Hip Hop Heals

IMG_2586It seems music will be a major player in my year. Every month since January I have attended a live music show. The first was a local 90’s cover band, White Ford Bronco. They were a ton of fun, with everyone singing, it seemed more like a huge singalong, live karaoke then a concert. In February I saw Greg Laswell at a tiny basement venue. He created a sweet quiet cave of music. In March I attended the amazing South by Southwest (SXSW), a riot of music from all over the world. That brings me to April. I saw an event listing for a global hip hop festival hosted at the Kennedy Center. The artists were a collection of artists who’s faith plays a significant role in their music.

As hosts of the event, the Berkley Center published my report about the event.

Hip-hop fans filled the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower stage for an evening on Faith, Hip-Hop and the Common Good. They weren’t disappointed.

Record producer Russell Simmons opened the night speaking about his work on meditation and his recent book Success through Stillness.“With music,” he said, “you look inside. You draw from your experience.” “For me,” he concluded, “Hip-hop and spirituality have always been together. It’s so much easier to get poets and artists to see the sameness in each other than [it is for] politicians.”

It proved true at this event as a lineup of hip-hop emcees and DJs of various faiths and nationalities joined forces from across the globe. Nomadic Wax curated a show featuring Talib Kweli, with artists from as far away as Hong Kong, London, and Iraq and as near as northern California, New York City, and Washington, DC including MC Jin, Poetic Pilgrimage, Am Koullel, Mandeep Sethi, DJ Boo, and the Narcicyst.

Artists were chosen for the concert, presented in cooperation with Georgetown University and the One Mic showcase, because of the role faith plays in their work and how hip-hop interacts in that faith. Sakina Abdool Noor, of Poetic Pilgrimage, a British Muslim duo, grew up in London. She explained how, for her, rap is spiritual, “Music is an ecstatic expression of our Creator. Hip-hop has always been uplifting.”

All described hip-hop’s ability to act as a cathartic force in their lives, as both performers and listeners. DJ Boo, New York City born and raised, reminded the audience, “Hip-hop is a means to share when (the community is) in despair.” He said, “Whether in Detroit or Capetown, every community can say, ‘I’ve experienced that.’”

Opening act Am Koullel, a Muslim emcee from Mali, rapped with a Malian drummer and a track produced by DJ Boo. Performing mostly in the language of Bambara, which is spoken in west Africa, he rapped about uplifting his country through the unifying spirit of music. Nomadic Wax describes Koullel as “the charismatic leader of the Hip-Hop movement in Mali,” explaining on their website how for Koullel hip-hop is “a medium for consciousness and awareness and to defend the disenfranchised. It’s also very festive and quite unique.”

A post-performance discussion moderated by Georgetown sociology professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, with all the artists on stage, illustrated the seamless blending of the international hip-hop movement with the local and personal expressions presented by the artists. Poetic Pilgrimage’s lyrics drew on the oneness of humanity:

“Release the shackles of your soul/ There is no me/ there is no you/ there is only us.”

While the Narcicyst rapped:

“Without you it’s just silence/ We’re just talking to ourselves.”

Many of the artists also blended the local with global by the communal slant to their lyrics. They made it personal, rapping about current issues in their respective cities, and about refugees and voting in Syria, Iraq, Brooklyn, and London.

Several artists described how the music they perform can be misinterpreted with stereotypes. Muneera Rashida, with Poetic Pilgrimage, described how “it sometimes takes people three tracks to move past their [physical] appearance.” Rashida narrated the experience of first time listeners, saying, “Wait, they’re women, they’re Muslims, and they’re wearing hijabs.” Until the listener ultimately arrives at “They’re amazing emcees.”

The artists each talked about their skills as emcees, DJs, poets. and singers to bridge differences. For Mandeep Sethi, aka SETI X, he spoke of music as a way “to elevate the other person’s understanding, to elevate your own understanding. Sikh means student, which means your testament to God is to be a student, is to learn.”

During the panel discussion, Dyson asked Kweli about a viral Twitter debate that trended after he tweeted the words, “Hip-hop heals.”

Referencing tweets which pointed towards hip-hop’s reputation as a source of misogyny and violence, Kweli explained, “Hip-hop has been a healing force for me, but maybe that’s more unique than I thought.”

Even as some of the artists acknowledged how hip-hop still struggles with a negative connotation, each performer said they use rap as a way of healing their communities and themselves.

For Professor Dyson, and the artists gathered, “The real obscenity is what the music is pointing to.”

The original posting on the event can be read at the Berkley Center website IMG_2590