It was late fall 2005 when we left Kenya for South Africa to host 2 World Urban Cafes (WUCs); one during the 1st African Hip Hop Summit, and one during the monthly Black Sunday event in Soweto. As I write this lots of memories are flooding back… WUCs, Hip Hop, Friends, Soweto… it all feels like a dream, a damn good dream.
First let me explain some background; how did we end up in Kenya? South Africa? To many other places far far away? Well, back then, when I was considering working with Doug on the World Urban Forum project of the Environmental Youth Alliance, I remember him trying to explain his vision to me… it was on a napkin I think, sitting in some cafeteria in downtown Vancouver. If you know Doug, you know he speaks from a place where he calls ‘the bleeding edge’ and indeed this World Urban Café plan of his was certainly that. You see, UN Habitat, the UN agency charged with ‘improving the lives of slum dwellers’ was going to host their 3rd Session of the World Urban Forum in our city, VanCity, the next year. When Doug asked to meet with me, I thought it would be just another long lunch with Doug, talking about our lives, our city, our vision for the future. Little did I know that this lunch would change me forever. Jumping forward, about 8 months later, here I am, living in Nairobi, Kenya, a place I had not even knew existed a year before, working with UN Habitat and the Environmental Youth Alliance on the World Urban Forum, specifically implementing this WUC Concept and the HABITAT JAM, the online conference held following the WUCs, in the lead up to the 2006 Conference in Vancouver.
To cut a long story short, the WUC project was intended to encourage discussion among young people on issues affecting their communities locally, and the world globally. It aimed to provide forums in which youth generated ideas and produced action plans on the issues important to them. You see, from our perspective, how realistic was it to have the voices of youth meaningfully heard in a forum designed for bureaucrats? What can we do to ensure that the views of young people from around the world are shared especially since the issues related to urbanization, it can be argued, hits young people the hardest?
The World Urban Cafés were grounded by a practice known as Participatory Action Research. This is a process in which groups of people attain significant understanding and improvement of their situation through shared planning, participatory practices, observations and reflections. A WUC for us meant that we combined celebration and discussion together, and what better way to do this with young Africans then to harness the power of Hip Hop. (the following video is interviews of people involved in the WUCs and the HABITAT JAM)
Overall, the WUC Series in lead up to the 3rd World Urban Forum saw the participation of over 30,000 young people and civil society from around the world. It was a social movement, a product of, and a reaction to globalization, exclusion, and under-representation in development decision-making processes. They drew from and build upon organizations working on the ground that acted as action partners for us, and focal points for participants to reflect upon urban issues as it relates to them, and provide a vehicle to express their concerns at the World Urban Forum.
So with that brief explanation, let me come to the case at hand: The South African Experience. At this point in the project, we were hustling, moving, and negotiating our way into the spaces that meant something. Something amazing to us even at this time because we knew the place we were heading was something good. All the elements were there; good sound and good people. I mean, seriously, only good comes out of this scene. Our action partner in SA with through a guy named Sipho, a hard working, hard hitting music industry mover and shaker in SA who was planning the 1st ever African Hip Hop Summit. The line up included Poet, Breeze, Randy P, Young Nations, Zuluboy, Gidigidi Majimaji, Kohinoor, Emmamuel Jal, Lady B, Hip-Hop Pantsula, Pro Verb, DJ Awadi, Pro Kid, Tumi & The Volume, K’naan, and Guru. Yes I did say K’Naan, and yes it was one of the best music events I have had the pleasure of being involved with.
But to tell you the truth, while the line up listed here was outstanding, one name comes to my mind as standing out in my memory bank. A dude from Vancouver, and now a dear friend of mine, Ron Harris aka “Os 12”. I met Ron in a perfect way. We lived in Van, me in East Van, he near UBC in the community of the Musqueam Nation, but we first met face to face in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although we had never met, I saw him numerous times on stage in Vancouver because we have many mutual friends. Every time I saw him, I reminded myself that I have to introduce myself to him, to say how much I admired his mad skills. I remember when Doug and I decided to call upon him, by this reputation of course, and it was a no-brainer. Os 12 was our local guy to bring to SA; to be showcased with the likes of K’Naan and Jal.
