Coming to America: African hip hop artists visit the U.S.
Discuss using hip hop as social, economic change agent
By Zenobia Jeffries
DETROIT — Hip hop artists from across the continent of Africa recently visited the United States, some for the first time.
Five members of the Hip Hop and Civic Engagement project attended various meetings and discussions with local hip hop artists, visited the city’s historical sites, local radio stations and recording studios Aug. 6-8.
During the discussion “How Hip Hop Relates” with Khary WAE Frazier of General Population and Follow the Leader, guests Akotchaye Koulaoun Okio of Benin; Prosper Alain Ebah Essongue of Cameroon; LamTungwar Kueigwong of South Sudan; Witnesz Fred Mwaijaga of Tanzania; and Chaka “Pompi” Nyathando of Zambia expressed a responsibility of activism in hip hop, using the music as “a tool” for social change in their communities.
“We’re trying to put the spotlight on people who really matter,” said Pompi, founder and owner of Lotahouse, a recording and production company. Lotahouse, he says, means dream house.
Pompi says usually positive messages to youth are usually “packaged boring” and the more “destructive” music seems to be more attractive to the youth.
“We started Lotahouse (and) declared war against music that we feel is destructive,” he said. “We focus more on artist being teachers. The music is a given. (We) began to teach in a way that’s not destructive.”
Similar to some of the struggles in American hip hop, youth influenced by hip hop in his country tend to focus on the wrong message.
“What’s cool about having a Cadillac and you have no house?” says Pompi.
He says he uses music as a tool to change the culture of what’s cool.
Okio, president and co-founder of Ardiess Productions, the biggest name in Benin hip hop, is using the music and the message to move his country toward economic sustainability.
He says he became a part of the civic engagement project to come to the United States to study successful business models. His company, Ardiess, which means bold, confident or strong, does production, promotion and distribution of hip hop music. They hold annual festivals and competitions in hip hop, giving youth an opportunity to showcase their talent. Okio, whose background is in law, is also president of the Organizational Hip Hop Academy, which teaches youth about the music and culture of hip hop as well as how to refine their own skills and talents.
“We need to grow professionally,” said Okio, acknowledging the multiple hats he wears as an artist and businessman. “It’s important for me to see how people are working with communities and getting (resources) for the youth.”
He says hip hop/business mogul Jay-Z, his favorite hip hop artist, is a good example for young people who want to succeed.
“I’m here to improve my capacity and hook up with people working in the same field.”
Okio called the United States the “roots” of hip hop. “Hip hop blood is running here,” he said.
Unlike some U.S. youth who use hip hop as “an out” to escape their struggles in urban areas, Okio says most hip hop artists in Benin have higher education and use that to motivate change.
Representing female emcees, Tanzania’s Witnesz expressed the challenge fe-male artists have in hip hop.
“Most of them are talented, but have no place to go or no real connections as an independent artist,” she said of female emcees who may split from a male-dominated group. “Even here (in the U.S.) female emcees still struggle.”
Witnesz says she came to the United States to establish contacts with people who have similar goals, for herself and her fellow emcees back home.
“How can I really help those guys really without funds?” she explained. “It’s about going places and how you can lead.”
She added with a smile that she wanted to meet her role model Busta Rhymes — “One of the reasons why I’m here,” she said with a laugh.
Animator, mediator and radio broadcaster Prosper Alain Ebah Essongue uses his musical talent to promote social youth development. His organization 100 % Youth promotes reproductive health through music.
“We give young people information on HIV/AIDS,” said Essongue. “We use music to fight against HIV/AIDS.”
Essongue says in his country HIV/AIDS is destroying young people, most who do not have quality information about the disease or preventative measures to protect themselves.
“They don’t have the opportunity to take the good information,” says Essongue. “Now … with the artist and the music, the artist can give them the message.”
As hip hop artists, all six musicians, including Detroit’s WAE, have taken on the role of activist, using hip hop as a social change agent.
South Sudan native Kueigwong says his song “Stay in Love” was a message for his country with a populace that speaks 48 different languages in the small area.
“‘Stay in Love’ says why don’t we sort out our own issues, regardless of our languages,” he said. “People fight because of size … there are a lot of problems. (But) we can still co-exist whether the minority or majority.”
Kuiegwong said he feels the need as an activist to write songs where the community needs to be challenged.
“I write songs based on the seasons of problems and issues relevant to what I’m feeling … based on a certain reason,” he said.
“In (my song) ‘If Detroit were Heaven,’ I use names of historical events, locations in Detroit,” WAE said, explaining the song contrasts what many deem as the worst with what he’s experienced to be the best of the city. “If I took the best place we could think of — Heaven — and what some people believe is the worst, it could cause people to look at Detroit differently,” he said.
The Hip Hop and Civic Engagement project was sponsored by the Metropolitan Detroit International Visitor Leadership Program. The group also visited Detroit’s 5e Gallery, The Foundation at Old Miami, Motown Historical Museum, Project A.R.T, BLAT! Pack Panel, the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation Urban Arts Academy and a host of other locations.
Contact Zenobia Jeffries at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Courtesy of Zenobia Jeffries