Singer Clarisse Karasira performs at the Franklin Theater at Waynflete School in Portland in May 2023. Photo by Tim Greenway and courtesy of Sylvain Dejoie Ifashabayo.

Six years ago, Clarisse Karasira was working as a journalist, but she really wanted to be a singer.

She was sitting in her church, praying about her dream, singing quietly to herself. An older man that she didn’t recognize walked up to her.

“You’re going to be a great musician,” he said to her. “All of your blessings are there in the music.”

Today, 26-year-old Karasira is a celebrated musician in her home country of Rwanda and is becoming increasingly familiar in her new home in Maine. She quit her journalism job and released her first song in 2018. Her career took off, and she is now working on her fourth album and has more than 40 million total views on YouTube.

Wherever she is, she uses her music to spread a positive message.

“It’s about love and humanity, peace and unity,” she said.

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Since she moved to Maine in 2021, Karasira has joined the Traditional Arts Network, which connects people who are practicing a cultural art form that has Indigenous or global origins. Kemal Pohan, the community outreach manager who oversees that program at Mayo Street Arts in Portland, said Karasira is a model for others.

“A majority of the artists within our network are emerging artists, artists that are looking to build that fan base but haven’t necessarily achieved it yet,” he said. “Whereas Clarisse has already done that. The things she is doing to further her career are the things that these artists will hopefully do in a few years.”

A SONG FROM THE HEART

Clarisse Karasira has more than 40 million total views on her YouTube channel. Photo by Sylvain Dejoie Ifashabayo.

Karasira grew up as the second of six children, and their life was full of music. She sang in a children’s choir and at the church where her father is a pastor. She danced in a traditional troupe. She was always writing lyrics.

Her favorite artists and influences include the Rwandan singer Cécile Kayirebwa (“She’s a queen of our music”), as well as South African artists Miriam Makeba and Yvonne Chaka Chaka. She also loves the Irish pop group Westlife, and lately, she’s been listening to a lot of music from the Philippines.

“I like to listen to the traditional music,” she said. “I love it so much. Even now, at home, I’m listening to South African music or Rwandan music or Kenyan music. I love that kind of African music.”

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Still, her friends didn’t believe her when she said she was going to quit her journalism job to be a singer. She didn’t have a lot of money to make her first video for “Gira Neza,” so it wasn’t extremely polished. In the video, she walks through a village, greeting children and settling a dispute between two men. But it garnered more than a million views within weeks, and soon she was getting calls from potential managers, government officials and people who wanted to book her to perform. Her message connected with people. She won two major awards, including being named the best music artist promoting Rwandan culture in 2021.

“‘Gira Neza’ means ‘be kind,'” she said. “It’s just a song that came to my heart.”

That theme is important to all of her music. She grew up in a country that was still reeling from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, which killed an estimated one million people. Her father always opened their home to orphans, and her faith is a constant in her life.

“I grew up sensing that there is this need of unity and reconciliation in the community, which is still there,” she said.

She met her manager and husband, Sylvain Dejoie Ifashabayo, because he wanted her to perform at a major music festival he was organizing in Rwanda. They started exchanging messages on WhatsApp about music and became friends. When they married in May 2021, he was living in Colorado, where he was studying entrepreneurship. She was reluctant to leave her family and her fans in Rwanda, but they did not want to have a long-distance relationship. He connected with a friend in Maine who told them about the growing Rwandan community in the state, and Karasira agreed to move here in November 2021. They live in Saco with their nearly 2-year-old son.

THE SOUND OF HOME

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She records many of her songs in Kinyarwanda, her first language.

“I don’t want to show my people that now I’m in America and I’m another person,” she said.

Her most recent album, released in 2023, is titled “Bakundwa.” It means “beloved,” and Karasira described it as a letter to her fans around the world. A story in the Rwandan English newspaper The New Times reflected the anticipation among her fans: “Karasira’s dedication to authenticity and heartfelt storytelling has music enthusiasts eagerly awaiting to release her masterpiece next month and is expecting an introspective and soul-stirring experience.”

Maurice Habimfura is originally from Rwanda and was already living in Maine when he learned about Karasira’s music on social media.

“Everybody was talking about it,” he said.

Habimfura performs traditional drums and dancing in a group called Ikirenga cy’Intore. He said Karasira is one of a line of iconic women artists in Rwanda.

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“She is among those big female artists that really keep us moving,” he said. “She has a beautiful message. The script is real. She’s an artist who goes into our culture and writes about life.”

He listens to her music on the way to his job as a registered nurse and plays her songs for his children as he takes them to daycare. One of his favorites is one she sings about naming her son, which connects to his own feeling of pride at being a father.

“When I hear music in my language, it takes me back home,” he said. “You can smell food you haven’t eaten in years.”

‘MY TALENT IS IN ME’

Katie Page, program manager at Mayo Street Arts, first read about Karasira in Amjambo Africa, a monthly newspaper that serves local immigrants. Page looked up Karasira’s music on YouTube and thought it was “divine.”

“I love how she was taking traditional ideas for music and recreating them in her own contemporary way,” she said. “It was lovely and seemed like a natural fit (for Mayo Street Arts). Clarisse glows. She has a beautiful gift of song, and that exudes out from her.”

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She quickly contacted Karasira and Ifashabayo to schedule a performance at the East Bayside nonprofit in January 2023, which sold out. Karasira performed with Mesa Schubeck, a pianist who lives in Yarmouth.

“Her voice, it’s just stunning,” Schubeck said. “She sings with such heart and from such a deep place, and I just love the freedom she has in her singing.”

They’ve collaborated multiple times since then, including on her upcoming appearance at the Press Herald’s Maine Voices Live event on May 21, and Schubeck said she feels grateful to get to know Karasira and her family. Their rehearsals are laidback and collaborative. Karasira sings, and Schubeck matches her on the piano.

“I’ve had some musical experience where people bring in a piece of sheet music and say, ‘Can you read this?’ ” she said. “This has been very different. I love the freedom and the challenge that’s provided. Clarisse has been so relaxed with it all and very gracious about me figuring it out.”

When Karasira launched her next album last summer, Mayo Street Arts decided to find a bigger venue to accommodate the interest in her new music. Page said the album release concert at Waynflete School in Portland in August was “jovial and celebratory.”

“All the little girls were running down and dancing with Clarisse,” she said.

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The Traditional Arts Network meets quarterly at Mayo Street Arts and has between 25 and 30 members. Pohan said Karasira’s positivity inspires the other members of the group.

“I’m a musician myself. I was raised here in Maine,” he said. “It’s hard enough to try and cultivate an artistic career for yourself when you’re from this country, but when you’re not from his country, that task can seem daunting. Having Clarisse’s music radiate positivity gives a lot of people hope, and it normalizes the idea of having a career in the arts.”

Moving her career to a new country is still daunting, even for a star with millions of YouTube views. Karasira said she hoped that she would be performing more in the United States, but she continues to record music remotely with her team in Rwanda and releases new songs regularly.

“It’s not like I’m leaving my talent somewhere,” she said. “My talent is in me.”

Clarisse Karasira, center, hugs fans at her album release concert in August 2023 at Waynflete’s Franklin Theater. Photo by Nicole Byrne and courtesy of Mayo Street Arts.


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