSICS AND BEYOND!). Eventually we were all crammed inside. At this point, I was hungry, thirsty, tired and surrounded by people whom I did not understand. Several children tried to sell me peanuts or glucose biscuits or already opened water. I declined all of these offers in an attempt not to vomit later in the evening.
Within half an hour, security guards kicked everyone out. They needed to set up the stage for The Ben. I tried to play the “confused Mzungu” card so I could remain sitting, but it did not work.
(This is the portion where I explain that the word “Mzungu” means “strange foreigner who doesn’t fit in.” I should also explain that I was one of three white people at a concert of thousands. And I did not fit in.)
We found ourselves yet again outside the stadium. Except now there were even more people, and they were all angry and trying to push down the steel entrance gate. Luckily enough, I picked a strategic position near the gate so I could feel every push, grope and bump of the hundred or so people behind me. This is the type of situation that the Yale Fellowship Office warns you never to be in. I would have left, but in the process of leaving I probably would have been crushed to death. Fortunately enough, I made a friend while I was standing in line. I never learned his name, but I did learn that he had a cell phone that played videos. In a short film I have since titled “Things That Shouldn’t Forcefully Be Put In A Mouth,” I saw about three seconds of what I am assuming was the middle of an enchanting and passionate video about the perils of love. My new friend and I quickly ended our friendship.
An hour later, people were still pushing at the gate, now yelling with increasing ferocity at the guards.
Eventually a bouncer answered our cries. Philippe translated his words: “Why are all you standing here? I told you an hour ago that this gate will not open. The gate that will open is down there [pointing to his left, an area crowded with enough people to make a fire marshal commit suicide].” I asked Philippe if this was true. Philippe said yes. I asked why everyone had stayed. Philippe said everyone thought the guard might change his mind. Everyone was wrong.
So the entire group of disgruntled Rwandans and I headed over to the other crowd of people. There were roughly four people per square normal-space-a-single-person-occupies. I don’t know how we made it through the entrance, but Philippe ran head-first into the crowd of disgruntled Rwandans, dragging me behind him.
Inside, we sat down on hard slabs of blue concrete, covered in a sticky substance that most likely came from there being so much body odor in one space that it had coagulated. People were pouring into the stadium by any means necessary (though the ones who had opted to hop over the wall were chased by a man with a large reed and severely beaten). Soon enough, the stadium was packed so full it seemed the concrete might collapse.
There were opening acts before The Ben. Unlike at the Spice Girls concert, watchers could boo the people they didn’t like, similar to amateur night at the Apollo Theater or my entire seventh-grade experience. People exercised this right freely.
To my ultimate delight, after a few poorly received opening acts, a 12-year-old came on stage. His name was Lil’ G. Lil’ G! What cheers you garnished! What delight we all took in your rapping ability! He ran across the stage, a little midget of anger, talking wildly about love and its various dangers.
Alas, Lil’ G’s glory was short lived. About two minutes into Lil’ G’s act, the police came onstage. The lights turned on. The music stopped. Lil’ G left the stage. The audience started to boo. The audience started to pick up things. The police threateningly held up batons toward the audience. The police talked to the DJ. The DJ announced that the concert was canceled.
The audience was not pleased.
In fact, the audience was mad. I’d go so far as to say “riotous” or “blindingly furious with a mob mentality.”
The Rwandan behind me stood up and yelled something. The entire stadium laughed uproariously. “What is he saying?” I asked Philippe. Philippe answered: “He said he will use the bathroom on the stage because he is angry.”
Then the Rwandan man behind me started shouting a phrase that contained the word “MZUNGU! MZUNGU!” and pointed at me. The entire stadium laughed uproariously once again. “What is he saying?” I asked Philippe. Philippe answered: “He said you will use the bathroom onstage because you are angry.”
But it was The Ben himself who came to my rescue before I was forced to defecate in front of thousands of angry Rwandans; he climbed onto the stage, head in his hands, his gray argyle sweater-vest a mess. Glowing. He grabbed a microphone and started to talk to the audience in Kinyarwanda. People started hissing to express their anger that the show had stopped. The Ben was completely overwhelmed and could do nothing else but break down onstage. He started to sob.
Luckily it is a tradition for Rwandans to bring their mothers everywhere. This is the only explanation I can conceive to justify why The Ben’s mother then came onstage and started hugging her child, rocking back and forth. The Rwandans liked this. They started cheering.
And like fuel to a fire, the cheers doused The Ben in a new wave of defiance and confidence. He grabbed the microphone, stared straight out and started to sing one of his hit songs a cappella.
The crowd went crazy. This w
as the man they had come to see, the man they had waited hours and hours and almost died to witness. A hero, standing up against the man. And I’ll have to admit, his voice was pretty good. I cut him some slack, obviously, as he could barely sing through his weeping.
All good things must come to an end, it seems, because no sooner had The Ben started to wail his dirge of regret, than the police came back onstage. They snatched the microphone out of The Ben’s hands. The Ben ran off the stage, still sobbing.
Now, my dear friends, if at any point you thought the proverbial shit had hit the fan, I beg you to re-evaluate that conclusion and place it here. Because this is when the shit hit the fan. It was a pile of shit, perhaps from an elephant or whale, thrown with a bazooka-like velocity at a wall lined with those enormous fans at the gym that make you feel important. A frappé of misery.
People were throwing, yelling, crying, jumping, stomping, perhaps even defecating (here’s looking to you, creepy man behind me) in the general direction of the policemen. This was the moment right before the riot scene in “Newsies.” It was at this point I turned to Philippe.
“I don’t feel well. May we go now?”
After leaving the stadium, I eventually found out that two Rwandan men had gotten in a tiff over The Ben and had proceeded to stab each other. One of them was sent to the hospital. For safety reasons, the police halted the concert. I whole-heartedly support the police in this matter.
It is safe to say that the next concert I go to will only feature smooth jazz and snapping.
Before I go (and thank you for reading this long), I want to say that in an effort to be funny, I make my life sound more miserable than it ever really is. Rwanda is one of the most incredible places in the world. Please go.
Just don’t go see a concert.