It only lasted the length of a song, but for those few minutes, some of the nation’s most prominent political leaders gave Alain Igiraneza their full attention.
Igiraneza sang the National Anthem at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) on July 14 in Portland. The performance was a highlight of the summer break from his studies at the University of Southern Maine.
“It feels really good, especially being an immigrant child, an asylum seeker in the United States, singing the National Anthem, not even of the place that I’m a citizen of yet,” Igairaneza said. “It feels really wild because not many people like me do it.”
War and political instability drove Igiraneza out of his birth country of Burundi. He was 11 years old when he landed in Maine in 2014. Making the difficult transition even harder, he didn’t speak English.
A natural talent for music helped Igiraneza close the language gap. He’d rely on the rhythm and rhyme of the music to learn American pop songs phonetically before he even knew the meaning of the words he was singing.
“Just the feel of music is way different than when you’re speaking to people,” Igiraneza said. “I have a tough time speaking to people in person than when I’m singing because singing is a form of talking to someone else, in my eyes. So, it’s easier for me to sing than to speak to someone.”
What may have started as a coping mechanism became a calling for Igiraneza. A teacher at King Middle School in Portland heard him singing in the hallway and convinced him to join the choir. The training he received unlocked his potential and he quickly became the choir’s go-to soloist.
Outside of school, Igiraneza was active with the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club. He often stepped up to perform the National Anthem at sporting events and other club outings. By 2019, his reputation had reached Augusta where a new governor was preparing to take office.
Governor-elect Janet Mills reached out to Igiraneza through the Boys and Girls Club to ask if he would perform the National Anthem at her inaugural ceremony. Only after agreeing to sing did the full weight of the honor dawn on him. He blanked on the lyrics during rehearsal, but then gathered his courage and recited every word perfectly during the ceremony.
“Each time I see the Governor, she always remembers me,” Igiraneza said. “It’s something that I always take pride in, something I’ll always remember.”
The impression Igiraneza made on Mills was so strong that his name again sprang to mind three years later when she needed a singer for the NGA conference. His performance of the National Anthem marked a shift to serious business after the previous day of casual networking. Mills gave him a glowing review in her welcoming remarks a few minutes later.
“He is a rising star in our city and in our culture,” Mills said. “Thank you, Alain, for your rendition of the National Anthem, which I know you love as much as anybody.”
The NGA was founded in 1908 as a forum where the chief executives of 55 states and territories can share ideas and take action cooperatively, regardless of political affiliation. Maine was set to host the NGA’s 2020 summer meeting only to have those plans derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Conditions improved enough by this year to reschedule the meeting for July 13-15.
In addition to Mills, the governors in attendance included such political heavyweights as Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, and Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker. The topics they covered ran the gamut of travel and tourism, youth mental health care, and computer science education in grades K-12.
Portland’s Holiday Inn by the Bay was the epicenter of those discussions with its ballroom transformed into a cross between a lecture hall and legislative chamber. Igiraneza stood alone in front of the delegates’ tables, and as he sang, members of the Maine State Police carried the American flag in solemn procession down the center aisle.
Igiraneza tried to give a performance that fit the tone of the conference. He began the anthem in a lower key so he wouldn’t need to strain too much to reach the anthem’s notoriously high notes. He avoided long vocal runs and fist-pumping theatrics, trusting that a more straightforward delivery could still pack a big emotional punch.
In the years between his two performances for Governor Mills, Igiraneza enrolled at USM but not in the music program. He’ll return as a sophomore in the fall semester with his sights set on an Economics degree. He sees the two disciplines as complementary. If his dreams of landing a recording contract come true, he’ll also have the business knowledge to navigate the industry.
Igiraneza credits his acceptance into the Promise Scholarship Program with helping advance his education. The program provides financial support for high-achieving students from underserved communities. Every Promise Scholar is the first member of their family to attend college. Program leaders couldn’t be happier to see Alain’s success.
“We're so grateful for his many talents, humbleness, and positive demeanor,” said Daniel Barton, Director of the Promise Scholarship Program. “He always strives to do his best and give back to his community in any way and any time that he can.”
Igiraneza set a high bar with so many major achievements in less than a decade since starting his new life in Maine, but he’s got no intention of letting up.
“I want to perform more and find bigger events because, now that I’ve done the Governor’s Association, I want to go bigger and see where else I can go,” Igiraneza said. “Hopefully reach Mr. President Biden at some point.”