Sifa Bihomora, the twenty-three-year-old Columbia native behind the up-and-coming musical project ‘Sifa,’ is easily one of the most inspiring individuals you’ll ever meet. Though only a handful of songs from her prolific catalogue are available on streaming services, she has already amassed a huge amount of local buzz which is only set to expand once the rest of the world finds out about Columbia’s best kept secret. Wise beyond her years and full of genuine joy, Sifa is not only looking to express her own feelings through her music, but also to change the world with it.
When I asked Sifa if she could pinpoint a specific moment when she developed an interest in music, she told me that there isn’t one. For her, music is not an interest but rather a way of life and has been for as long as she can remember. Her earliest memories of music involve her mother singing to her. Eventually, she too began to sing. “Singing was a way in which I learned how to handle emotion and express emotion,” she explained.
However, a series of difficult circumstances meant Sifa’s access to participating in music was limited. As the daughter of two Rwandan refuges who worked long hours to make end’s meet for Sifa and her siblings, she was unable to take part in things like after school musical extra-cirriculars, as her parents were unavailable to pick her up afterwards. Furthermore, a learning disability meant that her classes were chosen for her and she didn’t get to take advantage of in-school music class. Private musical instruction was out of the question.
When the activity bus program began in middle school, she finally had an opportunity to get involved in things like talent shows and, later, plays. Meanwhile, she continued singing in church and used the internet as a resource to explore her love for music. Her desire to pursue music professionally only sharpened over time and once her senior year of high school rolled around, she began private instruction (paid for out of her own pocket) and started a band. “I don’t think I chose to be a musician or singer,” she said, “I just feel like that’s the only thing that ever made sense to me.”
After high school, she did a year of community college. Meanwhile, she and a local producer, Parker, collaborated on songs. She put her music out via SoundCloud, releasing up to a song per week. “I write fast,” she said, laughing. She can—and has—conceived of, written, and composed a complete song in a couple of hours. She enjoys the freedom and organic results of lyrical freestyling. However, as she grows and improves as an artist, getting each song she releases properly mixed and mastered is becoming increasingly important. This process is time-consuming and expensive, which has caused her to become more selective about which tracks make it into the studio.
The six Sifa songs currently available on Spotify and Apple Music reflect both Sifa’s expressive creative process and commitment to quality production. Eclectic in both sound and subject matter, singles “Taurus” and “Josh and the Piano,” as well as her EP, Tiny, tell Sifa’s story while commentating on humanity and existence. She doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, but generally there is an upbeat, feel-good quality to each of her songs. “All of my work will always be like how to love yourself and how to see yourself and how we’re all just connected,” she said. She is not looking to sugar coat anything, but rather to use her music as a tool to create and spread joy in a world so plagued with negativity. “A lot of the stuff that we’re going through is something that humans have put ourselves through and we don’t need to make it harder for ourselves. Cause, honestly, all we should be doing is laughing and hugging, you know. What I want to do with my music and what I’ve been doing with my music and what I’m doing with my next EP will be a commentary on that. And it will forever be that.”
While using music as a method to make the world a better place is no new concept, Sifa is taking this idea a step further than most. After a few semesters attending Berklee College of Music and working with an outreach program that claimed to help give opportunities to African students of music to study their craft. She quickly began to feel that the school merely paid lip service to the idea of helping African students. As a school that has an entire program dedicated to Africana music, Sifa estimated there were only a dozen African students enrolled at the school. Naturally, this rubbed her the wrong way.
As someone less interested in the prestige and kudos that come with appearing to create change than getting down to brass tacks and actually making change happen, she left Berklee and came to the conclusion that in order to aid Africans interested in music, she would need to get to know the locals and learn about their needs.
Elaborating on this, she said, “[I grew] up in a school system that really didn’t help me the way I needed to [be helped]. They helped me the way other people need to [be helped.] I realized, that’s a problem. We need to cater to the people we’re trying to help because my weaknesses are different than your weakness, so going in and helping you the way my weaknesses are will not help you. I need to learn your weaknesses so I can help you.”
She found work with a non-profit organization, the African Music Scholars Foundation, which gives scholarships to African students so that they can come study music at American schools. While Sifa often had trouble accessing many of the music-related opportunities offered through school, she acknowledges that to even grow up in an environment where opportunities like those existed in the first place is a privilege. In many parts of Africa, that is not the case.
Alongside working with AMSF, Sifa has spent two years independently conducting research on the African music industry and how to aid it. She hopes to culminate this research by moving to Rwanda once the pandemic settles. Her goal is to gather more information in Rwanda, at the local level, and use it to inform her work with AMSF, where she works to create programs that best address the needs of African people interested in music – not based on her own assumptions, but rather based on input from the locals.
This commitment to aiding the African music industry on the locals’ terms comes from Sifa’s upbringing. It would be easy for her to resent the institutional hurdles that kept her from accessing many opportunities to participate in music throughout her youth, but instead, she sees this as a blessing: “Having privilege means that the rules work for you. The only reason I know to have another perspective is because I’ve lived a life where my perspective wasn’t seen. So the only reason I can help and do all these things is because of the terrible experience I’ve had. So when we think about the terrible experiences we have, I think of them like a blessing and a good thing because it literally changed—in the moment it was terrible, horrifying, whatever—but it changed the way I perceive the world and gave me a better understanding of humans and how to make things better.”
A visionary in more ways than one, Sifa is sure to make a unique difference in this world. “For me,” she said, towards the end of our conversation, “It’s all about figuring out how to use music to change the world, to unite the world.” Her light is truly something to behold. Come see her in action on Friday night at Roots N Blues Festival in Stephens Lake Park, Columbia, MO. Get your single-day or weekend passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/