On his debut album Free Me (2018), Burundian-born JP Bimeni astonishes with a voice that recalls Otis Redding in his prime whilst resonating with the soul of Africa. A refugee who’s been living in London since the early 2000s, Bimeni’s songs of love and loss, hope and fear deliver with a conviction that comes from the extraordinary experiences life has thrown at him.
With classic 60s-sounding, Motown and Stax-inspired grooves, the album was written by musical director Eduardo Martínez and songwriter Marc Ibarz and Bimeni imbues these tales with his tragic experiences making ‘Free Me’ a deep soul soundtrack to his pained life: “When I sing I feel like I’m cleansing myself: music is a way for me to forget”.
On “Free Me” tough funk jams segue into deep southern soul and heart-felt ballads, with a unique vibe present throughout this modern funk-soul masterpiece thanks to Bimeni’s uplifting African ‘soul’ style. With each twist and turn Bimeni displays an astonishing depth with his vocal range. The fact that Bimeni has lived a life most extraordinary and lived to tell the tale makes these songs even more resonant: “When I was on my death-bed, after I’d been shot, they brought a priest to read my last rites” he remembers. “ I looked at the priest and I said ‘I don’t feel like I’m going to die. I feel like I’m gonna’ live long, meet the world and I’m going to prove to myself that the world is not just hate or killings.’ ”.
Bimeni was born in the capital Bujumbura to a military father and a mother who was a descendant of the royal family. With parents from different backgrounds – the military overthrew the royal family in 1966 – the relationship was a complicated one and Bimeni’s mother had to raise him and his three brothers alone. As a member of the former royal family Bimeni enjoyed a relatively carefree childhood: sent to a boarding school in the countryside run by nuns that was also attended by local children he was aware of his privilege: “we had shoes, they didn’t”. For Bimeni music started with dancing: “In Burundi, dancing is as natural as breathing. At school we sung traditional African folk songs – everyone sang”.
Born in December 1976, Bimeni’s childhood ended abruptly at the start of the 1993 civil war and subsequent mass killings. Due to the ethnic nature the war became, Bimeni was obliged to flee the country. Ethnic rivalries have set off several devastating wars in Africa, but none come near the deadly legacy of the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi – hundreds of thousands of people died in the 1994 genocide. At this time he had three near-misses with death – a massacre at his school, Lycee Kibimba, where he saw many of his schoolmates murdered, another while escaping to the hills and meeting with a militia who killed more people from his group and then a few weeks later, when he was back in the capital, he was forced to give a lift to a notorious gang member who was shot & killed by a rival gang on the back of the motorbike JP was driving.
JP was shot in the chest but survived & got to hospital. At the hospital he was given medication that caused a dangerous reaction in his body & he lost half his body weight. Whilst convalescing in Nairobi after being airlifted, Bimeni heard he was on a wanted list, so with his life at risk he registered as a refugee and applied for a scholarship program run by the UN Refugee Agency. He was given refugee status and fled to the UK where he’s remained ever since.
In August 1995 aged 18 he arrived in Wales, to attend UWC Atlantic College. “I was on my own, I was a wreck, full of painkillers – but I was so happy to be away and to finally feel safe.” Music offered respite in these dark times: “In Wales was the first time I bought music – compilations by Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye”.
After two years at Atlantic college, Bimeni had to redo his final year and went to St.Clare’s College in Oxford. There he gained the marks he needed to secure a place at the University of Lancashire to study economics and politics and while there he performed his debut live show in a little pub. He moved to London in 2001 and here he embraced the myriad musical possibilities London offers: jam sessions with Roots Manuva’s band, open mic nights with Shingai Shoniwa from Noisettes, and an encounter with a teenage Adele. Yet it was an invitation to join an Otis Redding revue in 2013 that set-him on the course he is on today. As a guest of funk group Speedometer at a show in Spain in 2017, Tucxone Records spotted Bimeni… and they knew they’d found their man. They paired him with the Black Belts – Rodrigo Diaz “Niño” (drum & percussion), Pablo “Bassman” Cano, Fernando Vasco “Two Guns” (guitar), Ricardo Martínez (trumpet) and Rafael Díaz (sax). Bimeni recorded the album with them in Madrid over the winter of 2017.
“Free Me” was released throughout Europe in October 2018, and got rave reviews. It was awarded BBC 6 Music Album of the Year by DJ Craig Charles.
The year 2019 saw JP doing more than 70 shows all over Europe.
His second album with the Black Belts “Give Me Hope” was released in February 2022 on the label Lovemonk.
For Bimeni, music is a way to survive: “You can’t entertain the pain of your problems all the time – you have to put them away and let something else fill the space where it’s just been pain, worry and terror.”
In December 2021 he returned to Burundi for the first time in 10 years. He experienced the joy of being reunited with family members but of course the trip brought back some difficult memories… “but I always remember that getting shot enabled me to meet the world.” JP is a spiritual soul singer yet also a soul-singer with spirit, and his infallible positivity can be an inspiration to us all.