Hip-hop is more than Beats and Rhymes…

Af Emilie Henriksen

We are at a conference on education in Billings, Montana, US. Represented in the room are students from three different indigenous schools from the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, the Fort Peck Reservation, which is home to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, and the Crow Indian Reservation.

The students are waiting for the keynote speaker to arrive. The room is quiet despite the many people present. They don’t look at each other or converse. Actually, most of them dislike each other, but for no apparent reason.

For generations the three tribes have not been able to get along, and today is no exception. Perhaps you have heard tales about rivalry and hatred among clans or tribes. Groups of people who have hated each other for generations. But if you ask them how come, you won’t get an answer. Some might say that ”that’s just how it is” or ”it has always been like that as far as I remember”. The truth is that no one remembers any longer as the feud has been past on for generations without anyone questioning it or doing anything about it. That’s just how it is!

Raptivism on the time table

The keynote speaker is not your average professor. No, she is a young woman and a self-proclaimed ”RAPtivist” with a talent for music and a strong heart for making change by empowering young people through performing arts. Today, she is here to give a lecture on rap activism.

”I was invited by the school leader of an indigenous school for students from three groupings of schools in the local area. I had planned a speech about how rap activism around the world functions as a connector and a sort of platform for creating change”, Aisha Fukushima explains to me when I meet her at an arab coffee shop in Copenhagen. It’s her fifth visit to Denmark, and she is here to perform and to spread the word about raptivism – a concept Aisha herself is the progenitor.

”RAPtivism is a global hip hop justice project spanning ten countries across four continents (and counting!) that highlights the ways in which culture can actively contribute to universal efforts for freedom and justice by challenging apathy with awareness, ignorance with intelligence, and oppression with expression”, Aisha says.

Sharing is caring

Back to the seminar: Aisha entered the room knowing that she was the first non-native speaker the school has ever had. Before she even got started on her lecture, she noticed that something was completely wrong. The room was packed with anxiety.

”It was obvious from the beginning that the tribes did not get along. It had been like that for generations so there was a whole lot of stereotypes present in the room. It’s kind of funny, though. A lot of work has been put into it so the students could meet. But when they do, they refuse to interact”, Aisha tells.

The solution to the problem came in the form of electric candles. During her childhood, Aisha has learned that candles are a symbol of inner light, the flame symbolising the story we have to tell. So Aisha started handing out electric candles to each students. She then turned off all the lights so the only light in the room came from the many candles.

”I then asked the students to write about people they know who has survived and why they are called survivors and what impact it had on them and their identity. I also asked them to write something about people who thrive”, Aisha explains. After having a few minutes to write down something, the students were asked to share their stories. After each sharing, the student would turn off the light to show that a story has been told.

The road to dialogue

The students nervously started to share their stories. Stories about losing loved ones, suicide, alcoholism, and acceptance. Taking turns opening up for what it was like being a teenager and having to deal with hardship at times. Suddenly something happened. Something started to change. Listening to each other’s stories, the students realised that they were not the only ones experiencing what it’s like to have an alcoholic parent, how it’s like not to live up to the media’s picture perfect images of what a teenager should be like, and that other people also lose loved ones, that it’s okay to be sad.

It’s also about relating to one another. About listening to storiesIt was a very special moment to witness the transition. There were many emotions in the room. People opened up, people cried, but they were now supporting each other instead and building solidarity instead of just ignoring each other. I actually heard a student tell another that she was sorry that she had been so judgemental in the past, and that she realises now that she was wrong. It was very touching, Aisha says.

Send this woman to the frontier!

If we look at the world today, it does not seem hard to find a conflict or two on the map. Ukraine and Russia. Palestine and Israel. Countries in conflict with each other and no solution in sight. If we could only send Aisha Fukushima to the frontier to do a workshop on raptivism. But it’s probably more complicated than that. Still I asked her how she did it. How did she manage to succeed in getting the three tribes to bury the axe.

”I think it’s important that I don’t tell them what to do. Instead I give them a structure and a frame to help them explore themselves”, Aisha explains. She points out that especially teenagers are sensible when it comes to their identities, and that she has helped a lot of them by doing identity work in order for them to get a stronger identity.

Bambaata told us knowledge was the fifth element. Truth behind the lies is what the music represents, Immortal Technique

Too many teenagers across the world have self-esteem issues. Especially girls tend to believe that they need to be a certain kind of person in order to be accepted. If they can’t live up to that image, their self-esteem suffers, and at worst they might end up with a depression or have identity issues that will follow them into adulthood:

”In order to build a strong identity, one must be more aware of what’s going on in the world. It’s also about relating to one another. About listening to stories”, Aisha explains, right before I ask her to guide me through an identity workshop in order for me to understand what it’s all about. But first, we have to add an element to hip-hop.

The fifth element of hip-hop

You have probably heard about the four elements of hip-hop, right? Well, according to the Godfather of hip-hop culture and founder of Zulu Nation, the American DJ Afrika Bambaataa, there is a fifth element – knowledge, culture and understanding. Being aware of what’s going on, being aware of yourself, and being able to see through the bias is essential in order to make change. As Afrika Bambaataa put it:

Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, facts and truths about black, brown, red, yellow and white people and not that brainwash white supremacy shit that white people in power have taught all over the world and to their own people of the so called planet Earth

The fifth element of hip-hop is about awareness. But it can also be used as a tool to obtain a strong identity and greater self-esteem. My first thought was “No… really? Can hip-hop be used for that? I need an explanation!”. And so, Aisha guided me through the process:

Building a stronger identity in five steps

Step 1: Media literacy: Don’t believe the hype!

Being aware of how the media works and being able to see through bias is important. Through commercials the media will tell you that you are not good enough unless you purchase this handbag, this diamond ring, this fitness deal, or this skin treatment. And the politicians in the newspapers tell you that you need to get yourself an education where you get perfect grades until you get a job where it’s all about performing and being a success. These structures lead to unhappiness, so therefore it’s important to take it with a grain of salt.

Step 2: The greatness

It’s important to know your greatness. Everyone has something special to bring to the table, they have a purpose or something to give to the world. Believe and knowing that you can accomplish something great is vital – but also that WE can accomplish something together. An African proverb says that alone you can go faster, but together we can go farther. Being able to work collectively is crucial.

Step 3: I got a story to tell!

When we hear other people’s stories, we understand ourselves better. It builds confidence and liberates us to share stories. Often, when you listen to stories of daily struggles, you realise that you have the exact same struggles, and that you are not alone. Keep in mind why we fell in love with hip-hop to begin with: We listened!

Step 4: I know I can…

What does success mean to you? It’s important that you define what success means to you without using cookie cutter definitions. For some people, success means being a good person every day. For other people it’s about making it through college. There are no rights and wrongs in this matter. It’s all about what you appreciate.

Step 5: The world is yours

Writing yourself into existence basically means to write your own story (without listening to what some people think you are supposed to do). Remember that however you express yourself, can manifest and change you. A good example is power posing or dressing up. It gives you strength to use a strong body language as it not only changes they way you see yourself, but also how you are perceived by others.

Hip-hop is more than beats and rhymes

Being aware of the society around you and staying true to your values can be hard in a world where the media constantly tells you what to believe in and how to look, dress, act or even achieve succes. Hopefully, this little guide is a little reminder that it does not have to be that way. In other words: Don’t believe the hype!


About the blogger: Emilie is a communications volunteer at RAPOLITICS. She holds a master’s degree in Danish and Film and Media Studies from University of Copenhagen.