X Factor's Rwanda Shaw: I would have been happy with just a single yes from Simon
From working in Poundland to singing at the Pride Festival and wowing The X Factor judges, Lisburn girl Rwanda Shaw tells Lee Henry why she hopes her musical journey will make her a star
Northern Ireland continues to be represented on the global stage thanks to ITV's flagship singing show The X Factor. The 2017 season kicked off with a bang last Saturday when Lisburn-based Rwanda Shaw secured a coveted four 'Yeses' with a solid rendition of Florence + the Machine's You Got The Love.
The 21-year-old will be familiar to revellers from across the province, having spent the past few years gigging in "all the usual hotspots" in Belfast and beyond. And having proved successful in the Liverpool heat of the initial auditions, her path toward further success is all but assured.
Shaw reveals that her intriguing Christian name was given to her in honour of her grandparents on her mother's side. "They were both born and raised in Rwanda," she explains. "But they had to flee because of war with Uganda, where my mother was eventually born.
"Unfortunately, I never got to meet either of my grandparents, so I was named after the beautiful country that they come from. I am so honoured and proud to have family from Africa. I love telling people the story of my name as it reminds me of my grandparents and I know they'd be proud of me and what I'm doing in life."
Rwanda was born in Newry and grew up in Tyrella, Co Down, near the popular beach. "I had a great childhood," she admits. "I was always outside playing and getting into new things. And the African side of my culture has always played a part in my life.
"I've been brought up eating all sorts of African dishes and going to many different events for food, crafts and art. My mum is an artist and loves African dancing and drumming, so that is something I'm very familiar with. I feel like being introduced to African dancing and music has influenced and helped me to develop my sound."
Rwanda started singing at a very early age, with megastars Beyonce and Michael Jackson fuelling her love of performance. "I've always been obsessed with Earth Song and What About Us by Michael Jackson, as well as If I Were A Boy and Listen by Beyonce. They are just amazing pop songs.
"And I've always loved singing. I've sung for as long as I can remember. It all became clearer to me in primary school, when I joined the school choir, and from then on I performed at school plays and concerts, and that continued through into high school."
Rwanda attended Shimna College in Newcastle for one year and subsequently started singing in earnest in Lisnagarvey High School in Lisburn, where she moved with her family, aged 12.
"As I got older and more confident, I began to enter talent competitions."
Taking her singing seriously, Rwanda found inspiration in a variety of influences close to home. "My sister is a musician as well," she adds, "so I grew up copying her and we always made up songs together on her piano.
"Then there were my amazing teachers in Lisnagarvey, who were always very supportive of me. My headmaster Mr Sheerin plays guitar. My art teacher Ms Johnston is an amazing singer and my music teacher Ms McKitterick plays piano, so they'd always want me to help out with concerts and choir. I loved that about my school."
Having become comfortable with the immense pressure prevalent in all talent competitions, whether they take place in local shopping centres or in front of hundreds of people at big venues, Rwanda experienced her first real taste of success when she won the Blast FM Blastaoke competition back in June 2014.
"It took place in the Blast FM studios, then the finals were in the Shoe Factory and the prize was to sing as part of the Union Street Bar street party during Belfast LGBT Pride Festival.
"I was so excited and actually really surprised to win, as some of the contestants were already very well known and absolutely flawless on the day. To have the opportunity to sing in front of hundreds of people during Pride was amazing. That was definitely a high point."
Rwanda felt confident enough at that stage in her career to begin performing semi-professionally on a regular basis, and has since entertained the crowds everywhere from Filthy McNasty's to Gordon Street, 21 Social and most points in between.
"These days, I gig every weekend, usually on a Friday or a Saturday night in all the usual hotspots for live music. I play alongside a guitarist named Jack Laverty and occasionally a drummer named Colm Meir and I love it. It's the best craic."
While performing for Northern Irish pub-goers is one thing, singing for Simon Cowell is quite another. Yet the temptation to compete in one of the biggest televised singing competitions in the world was just too strong for Rwanda to ignore. In early 2017, she took the plunge, first auditioning for producers in Cuckoo on Belfast's Lisburn Road.
"I entered The X Factor because I wanted to be able to show the world my voice," Rwanda confesses.
"I also wanted to be able to prove to myself that I was confident enough to go and do it alone. I knew if I even got as far as the first audition that it would be a great platform for me to go further with my singing career and thankfully that has proven to be the case."
For the first televised audition round, Rwanda travelled to Liverpool with a close friend and recalls feeling remarkably calm waking up on that fateful spring day.
"I was actually really relaxed. It's a very long, stressful day, but all the staff working on the show are so welcoming and helpful and I got chatting to lots of the other contestants and made lots of friends in a short space of time. My nerves only set in, if I'm honest, when I was just about to step into the audition room."
Simon Cowell, Nicole Sherzinger, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh awaited: every aspiring professional singer's dream and nightmare combined. Rwanda was well prepared for the challenge, however.
"It was actually very enjoyable performing for the judges. I was slightly nervous when I was telling them about myself, but once the music started I let my nerves go and just sang.
"Unfortunately I didn't get to chat to any of the judges afterward. It is such a long, busy day during the initial auditions, so there are plenty of other contestants to be seen.
"But when they told me that I had got four 'Yeses', I was absolutely ecstatic. I would have been happy with even a single yes from Simon, as I wanted to impress him the most, but they all loved me and I genuinely could not stop smiling."
Rather than being surrounded by friends and family at home in Lisburn during the broadcast of the opening episode of The X Factor 2017 on Saturday, August 3, Rwanda unusually found herself searching in vain for a stream of the show while on holiday in Cyprus.
"So I had to get my friends to video call me and let me watch it on their TV!" she laughs. "But the local community in Lisburn, and everyone on social media, have been so loving and supportive since the show aired.
"I am so grateful to have such a great bunch of people behind me every step of the way. As for my friends and family, I'm even more grateful for them as they've been there for me the whole time, from the beginning and all the way through, and they always will be."
Rwanda is understandably tight-lipped about her future in the competition, with all X Factor contestants ordered to keep news of their progress through the various stages strictly private. In the meantime, however, she will return to her day job and watch the remaining televised auditions until she next appears in the show.
"I work in Poundland and I love my job and everyone I work with," Rwanda contends, "but I'm wanting to get more gigs and even start to play weddings and bigger events, so things may change soon. Not just yet though. In the near future I want to build my sound and work on getting more gigs in bigger venues and even in other countries."
For the time being, Rwanda is keeping her feet firmly on the ground. She will spend her forthcoming free time with friends, who are all big music lovers. "We always try to make it to as many gigs and concerts as possible. Music is featured in literally every aspect of my life."
The future can wait, but Rwanda admits that she has ambitions to make it big when it finally does come around. "Further in the future I want to be selling out arenas like the SSE Arena in Belfast and play to thousands of people.
"But it's not to do with the fame or the money for me. I just love to sing and make people feel real emotion. I want to be my own artist, I hope The X Factor can help to make that happen."