Corneille Nyungura was born in Fribourg, Germany, where his parents were students. At the age of six, his family returned to Rwanda, their country of origin. "When I went to Rwanda for the first time, there was a sense of going to the place where I belonged," he says. "But because my parents were very much Westernized, I still felt like I didn't fit in."
As a boy, Corneille began to develop an interest in music-initially discovering Michael Jackson (although "because we were so far from MTV, most kids didn't even know what he looked like"), and then the great soul artists who would shape his style: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Prince.
He credits his father for nurturing his interest. "I was singing something in my room," he says, "and my dad heard me, and said, â€˜That sounds good, it kind of sounds like Tracy Chapman.' And I remember thinking, â€˜Oh, It's OK for me to make music.' That was a very unique thing because music is a big part of African culture, but we never considered it as a job option." At age 16, he made his first recording, and was selected as a finalist in a music contest sponsored by the state-run television station.
But in 1994, Rwanda's President Habyarimana was assassinated, and the largest, most horrific genocide in modern history claimed over 800,000 victims. Corneille's parents and other family members were killed in the massacre. He alone managed to escape-first to Kinshasa, and then to Germany, where he was taken in by some family friends.
When asked how surviving such an incomprehensible tragedy has shaped his outlook, and his music, Corneille is strikingly calm. "For a good ten years after the genocide," he says, "I lived in a great deal of denial. But I managed not to get too bitter because I had parents who always made me feel special. It's a sort of pain that you can have closure with. I know I'm not going to be able to talk to my family ever again, but they left me with memories filled with such love that I don't have that much anger."
Corneille stayed in Germany for three years before moving to MontrÃ©al-part of the North American world that had shaped his musical dreams, but still familiar for its French language. He attended Concordia College, but decided that it was time for him to get serious about his music. He formed a band called O.N.E. (Original New Element), and, in 2002, released his first studio album, Parce Qu'on Vient de Loin.
"There are hardly any outlets for English-speaking artists in Quebec," he says. "I realized that would be a great challenge-since there's really no French soul or R&B music that exists, it gave me the opportunity to have my own little niche."
Initially, Parce Qu'on Vient de Loin made little impression in Canada, but it was soon discovered in France. At his first shows, in a small Parisian club, the room was already packed with fans singing all of his lyrics; they had chased down copies of the album, imported from Quebec.
Following its success overseas, the album was re-released in Canada, and took off behind the single "RÃªves de Star," eventually achieving Platinum sales status. Corneille received his first Felix Award, selected by the public, for Best Male Artist. In France, sales of Parce Qu'on Vient de Loin soared past a million.
In 2005, Corneille recorded a song with Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour in support of UNICEF and the fight against AIDS. (Corneille is a Red Cross Canada spokesperson, and has been made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.) That same year, his second studio album, Les Marchands de RÃªves, was released. A sixty-date tour of France had a total attendance of over 200,000 fans, and was followed by an acoustic tour in the fall of 2006.
But Corneille wasn't fully satisfied by his triumphs in Europe and Africa. "I was starting to feel lost," he says. "With my French albums, I was becoming a symbol for something, a persona, more than an individual. I needed to break from that-and it doesn't get any more humbling than coming to the U.S., because you really do have to start from scratch."
Corneille began working on the songs that would become The Birth of Cornelius album. As he got closer to the tradition and culture that first drew him to music, his acoustic-based R&B sound began to come fully into its own. "When I allowed myself to write in English, everything was different," he says. "I came up with some of the songs in five, ten minutes, because it was just pouring out. I guess I was reconnecting with the way I saw and understood music when I was little, and that was an amazing experience for me."
After all this time, after all these travels and tragedies, Corneille and his music are finally ready to take on America. And he can't wait.
"I look at America, and I see so much of who I am," he says. "The identity confusion that I've been struggling with all my life is the same that most people here go through. When I think of America, the first thing that comes to my mind is the sense that I might truly feel understood for the first time."
Courtesy of Motown Records