Arts & Culture

Conference brings out pacific potential of African hip-hop

6 min read

Harvard and hip-hop. One is the famous university, the other the music style marked by rapping, rhyming, and a synthetic backbeat. Both begin with the letter “h.” Nothing else in common, right?

Wrong. Harvard last week (March 13-15) hosted a three-day conference on African hip-hop, a musical style that experts say not only makes audiences move, but that moves audiences — toward education, civic action, and peaceful change.

“Some of the ripple effects of art,” said Doris Sommer, “are real social development.” Sommer, Harvard’s Ira Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and professor of African and African American Studies, opened the conference March 13 at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

Sommer is also director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard, which, along with the Ford Foundation, sponsored the conference that drew 38 panelists from 11 countries — hip-hop performers, academics, writers, and agency officials. It was organized by The African Hip Hop Project, which is under the Cultural Agents umbrella.

Hip-hop is one expression of “the ideal of creativity in society,” said Calestous Juma — and it’s the universal language of African youth, who are powerful in numbers, but politically underrepresented. (Juma is a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which provided space for some of the conference events.)

“They are in control” despite being disenfranchised, said Juma of African youth. Hip-hop gives them a way to be “a true and legitimate force in society.”

The conference — a multiday sprawl of panels, lectures, and performances — began with a panel on former child soldiers and peacebuilding.

Child soldiers might seem an odd place to start a conference on the social power of hip-hop — if it weren’t for Emmanuel Jal. He’s a Sudanese rapper who at age 8 was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army — one of 10,000 children forced to fight during a 20-year war that killed 2 million people.

“I didn’t have a life as a child,” said Jal, a native of Sudan’s Christian-animist south. In five years as a fighting boy, he said, what was in his heart “was to kill as many Muslims as possible.”

Today, Jal sees hip-hop as one avenue to peace, tolerance, and literacy for millions of African youth “who have difficult times,” he said. “Music is the thing that can speak to your heart.”

American hip-hop is still entwined with gang culture, drugs, sexual violence, and greed, said Jal, a practitioner of what he calls “conscious” hip-hop. “It’s a battleground,” he said of the music style’s opposing images. “But the good will always win in the end.”

A discussion of the social power of hip-hop “is a long time coming,” said panelist Jimmie Briggs, author of “Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War” (Basic Books, 2005). Truth is not the first casualty of war, he said, “childhood is.”

In Africa, there is plenty of “conscious, positive hip-hop,” said Briggs — unlike “what [U.S.] listeners want, for whatever reason: violent, misogynous, bling-filled hip-hop.”

The millennium development goals established by the United Nations in 2000 have little meaning to the 55 percent of Africans under the age of 25, said panelist Nicholas You, a Kenya-based housing policy adviser for the United Nations. Reaching them, he said, “is not just a question of language, it’s a question of lingo.”

The U.N. messages — on poverty, AIDS, and primary education — would have meaning and power if filtered through hip-hop, said You, who spent months studying global hip-hop, much to the puzzlement of his fellow U.N. bureaucrats.

He called hip-hop “a lingua franca, shared by all the youth [of] the world.”

The music is diversely styled and multilingual, with roots in the work of traveling African singers and poets. It draws children to literacy classes in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious City of God slum, said You — and has turned gangs into public artists in Sao Paulo. (Graffiti and break dancing are other expressions of hip-hop culture.)

In a wood-paneled upstairs room at Adams House March 14, another group — one on African hip-hop politics and youth development — included Frederick Sumaye, the former prime minister of Tanzania who last year earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Africa’s oil, gold, and diamonds will count for little, he said, unless the continent addresses its deep troubles: poverty, illiteracy, food insecurity, corruption, disease, and conflict. And hip-hop can help, said Sumaye.

“A music group is not an army,” he said — but it can get social messages out before trouble starts.

Hip-hop in the 1980s transformed South Africa break-dancer and rapper Emile Jansen — now a primary school teacher — into “an accidental politician, an accidental social worker,” he said.

Mohamed Yunus Rafiq, who took a break from graduate studies at Yale to be on the panel, worked with Masai hip-hop groups in his native Tanzania — and used the power of rap to co-found a youth social collective called Aang Serian Peace Village. It has 600 members from 33 indigenous groups.

“We saw this as a way to emancipate ourselves,” he said, and to incorporate fading bush cultures and traditional values into a vibrant electronic medium. (Aang Serian performers sold goats and chickens to buy their music studio’s Pentium 1 computer.)

Rafiq asked a question later that was on everyone’s mind over the three days: “Can we meet on the continent somehow?”

The answer is yes. Harvard’s African Hip Hop Project will co-sponsor a conference in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2009.

This year’s Harvard conference also included a March 14 panel on AIDS called “Staying Alive,” an exploration of how hip-hop can penetrate the minds of the young when unadorned and frightening information cannot.

At a time when 3,200 South Africans a day were being infected with HIV, rappers joined the fight, said Cape Town hip-hop advocate and artist Shaheen Ariefdien, who’s now a graduate student at York University in Ontario, Canada. The message got out on “bush radio,” he said, “one of the most important media out there in South Africa.”

Commercial radio in South Africa has 6 million listeners, said Johannesburg writer and publicist Marang Setshwaelo — and with the exception of some “conscious” rappers, the AIDS message is not taken seriously. “We have issues” she said, “talking about these things.”

But no issues with singing about them. By Saturday night (March 15), there was a full-swing African hip-hop concert at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge.

“The closing concert was quite exciting,” said organizer Lidet Tilahun, who directs Harvard’s African Hip Hop Project. On the same stage for the first time were a pan-African collection of rappers, she said, including Jal, Jensen, Gidi Gidi Maja Maja from Kenya, Senegal’s Gokh-bi System, and Saba Saba (aka Krazy Native) from Uganda.

“I’m in another war this time,” sings Jal of his backbeat weapon of social change. “It’s my soul that I’m fighting for.”