A Rockstar in Rwanda: Reflections from The Fray's Isaac Slade

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Forty-thousand people were staring at me, and the second song wasn’t starting. We were opening for U2 in our Denver hometown stadium last summer. We finished our first song of the set and after the cheering stopped, I realized something was wrong. I turned to see what was happening on stage only to find that the guys were staring right back at me. I was out on the famed catwalk, a solid two-minute walk back to the main stage, and I realized the problem—I start the second song. In a haze of borrowed stadiumhood I had wandered into Bonoland and couldn’t remember exactly how to get back. I still have no idea what I talked about, but I banter-sprinted for two minutes back around to the piano. Thankfully, we pulled the show up before it crashed and played pretty decently, but the best part of the set was when the crowd was finally all there and we played our new song “Heartbeat.” With U2 about to take the stage and their 78,000 fans at attention, for that brief moment the stadium was ours. As I ventured back on catwalk and started singing, my mind wandered 8,600 miles away to a valley overlooking a town called Kigali, where the song began.

Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, is a tall and slender man, soft-spoken with a firm smile and a gentle handshake—think James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. An old friend of mine knows him, and he invited me to tag along for a meeting at the president’s home in the capital city of Kigali. I was in Cape Town at the time, writing for our third record, and I gladly joined. The two men discussed investment projects, progress towards more efficient wood stoves for the remote villages, a star rider from the national bicycling team recently qualifying for the Olympics, and the first broadband Internet line under construction that was now only miles from the capital. It was a beautiful thing to hear, considering that dark summer in 1994, when angry mobs brutally hacked 800,000 of their own people to death. And all this from the man who quietly drove his Jeep into the country and led his rebel forces to end the genocide.

It was the president’s birthday, and after they wrapped up the meeting, I pulled out my guitar and sang him “How To Save A Life.” It was probably more meaningful for me than him, but I finished and he thanked me. Then I stepped out on a limb and asked him how he handles the loneliness of his throne. Suddenly the wall clock in his circular office seemed to stop ticking and the whole room stiffened up. His executive staff member and my friend both tensed up and sat straight. The president turned away from me for 10 very long seconds, probably deciding whether or not to open up to some punk kid from the States. Instead, the president turned and began to gently share his philosophy on leadership and loneliness, on being an African president, on stepping off his pedestal, on some days driving himself to work and stopping to help someone change a flat tire, on combating the loneliness of leadership through service and vulnerability.

To be honest, it struck me as odd. I have always handled my own little spotlight by trying keeping it all together, by using my little pedestal to impress everyone around me until they clap. But something he said resonated with me. In my little rock-star storyteller life, my “just behave” tactic was not working and by the summer I turned 28 years old, my little plan had backfired and I went crazy, racing back and forth between Mister-well-behaved-empty-hollow-shell guy and the scared and vulnerable, real person who I actually was. Hardly anyone knew why either. Even with all our band’s success and visibility, I was still the shy guy at the party, hiding in the corner hoping no one would ask who I really am and just assume I was happy, content and enjoying my semi-famousness.

We drove away from the palace and met some American expats for lunch. Before we ate, one of the men asked us to all hold hands as he prayed. As the man began to bless the food, the president and the country, I felt a pulse in the hand of a woman next to me. I couldn’t tell which one of our heartbeats it was but it reminded me how fragile life is, and how vulnerable I was without my pedestal. I felt so connected to her, to the country. I pictured a very young Kagame, taking the bloody country by the hand 20 years ago and feeling for that same heartbeat, for any evidence that she was still alive. She was a battered country, beaten within an inch and then left for dead on the side of a muddy road. As we walked out of the coffee shop, I held back for a minute and sang something into my iPhone recorder. I had felt like that woman was Rwanda, coming back to life, and I got to feel that pulse myself. As I turned the corner, five or six little kids coming home from school started laughing and dancing and shouting at me, almost like they knew I was singing about them.

An hour later, my friend and I stood silent in the somber halls of the genocide memorial center, a museum built on a former general’s home, commemorating the lives and deaths of nearly a million people from April to June 1994. I stared helplessly at the impossible images, streets littered with mangled bodies, a photograph of a woman, still holding her baby, both of them staring vacantly into the darkening sky. I stared at an old photograph of Kagame, gentle but absolutely fearless, looking over the windshield of a Jeep with his rebel troops marching behind him. I envied him for his for his ease, for his selflessness. I desperately wanted to move past my “audience approval” obsession and rise or fall living from the core of who I was, instead of just behaving well. I made my way through to the end and asked a young woman at the front desk for directions to the mass gravesite. She was maybe 24, with a beaming radiant smile and a deep sadness in her face. She would have been about nine years old during the genocide. I wanted to know who she lost, how she survived, if someone saved her. All that I could get out was “how many people are buried there.” Just above a whisper, she said “258,000 bodies.”

I walked outside and a warm gentle rain began to fall. I made my way through a garden portico behind the museum and out into a clearing where I found my friend waiting for me. I looked around, and he could tell I was shaken. We were in the middle of a cemetery, with a number of concrete pads, 300 square-feet each, all in a line off to my right and to my left. I walked over to the edge of one of the graves, and I could almost hear the woman again, whispering the number of bodies. As the rain began to fall harder, suddenly the dry statistic melted into faces and names, dreams turned into nightmares, men and women and children—ended. I just collapsed into a sort of weeping heap next to the third grave on the left, Kagame’s words ringing in my ears. He helped end this. He looked deep inside himself, and with everything to lose and maybe nothing gain, he and countless others like him helped lead their country back to her feet, back to her life, and even into reconciliation with her own enemy neighbors. We were alone at the gravesite. My friend stood at a distance and let me be, sitting alone in the pouring rain and mud. I slowly stood up, face and clothes soaked and salty. I walked to the edge of the graves and looked across the misty valley to the promising skyline on the hill across. I saw a trail of smoke and followed it down through the valley below to a small fire that burned through rain. I pulled out my phone and sang something and made my way back to the entrance.

As our taxi drove on through the rain, down into the valley and up the other side, a phrase I saw in the museum came to mind. It’s one of those mysterious sayings, held equally true by both the Muslim and Jewish faiths. Something like “If you murder one man, you kill the whole world, but if you save one man, you save all of mankind”’ No one there in the Denver stadium knew what I had experienced, what I saw that day in Kigali, what I heard, but as I stood, singing those words to 78,000 people, I wished they could.

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