Bryan Mugande, who goes by his artist name BRYN, fled Rwanda and became a refugee six years ago. He and his family had to leave the country for political reasons and were placed into an asylum seeker center near Vielsalm, Belgium. In the center, BRYN found an outlet through songwriting while his immigration status remained uncertain. Now 18, BRYN wrote this letter on spending three years in the asylum center, the people who supported him, and embracing his identity through music.
My childhood is quite blurry. There was a lot of moving with no goodbyes and a lot of faces I can’t fully recall. But the thing is, all of these hazy pictures and clips in my mind have a vivid soundtrack. I remember listening to Westlife with my mother, being hypnotized by Nelly Furtado’s 'All Good Things' music video, and envying the teenagers in early Disney musicals.
Greyson Chance, a singer-songwriter who rose to fame on YouTube, inspired me to start writing after the release of his debut single 'Waiting Outside The Lines.' Seeing someone my age write such a good song made me want to try the same. At 11 years old, I took an old school notebook and ripped out the used pages to make my first songbook. Chance’s lyrics were the first I wrote in it.
Music became a big part of my identity. Not until 2013, when I moved into an asylum seeker center in Belgium, near Vielsalm, did I realize how deeply music was anchored in me. My family and I fled Rwanda for political reasons and were put into the center. Life there could be overwhelmingly dull, so I started listening to music as an escape. I had always been into songs written in english. At the time, I was into Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, two amazing songwriters who played the guitar. Their music motivated me to ask one of the workers at the center, Aurélie, if I could have one of the old guitars in her office. I wanted to learn to play while singing. We looked up some chords online and easy songs to play. I printed them out so I could practice in my room. On sunny days, with other musicians at the center, we would play music near the children’s playground and the residents would listen and cheer for us. We all spent so much time together, in the same struggle, that we became a big family.
During the processing of our asylum application, we lived in the center in Belgium for three years. My experience was good, great even, but that wasn’t the case for everyone. The underaged residents went to school, while the adults, like my Dad, had little to do but wait. Despite the three year setback, we desperately tried to make the center feel like home. The center echoed the style of a boarding school. We slept three to a room, with three beds in each space. We lined up for meals like students waiting in a cafeteria. The food was...food. I can’t say I liked most of the meals, but we had something to eat and that’s what mattered. My brother and I were lucky to have attended school regularly before arriving in Belgium. Along with the others already fluent in French, we were placed into classes with Belgian students and had the opportunity to meet new people. Other teenagers from the center had to learn the language before joining the Belgian curriculum.
We were welcomed by the other teens in the best way ever. They made us feel like we belonged in Belgium. Our new friends asked their parents to drive us to parties and activities so we wouldn’t miss out on anything. Our teachers also went the extra mile to make us feel loved, and made sure we were able to go on the senior trip. They made our teenage experience as “normal” as it could be. We never missed out.
In 2015, our immigration status was in turmoil as we were about to be deported. Then, with the help of our school, we formed a petition to annul the decision. A year later, our immigration status in Belgium was approved. The love and compassion that came out of that situation was unbelievable. Our friends, everyone at school, even strangers around the city supported the petition. Those people are a big part of why my family is now safe, and we’ll forever be grateful to them. One of my next songs is about those people who helped us stay in Belgium.
Take Me There
My experience at the center and school was great, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t bad moments. My dark skin and queerness didn’t go unnoticed. I’ve had “go back to your country fucking nigger” and other racist, homophobic slurs shouted at me at parties. But those ugly moments can’t overshadow how good most people were to us and how much fun we had.
In school, I had good grades, especially in science and mathematics. My teachers encouraged me to undertake further studies after graduating from secondary school, but nothing appealed to me as much as music. I had the opportunity to work with Antoine Boulangé and Sam Lambert, two musicians from Vielsalm. We made music for an event at the end of the school year. Teaming up with Antoine and Sam, I heard the potential of my voice for the first time. Even though the uncertainty of the music industry frightened my parents and teachers, I knew that not giving music a shot would haunt me.
Now, I live alone in Brussels studying music at the SAE Institute, writing, meeting other artists, and going to concerts. Planning my next release, I am looking for a job to finance my debut EP as an independent artist. The next song is about a matter close to me, and I’m excited to get back with Antoine to work on it. He produced my first single 'Take Me There.' Making more music and preparing for live shows, I’m grateful chasing what I love.