War in Sudan, life as refugee in Kenya shape singer’s message

Singer and activist Ruth Mathiang
'Music has always been a form of African therapy,' says Ruth Mathiang. The singer and activist's music is influenced by her experiences as a refugee in Kenya and during the war in Sudan before that. Noel Ransome/Toronto Observer

Bright lights bathe the stage at Tattoo on Queen Street West. It’s 10:30 p.m.

The sound of a guitar fills the room. A woman in spotted tribal makeup begins to sing.

“Fly, African butterfly,” she sings. “The weather will dance and it will rain your flowers will bloom and this time it is to stay.”

You can’t help but feel drawn into her music and the power of her voice.

—Alexis MacDonald

The limelight of a Toronto stage is a world away from her native land. But for African-Canadian artist and activist Ruth Mathiang, where she’s from and her experiences there shape her music.

“I try to advocate for peace and human rights,” she said. “For instance, in Africa, not all women have the rights that women here in Canada have.”

Mathiang and her family endured social and psychological struggles during the war in Sudan and then again after fleeing the fighting, she said.

“As a refugee in Kenya, there was not food, it was very unsafe for women,”Mathiang said. “I’ve lost a couple of family members during this on-going war.”

It was after starting her post-secondary studies in Prince Edward Island that Mathiang decided to be a voice for the voiceless in countries facing crisis.

“I used to give speeches in universities about what’s happening in the world,” she said. “Some speeches were about the genocide that took place in Rwanda, the war in Iraq. I saw the suffering people were going through.

“I wanted to take part in that and do something about it, and I found out I could do that through music and people love it.”

Mathiang’s background and experiences as a refugee do influence her music, said Jason Kun, the producer of her second album Butterfly.

Butterfly was a concept from Ruth,” he said. “It spoke about bringing beauty to the world.

“A lot of the songs on the album celebrate the victories her people made in her country. It celebrates survival. It celebrates her heritage.”

The Sudanese singer has collaborated in events with organizations such as the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

“She just captures everyone,” said Alexis MacDonald, director of external relations at the Stephen Lewis Foundation. “You can’t help but feel drawn into her music and the power of her voice.

“You just know how emotionally authentic her singing is. It’s just so compelling.”

Lending her voice to the Foundation has led to concrete results, said MacDonald, who has worked with Mathiang on several occasions.

“She worked at an event in P.E.I. with another young woman and that event raised over $100,000,” MacDonald said. “The event was focused on women and children. The fund helps the imbalance of resources in community-based groups in Africa.”

Mathiang is currently working on the production of her third album, which she said will include songs in Arabic and Swahili.

“Music has always been a form of African therapy,” she said. “I want to let people know that they can change their life and do good.

“You don’t need to be a singer to support people who are going through a hard time.”

About this article

By: Andrea Preciado
Posted: Nov 26 2014 4:36 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life Features