June 23, 2007

Human Rights and Hip Hop

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This past semester I had the pleasure of interviewing one of Kenya’s hottest emerging rap groups, the Head Bangaz, as well as refugee student poets from St. Joseph’s School. In this broadcast, we show that hip hop has emerged as an international movement and a vehicle for people on every continent to articulate their struggle. I will attempt to describe the phenomenal nature of this interview in the following paragraphs, but you are much better off just checking out the recorded mp3 here.

That said, here’s the background:

The connection was made through a friend of mine named bethany (now with the newly acquired moniker DJ bethany), who had worked in a refugee camp outside of Nairobi. She coordinated a project called We Speak, where she was able to forge a creative collaboration between the Head Bangaz and refugee students at St. Joseph’s School. Their project centered around spoken word poetry, and the groups produced an anthology of poems addressing the human rights of refugees in East Africa. Many of the poems were poignant recollections of tragic personal experience, including my favourite, Sweet Bullet, which can be found at the bottom of the article.

In order to set up the interview, which we dubbed Human Rights and Hip Hop, we had to make numerous Skype calls to Nairobi in order to get everyone on the same page. We also had to take account of the fact that Kenya is seven hours ahead, so we would need to conduct the interview in the early hours of the morning. Normally I do my show, the Big Picture, on Wednesday nights, so I was not thrilled at the prospect of an early interview. When the Saturday morning arrived, we were unsure how the broadcast would pan out. There were many variables involved, including the dubious sound quality of Skype and the unwieldy number of students and rappers we planned to interview. We proceeded regardless, and were joined in the studio by a co-DJ of mine named Nana (aka Dark Chocolate).

We began the interview by addressing the use of hip hop as a vehicle for social progression and expression, especially within the African context. Nana, who is Ghanaian, was able to give us expert commentary on the hip hop scene in West Africa, and universal elements of hip hop that can appeal to anyone on any continent. Bethany then gave us the background on both groups and how We Speak got started. Finally, we were ready to make the call to the Head Bangaz recording studio in Nairobi.

We made the call, and the sound quality was perfectly clear. Although we interviewed approximately ten people, they took turns perfectly. Kimya and Richie, two of the Head Bangaz, offered insightful commentary on issues like police brutality, displacement, and government corruption. Both rappers explained that music is the ultimate emotional catharsis, and it has helped them overcome brutal struggles in their own lives. Kimya, for example, recently had a friend murdered by corrupt Kenyan police, but he was able to create an homage to his lost comrade through hip hop. The students also did incredibly well and delivered live readings of the poems they had written. One student even dropped an impressive freestyle over the phone.
Needless to say, the interview was an incredible success and nearly all credit must be given to the Head Bangaz and the students of St. Joseph’s School. A special thanks also goes out to Bethany, who has produced an amazing collection of poetry, We Speak, upon which our interview was based. Bethany is currently developing plans to publish and distribute this collection, so anyone with any interest can contact her directly at blo3@cornell.edu.

Now, below is Sweet Bullet, written by Bertil B, so have a look. Also keep in mind that you can hear his recitation of this poem on the recorded broadcast, so definitely check it out.


It’s about time you heard the sound of my voice too.
Trouble is, you make so much noise
You can’t hear anybody else speak.
How long will you be an attraction to powerful men?
How many great minds have you yet to corrupt by your beauty?
Your smooth golden body,
The sexy curves you’ve got,
The moaning sounds you make,
Everything about you is so appealing to those who swear by you.
Gentlemen have dug their own graves just for you.
Love was never meant to hurt
But the affection you receive has cost millions of lives.
Poor, rich, young and old,
Have shed their blood
In order to satisfy your evil desires.
Whatever happened to us?
You have done nothing but cause chaos and heartbreak.
But still we find you attractive. Nevertheless,
Is the human race under your spell?
Are we cursed into loving you unconditionally
Despite the harm it may cause us?
O, sweet bullet, Tell me this day,
What’s your secret to immortal existence?
What will it take us to get rid of you?
We’re shackled, enslaved and doomed,
By that demonic wail you make.

-Bertil B