I live here (now): from Congo to Cleveland, one musician’s quest to entertain the world

“There are two types of people,” reflects Manembo Manembo, as he sits atop an unopened moving box in his new home in Detroit Shoreway. “There are the people who have a dream, then go back to bed so they can continue the fantasy. Then there are the people who dream, wake up, and start working to make the dream a reality.”

It’s clear which type Manembo leans toward.

The musician, who goes by the stage name Real Mane TMP and came to Cleveland this past May, has sought to make his performance dreams a reality no matter where he is—from his native Congo, to a refugee camp in Kenya, to the United States. As a recent Cleveland transplant, his current goal is to bring Afrobeats music, positivity, and inspiration to Cleveland—even during the coronavirus pandemic.

<span class="content-image-text">Real Mane TMP performs on stage in Massachusetts.</span>Real Mane TMP performs on stage in Massachusetts.It’s not the first time Manembo has created entertainment in crisis.

Growing up as a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Manembo loved to keep his family and friends entertained through dancing and singing. His performances were thwarted by an ongoing civil war, and Manembo was recruited to become a child soldier at the age of nine.

And while Manembo references his experiences in his music, he doesn’t like to dwell on them as a defining characteristic of his life.

“After being a child soldier, there is really no way you can be accepted back into the community,” he says. “People don’t understand what happened.”

In 2008, Manembo moved to Kenya and lived in Kakuma—one of Kenya’s largest refugee camps. There, he learned how to make films through the help of international arts organization, FilmAid.

Finding the camera

Around 2010, Manembo was introduced to filmmaking while inside Kakuma Refugee Camp.

“They started offering a class on filmmaking, but there wasn’t enough room for me to attend,” he recalls. “I showed up every day for six months, even when they tried to chase me away. Eventually, someone left the class, and I was able to enroll.”

The camera quickly became an outlet for Manembo to tell not only his own story, but the stories of others in the refugee camp. He helped create pieces ranging from somber documentaries to romantic dramas—chronicling both the trials and humor of living in a refugee camp.

He and his fellow filmmakers started a group called Young Africans Fighting for a Better Generation, and hosted film screenings for both refugees and native Kenyans.

“People would pay $2 to see our films,” he laughs. “In Kakuma, that’s a fortune.”

Manembo says his goal then, as well as now, was to merge education with entertainment, and to tell his own story in a way that would inspire others.

“My main message to people is this: Convert your dreams to reality.”

It’s an ethos Manembo has carried with him in his move to the United States. When Manembo was resettled to Boston in 2013, he continued performing while working as a hospital driver. He began writing music about his life as a child soldier and refugee and in 2018 helped organize World Refugee Day and March for Our Lives in Boston, where he also performed.

And while COVID-19 might have slowed some people down, it served as an inspiration for Manembo.

“While most people were depressed about lockdown in Boston, I thought of it as an opportunity,” he says. “I was able to hire a lot of out-of-work African artists and had some of my best artistic collaborations during those first couple months. We shot six music videos together.”

Now, Manembo is looking for ways to bring Afrobeats music and dance to Cleveland. He  organized musicians to play at the First Annual Cleveland Africa Festival,” which was supposed to take place on Saturday, Nov. 21 at Incubator Cle., but was cancelled because of the pandemic.

<span class="content-image-text">Mapembo circa 2012, filming a scene inside Kakuma Refugee Camp</span>Mapembo circa 2012, filming a scene inside Kakuma Refugee Camp and will showcase African music, dance, and poetry, and performances of Manembo’s album, “Real Mane: The Story of a Child Soldier to Refugee to the World.”

Manembo says the event will be rescheduled next year, and he is keeping a positive attitude. 

“I don’t like to focus on the negative,” he says. “I’m always moving forward and thinking about what the next solution is. If it doesn’t happen this year, it will happen 2021.”

Editor’s note: Sydney Kornegay is director of adult programming for Refugee Response.

About the Author: Sydney Kornegay

Sydney Kornegay is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Aidemocracy, The Columbia Star, and Observatario Economico. She has a master's degree in International Development and Economics from Fordham University and is the director of adult programming at Refugee Response in Cleveland.