Debut Afro-pop album by Congolese brothers in St. Louis reflects their long journey
It was a long journey from the Democratic Republic of Congo to a St. Louis recording studio.
Twin brothers Jacob Shacko and Akim Brayan — professionally they go by Shacko and Akim — fled their homeland as children and came of age in a refugee camp, where they started their first band. They relocated to St. Louis with their mother and siblings in 2016.
Shacko and Akim release their debut album this week. “As Long As You're Mine” includes a mix of styles but always reflects their African upbringing.
“These songs come from us, from Congo, from Africa," Shacko said. “And here we are. We have a little story to tell the world.”
Sitting in the modest recording studio at Intersect Arts Center one recent afternoon, Shacko sat down and played a flowing acoustic guitar melody in the style of Congolese rumba. The genre is influenced by Afro-Cuban music but distinct from Cuban rumba, which itself has African roots.
The brothers sang together in Swahili. Then Akim rapped a bit. Then they sang a few phrases in English that would sound at home anywhere on the Billboard charts: “My baby, oh. I love you more. I need you more.”
Shacko said the song represents the duo’s aesthetic.
“It’s rumba and pop, mixed together. It’s a new rumba,” he said. “The sound we are introducing is Afro-pop.”
Fleeing war and landing in limbo
Their earliest memories are of living in Goma, a city in eastern Congo that’s adjacent to Rwanda and not far from Uganda. In October 2008, a militia splintered off from the United Nations-backed Congolese army and began committing atrocities against civilians there.
A quarter of a million Goma residents fled their homes — Shacko, Akim and their family among them. Marauders killed their father as the family escaped the country, eventually making their way to the sprawling Ugandan refugee camp, Nakivale.
Shacko, Akim and their friend Emile started a street band there. UN workers recruited them to write songs about social issues and perform for other residents of the camp. Shacko played guitar and sang; Akim choreographed dances to accompany the music.
For them, making music is a way to deal with painful memories.
“The music I’ve been doing is one of the things that make me forget what happened to me,” Akim said. “Not to try to pretend to be like other people, but just to be. To be the person that can forget.”
After eight years, an international aid organization resettled the brothers and their family in St. Louis, a place they knew nothing about. It was a difficult transition for the teenagers, but Shacko found community at a Pentecostal church frequented by other African refugees. Then he began hanging out and playing music at the Revival School, an after-school program for refugees. It was formerly based at the Third Baptist Church in Grand Center, and now the Intersect Arts Center.
Innovations in Afro-pop
Revival School co-founder and Executive Director Michael Ramsey produced the slick-sounding album and is releasing it through new venture Revival School Records. Several other Congolese musicians joined Shacko and Akim in the studio, including Revival School co-founder Jules Gikundiro, Joe Uringi and Benkido.
Aloha Mischeaux contributed some key vocals, including on the title track, which leads off the album and makes the mix of cultural influences immediately apparent. An electronic beat crafted by Jackpot Hitz evokes a contemporary R&B feel, as do the sultry call-and-response vocals by Shacko and Mischeaux.
“That’s R&B and Afro music together. This is crazy,” Shacko said, visibly excited by the musical fusion. “R&B in Swahili? That’s impossible,” he said with a laugh.
The innovative tune got the biggest crowd response when the brothers and a backing band performed the song at this year’s Festival of Nations at Tower Grove Park, Akim said.
“When you stand onstage singing it, the experience of that song is so big,” Akim said. “The reaction they showed us — I was like, this song is the song that could make us go up.”
Most of the vocals are in Swahili, though a few include English-language interludes. Akim sings a bit of French in one song. On “Sina,” Shacko and Akim dip into the dance-friendly Congolese style seben. “Maisha ni Bora” leans toward the Afrobeat popular in west Africa, Shacko said, but still bears a Congolese fingerprint.
“The beat, the guitar, the focus — everything just feels like it could start a new genre of music,” Shacko said.
“Mama Yo” and “Prayer for Afrika” go all the way back to the brothers’ time in Nakivale, where they performed them at a musical competition and won.
The latter is a passionate plea for peace.
“When I see sometimes on the internet that people are saying to pray for Congo, that the country’s going down, that we are being killed — most of the time when I think about it, it makes me sad. Even though there’s nothing I can do about it,” Shacko said. “As an artist, the only thing I can do is just to sing about it. Maybe my voice can reach far.”
The brothers now work in a St. Louis factory, making metal coils. But they want to take their music on the road and play it around the world.
“I want to be the voice. I want to tell lots of people, as many as I can, the story about my life,” Shacko said. “I feel like we have this world of music that people don't know about yet. But once they find out what it is, they will love the kind of music we're doing.”