Rwanda Shaw

Imagine this. You're barely into your twenties. You're waiting in the wings of London's vast Wembley Arena, packed with over 5,000 people. The television cameras are trained on you. The all-powerful panel of the X-Factor judges, led by the formidable Simon Cowell, are ready.

Daunting as this might seem, Rwanda Shaw was determined to face the challenge with all guns blazing. She is not one to shy away from a challenge.

Born in Newry, Co Down, Rwanda spent much of her childhood in Tyrella, near the beautiful beach that circles around from Newcastle, before the family moved to Lisburn when she was twelve. Her background gives her a unique perspective on Northern Ireland, one that she uses to help give a voice to Northern Ireland's growing black community.

“My mother is from Uganda, my father from Belfast,” she says. “I grew up in a white community, I understood the humour and jokes, those little Northern Irish things, but I also felt like an outsider as well, that I wasn’t the same.”

Rwanda was named after the country her grandparents fled from to live in Uganda and though she never got to meet them, her mother kept her African heritage alive.

"My mum played African music in the house, cooked African food and took us to multi-cultural events," she says. "I have an ear for certain sounds or beats, I love house music, where the beats emerged from African drums, though it's not a major part of my own music. My influences were singers like Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Whitney Houston."

Today Rwanda feels more of an equal balance between the two sides of her background, but remains vocal about the racism she still sees around her. That is largely why she is part of the forthcoming Black and Northern Irish documentary, which highlights the experiences of 18 black people from all walks of life here.

Following on from the success of Black and Scottish, whose director Stewart Kyasimire has collaborated with Belfast producer Lindsay Duke, the documentary is the first to explore the lives of Northern Ireland's black community.

"It really sheds a lot of light about how we all feel. For me, now that I'm an adult, it's about taking a stand, talking about what I've been through. It gives a voice to people who have been ignored. The film highlights the fact that we exist and we are here. It also highlights the strong links between Ireland and Africa and Ireland and America and how far back those connections go."

Rwanda was particularly interested to learn about Mary Ann McCracken, the pioneering sister of Northern United Irishmen leader, Henry Joy McCracken, who was still out in the streets of Belfast, campaigning against the slave trade, in her 90s.

Rwanda's love of singing was encouraged by her teachers at Lisnagarvey High School in Lisburn. She also studied at Lisburn School of Music, where she was taught by Dana Masters. She began to enter talent competitions, and, in 2014, won her first, the Blast FM Blastaoke competition, the prize for which was singing to hundreds during the Belfast LGBT Pride Festival.

Gradually, Rwanda built up a reputation on the Northern Ireland music circuit. Then, in early 2017, she found herself auditioning for the producers of the X-Factor in Belfast's Cuckoo bar. She hadn't even intended to apply but did so well she was chosen.

In Liverpool for the first televised round of the competition, she sang for the producers in the morning and after they told her she was successful, had to wait until 7pm before singing before the four judges. 

"I was really scared going into the audition room," she says. "but I managed to compose myself. I sang two songs and they seemed to really like me."

They did. Rwanda earned a yes from each of the judges, Louis Walsh, Nicole Scherzinger, Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell. "You've got an awesome voice, you're gorgeous, you've so much potential," raved Scherzinger.

Having passed this opening stage Rwanda travelled to London for the ‘bootcamp', where she shared a hotel with the other contestants. She loved the experience, rehearsing all day, and filming. For the first stage of bootcamp she sang two songs, and got the nod to go through to the next, singing before 5,000 people at Wembley Arena. However, despite a flawless performance, singing ‘Mamma Knows Best' by Jessie J, Rwanda didn't make it through.

"I had planned to sing another song but it had been taken by another contestant. When I finished, Simon Cowell said it was hard to judge me as he hated ‘Mamma Knows Best!"

Building on that experience, Rwanda continues with her songwriting, sings with guitarist Paul Laverty as a duo and with Cathy O'Kane (the pair were previously in girl band Second Nature with their friend Tammy) as Chapter Two.

You can follow Rwanda's career on her Facebook and YouTube pages.

Black and Northern Irish will be broadcast later this year.