The Congolese Orphan Turned International Pop Sensation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, despite all the hardship, his voice sounds like joy.
When Congo-born Trésor Riziki arrived in Durban, South Africa, in 2009, he didn’t speak a word of English. Still, at 19, he managed to find work guarding and washing cars. Seven years later, at a glitzy ceremony in the same city, he won Best Pop Album for VII at the 22nd South African Music Awards.
Today Trésor is a multiplatinum-selling artist in South Africa, with two No. 1 hits in Italy. He’s performed before crowds of 60,000 and he’s signed a seven-figure licensing and distribution deal described by his manager, Raphael Benza of Vth Season, as “the biggest ever for an artist based in Southern Africa.” For many, this would be enough, but Trésor sees South Africa as “my camping place where I’ve been training and getting ready for the whole world.” His aim? To revive the glory days of African music, a time when Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba were household names and Graceland was the biggest album in the world. “When people see me, they must feel Africa,” he says, “even if I’m just buying milk at the supermarket.”
Trésor, 30, was born in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo — a small city now known as the gateway to the mountain gorillas of the Virungas, but in 1994 it took in one million refugees of the Rwandan genocide. During the crisis, local schools were closed, so Trésor’s parents dropped him and his seven siblings at church childcare centers during the day. “That’s where I learned music,” he says. He began playing guitar and drums in kwassa kwassa bands when he was 9 and started taking singing seriously several years later.
When he was 10, Trésor contracted a serious bone infection that put him out of commission for three years. He couldn’t play sports like other kids his age, so he lay on the couch and listened to music from all over Africa. He suffered an even bigger blow when both of his parents died in 2003 — an event he still refuses to talk about. Two years later, he left Goma without saying goodbye to anyone. His destination? South Africa, the country whose great musicians he’d listened to, singing in a language he couldn’t understand. To reach Durban, Trésor walked, hitched, bused and swam (through crocodile-infested rivers, he says). “I’ve always been a wanderer,” he explains. “If you dropped me in a desert right now, I would survive.”
In everything that I do, I’m representing my country.
He didn’t guard cars for very long; he switched to waiting tables — and learned to speak English. Around the same time, he formed Maisha — with friends from Britain, Portugal and South Africa — a band known for its funky Swahili lyrics and embraced by the city’s music scene. “We did great things in Durban, and Maisha opened a lot of doors,” he tells OZY. “But I’m a world wanderer.” That again.
Trésor went solo in 2010 and signed with Benza and Vth Season three years later. Benza, who also has West African roots, says he recognized Trésor’s talent instantly but was unsure about how the artist was channeling it: “His music had become quite poppy. It reminded me of U2.” By adding guitar and drums to his music, Trésor was able to create a sound that is distinctly African but accessible to a global audience.
I ask Jon Savage, a 5FM radio host and former musician who calls himself “part of the furniture of SA music,” if Trésor’s dreams of global stardom are realistic. In response, Savage reflects on his experience in the ’90s touring internationally with his band, Cassette: “It was really, really, really hard,” he says. “I realized very quickly that we South Africans didn’t have a clue.” He then details how much competition there is abroad, making it harder to secure gigs, deals and airtime. Still, he adds, “Trésor is unique in a million ways.” His ability to hold onto his dream despite the many setbacks speaks for itself, says Savage, and he’s “a musician first and a businessman second” — his time is spent working on his craft rather than trying to make hits.
Which is not to say that this self-confessed workaholic who “doesn’t count the hours” isn’t doing everything he can to ensure success. Everyone I speak to (including Trésor himself, who winces when recalling some of his early hits) mentions how much effort he devotes to perfecting his English pronunciation. And Savage is impressed by Trésor’s punctuality — “He’ll never turn up late after a big night out” — and modesty, even in the wake of his growing fame.
While he’s focused on his musical career, Trésor also mentions plans to one day bring an end to what he calls the “economic war” in the DRC. When I ask whether pop music is really the best way to do this, he responds, “In everything that I do, I’m representing my country. … I’m still young, growing, trying to gain influence so I can influence decision-makers to bring about change.” Change that he concedes won’t be brought about by “one song or Facebook post” — and then he hints at “big plans” for his country without revealing more.
For now, Trésor is leveraging the added control that comes with the success and financial stability he’s achieved; later this year he and Benza will visit New York and L.A. to promote his new album, The Beautiful Madness, and to work with other writers and producers.
But first he has an important date in Kigali, Rwanda. When Trésor headlines at the Blankets & Wine festival there today, it will be the first time his siblings — among them a doctor, a human-rights lawyer and a police officer — will see their brother perform live. This time he’s promised to say goodbye before continuing in his quest “to see Africa rise again.”