New U.S. citizen makes music for his homeland of Burundi

Ntimpa Ngabire Bright, also known as performer Don Brighter, in his home in central Phoenix. A Burundi native, he grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2016. (Photo by Mindy Riesenberg/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX- Ntimpa Ngabire Bright cuts a striking figure in slim pants, shiny black lace-up oxford shoes, and a colorful blazer festooned with swirls of red, black and gray.

A blue and white rubber “BELIEVE” bracelet encircles his right wrist as he sits on a couch in his central Phoenix apartment, an upbeat song playing on a nearby computer.

The Burundi national anthem opens the song called “Yubire,” Bright’s ode to the homeland he never knew, one of the poorest nations in Africa.

Also known as Don Brighter or DJ Dogg Bee, Bright is an up-and-coming African musician who now makes his home in Arizona.

For decades, civil war and genocide forced residents to flee Burundi, a small central African country.

Bright’s parents, ethnic Hutus, left Burundi in 1988 when a civil war between the majority Hutus and dominant minority Tutsis resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25,000 Hutu.

Born in 1989, Bright spent his first 20 years living in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where his father, an agronomist, worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Africare to keep the camp running.

Bright remembers it as a difficult time.

By the time he was 12, he had already lost his mother, a brother, and a sister to illnesses. As he was going into 11th grade, the school he attended closed.

“The people running the camp closed the school to force refugees to leave and go back to their countries,” he said.

Bright, who had taught himself how to cut hair, worked as a barber for three years while his family waited for permission to come to the U.S.

In 2009, Bright, his father, and his seven siblings made it to Phoenix, where they were surprised by the reality of living in America.

“It was not what I expected,” he said. “I looked around at the first apartment complex and thought we were still not where we were going to be yet.”

But it turned out to be his new home, and assisted by IRC, Bright decided to make the most of his opportunity in the U.S.

Musician Don Brighter grew up in a refugee camp in Africa before moving to the U.S. at the age of 20, where he began a successful career as a singer who is well known in his homeland of Burundi. (Photo by Mindy Riesenberg/Cronkite News)

He took an education placement test and scored high, allowing him to finish high school, where he made some friends who were into music.

“My father was a pastor as well, and I sang in the church choir in the camp, but I didn’t do music really at all in Africa,” he said.

But now he had a lifetime’s worth of experience to draw upon, and he began writing songs in the four languages he speaks — Kirundi, Swahili, English, and French.

Pasteur Bagenzi, another Burundi native living in Phoenix, met Bright and helped turn him into a budding star.

“I found he was a talented singer, and people paid attention to him because he had a good message,” said Bagenzi, a promoter of African diaspora artists.

“He didn’t even grow up in Burundi, but his songs about the people and the beauty of the country get played all over Burundi national radio,” he said.

Bright’s first song, “Mama,” about the mother he missed, was released online in 2011 and quickly became popular on African music sites.

“Yubire,” his song about Burundi independence, went to the top of the East African charts.

Bright uses his music to communicate messages of peace and focuses on topics common in African culture.

“When I lived in Tanzania there were issues with albinos and witchcraft,” he said.

In traditional African communities, albinos are thought to have magical powers and are often targeted by people who cut off their body parts to sell for thousands of dollars on the black market.

Addressing this problem, Bright wrote a song called “Binadamu,” calling on people to treat each other with respect and to not target each other for their differences.

“You can say the words, but music is more than communication,” he said. “Someone hears a beat and then they start listening to the music and they hear the words.”

Phoenix has a substantial Burundian population, and Bright has become one of its ambassadors, performing in shows and working with community leaders.

Samuel Ndayiragije, president of the Burundi-Arizona Heritage Organization (BAHO), said Bright’s music brings the community together.

“He’s among the best we have in our community, and he is doing a great job, especially as a commissioner of our youth and culture,” he said.

With BAHO, Bright spends his spare time teaching the Kirundi language to children to keep their Burundi heritage alive. At the end of 2016, Bright became a U.S. citizen.

He attends Arizona State University and hopes to work overseas in refugee camps as an American ambassador.

“The same way I was helped, I want to help others,” he said.

Bright has taken the first steps to make this a reality.

He will be touring East Africa this May and June and will be performing on World Refugee Day (June 20) at the Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, one of the largest refugee camps in Africa.

“I’m doing all of it free of charge to support refugees and plan to give them some donations,” said Bright.

His newest album, “My World,” comes out this summer.

“America is a country where you can believe in yourself and make something of yourself,” Bright said. “We are all one world, we all bleed, we are all the same.”