Most of us can barely handle one career, but Frank Rukundo (known as Frankie Joe to his fans) manages three — and successfully at that. The single father is a musician, a model, and an actor.
He’s also the first Rwandan to compete on the continent’s most-watched reality show, Big Brother Africa (BBA). Somewhere along the way, he found the time to earn a bachelor’s degree in financial management too.
Since launching his career in 2004, Rukundo has become a household name in the local and regional music industry. He has bagged multiple honors as both a model and a musician and appeared in the film Black Out and the TV series Hell on Wheels.
He spoke to Akilah Net about his transition from BBA, pursuing multiple career paths, and why East Africa’s musicians should stay true to themselves. Excerpts follow.
How did you transition from Big Brother Africa back to the working world?
It was not easy. But, of course, there is nothing easy in life. The transition was a little bit challenging because people had this perspective of the Frankie who is coming from BBA, the biggest reality TV show in Africa. And they expected me to act differently.
I haven’t changed; I am still the same Frankie you used to know 10 years ago. Professionally, BBA opened doors for me, and other opportunities are presenting themselves as a result. Overall, the transition was smooth, and I am quite grateful for being in BBA.
Could you talk about those opportunities and how BBA impacted your career?
Traveling, making friends, exposure to international audiences are a few opportunities I can name now. I traveled across Africa and met people from different professions. I also had a platform to showcase who I am.
I have had a chance to go to Nigeria and Uganda. In both countries, I had an impressive reception and made professional connections, which I am featuring in different upcoming projects. For example, Tayo who was my room competitor, is a professional model in Nigeria and South Africa, while I am a model in North America. We realized that we could work together, and we are both excited about it.
Back home, I got a chance to work with Airtel Rwanda as a result of BBA.
Generally, BBA gave me a platform, and I am willing to explore the opportunities that came with it.
How did you get started in music?
My music career goes way back to when I was a little kid. I was that kid who always sang and danced, as any other kid does. But later, I realized I could use music to put food on the table.
My music career turned professional when I enrolled at the National University of Rwanda [now, University of Rwanda, Huye Campus] back in 2004. Music was not part of my field of study (my concentration was financial management).
However, this did not stop me from exploring my singing abilities and taking them to another level. I practiced and recorded day and night.
The result is the Frankie you see today.
What is the No. 1 piece of advice you’d give to aspiring musicians?
Stay true to yourself. Believe in who you are and go for it.
Look, when I started in 2004, music production was really bad. People were discrediting our music. But today, when any DJ plays Kitoko’s songs or Knowless’, to give a few examples, we see people dancing.
We started from the bottom and are still coming up. Rwandans appreciate what we do because we stay true to ourselves.
We do not need to be like Nigerians or Americans whatsoever to get where we want to be. People appreciate us for who we are and not for whom we pretend to be. My latest show was as well-attended as my previous concerts. The reason is because I stay true to myself. I know the right hook. I do not seek to be somebody else.
You are a model, a movie actor, and a musician. Why did you pursue them all? How do you manage everything?
All three are in the arts. As a lover of the arts, I challenged myself to try them all.
Initially, I thought that I could only become a musician. Later on, I decided to go beyond my expectations and tried modeling. When I moved to Canada, I did several auditions; some went through, and others didn’t.
But I kept doing it and finally got there.
Twenty years ago, I was tending goats and cows in my grandfather’s village — and then I was on billboards in Canada and doing photo shoots in New York.
I think it is confidence that enabled me to go beyond my expectations and become a model despite my unpromising background. The same applies to my journey to become a movie actor.
When it comes to how I manage myself, I try to do everything in its time. I know how and when to sharpen my music skills, how and when to shape my body, and how and when to practice acting.
How would you gauge the economic potential of music in East Africa? Can musicians make a living?
Music is talent, and if you really respect your talent, then you can certainly take it to another level. However, this does not mean that everybody who sings is going to be rich overnight. Success in music happens over time.
When you look at Diamond in Tanzania or Jaguar in Kenya, you see that they are doing well financially. But when you look back on their music journeys, you only see hardships. They are where they are now because they developed their talent and toiled their way to success.
But to answer your question about gauging the economic potential of musicians in East Africa, I would start with the Rwandan music industry.
It is crucial to note that we are just coming up.
For example, when I started recording my music back in 2004, the production was of poor quality, and producers were just coming up. But look where we are now.
The chief problem is that we do not have our own identity. We are trying to blend different styles from across the region, which does not attract the local music consumers. Rwandans need something unique, something that traces its roots here.
When I was in Nigeria, I did not see a club playing music other than Nigerian. And you could certainly tell that the music was Nigerian.
Generally, the same applies to Uganda and Kenya. Therefore, music industries in these countries are somehow more advanced than ours.
However, I am very proud of where Rwandan musicians are now, and we will get there. We just need to upgrade our music.
How can East African musicians get into more international opportunities?
Technically, it is easy. Well, it is not as easy as it sounds, but it is fairly easy. Just stay true to yourself.
Take a look at people like Angelique Kidjo, for example. This woman does not sing in English though she lives in New York, but her concerts in the U.S. are well attended. Her English audience appreciates her music, even though her lyrics are not always in English.
I can name many musicians from different parts of the world who succeeded simply because they stayed true to themselves. Similarly, our musicians need to be unique and themselves. People will appreciate them.
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