Why Ron you may ask? Well, those of you who have seen him perform, you wouldn’t be asking this question but for the benefit of those who have not, then here is why: His courage. I love to see someone who embraces new experiences head on and without any worry about what they bring to the table. Many would have been intimidated by the many talented people in this setting but not Ron. His truth is that when you speak from the heart then nothing wrong can happen. He embodied the true spirit of why we were all here: to say things that matter and to carry these things in life through your actions. Os had never been to Africa, but the second he arrived on scene he was first to be in like skin; rhyming, improving, discussing, writing, performing, even jumping on the main stage when the crowd ‘demanded’ for him. Amazing.
Now, Doug has asked me to write about SA, and an event called Black Sunday. My response was ok, I will try to write something about my memory of this time, but I want to call upon my good friend Ron who can better describe this experience than I could ever. I have asked me a few questions below but first let me describe the scene: According to Wiki, Soweto is an urban area of the city of Johannesburg in Gauteng, South Africa, bordering the city’s mining belt in the south. Its name, an English syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships, refers to its origins as a Black township under South Africa’s Apartheid government. The population has historically been overwhelmingly poor, Black and some of the watershed events in the struggle against Apartheid occurred in the township. It was hot that day and the immense excitement could be sliced by a knife. Not too many people will ever have a chance to experience what we experienced that day with the local talent, the global talent, culminating in the final act: K’Naan is all his glory. Remarkable.
My Q and A with Ostweleve:
Kevina: Ron, I remember meeting you in Joburg, was that the airport or the hotel? Stupid question but you never know…
Ron: I’m pretty sure we met at the hotel…I remember we (Tara Henley and I) were all travelled out and totally fell asleep on your hotel floor for a bit. Thanks for that by the way…was much needed!
Kevina: What does music do for you… ok loaded question I know but give it a go knowing that from what I know about you, your words are not just words… –
Ron: Music for me has been both an escape and an internal journey within my own being. Growing up as an aboriginal youth and now an adult…I’ve been around storytelling and information sharing all my life. I grew up around my grandparents who were always sharing stories, history and values with me. My Grandmother was alway making me speak…whether at funerals or other gatherings…she really trained me to be a speaker for my people. In the contemporary Aboriginal world…sometimes the traditional ceremonial ways aren’t the most sought after by Aboriginal youth. I’ve always felt Hiphop had the ability to translate traditional values and knowledge in its message. Unfortunately we are plenty outnumbered by the corporate interests that consume most of Hiphop’s intent…but with some proper planning and support, I feel we can repatriate Hiphop back to the people and use it as a medicine. Being in Africa made me see this even more.
Kevina: What was your first feeling about the event in Soweto? I bet you were stoked… –
Well at first I was a little nervous of course…I was there pretty much by myself with the exception of a travel partner…but being able to see Hiphop celebrated at such with such enthusiasm and in a place with such a RICH history was an amazing experience. To see people breakdancing, freestyling and doing graffiti was awesome in that they always had their own flavor added to it. I got to listen to many artists including kids who were spitting raps at a level unmatched by many kids here in Canada…to me that was a beautiful inspiration to take home. Also the concept of “Black Sunday” was new to me…a hiphop training course and weekly celebration…is something still fairly unheard of here in Canada and which I plan on making a reality one day. I have started by facilitating workshops with youth across the country giving them the skills and head start in the right direction to maintain a career in Hiphop and its various elements.
Kevina: How about being on stage? Man what a sight you being on that stage, you were a legend before you got on. I remember the people calling your name… –
Ron: Yes being on stage was another experience all together…most of all I was sick for most of that trip…not sure if it was allergies or a cold of some sort…but it was a challenge all the way thru. First speaking at the summit and performing made it so I had a great introduction to the Hiphop scene there…by the time I went to Soweto…people had already recognized me in the streets and when it was time for me to perform at Black Sunday…the crowd was already calling back the choruses in my songs…something also unheard of here in Canada. The level of love for music and art there are AMAZING and taught me to really appreciate art and music and the fact that I have been granted to opportunities to travel and do these things for a living and to effect communities with it. When I returned the next year…a man actually approached me saying that one of my songs changed his life and inspired him to stop using drugs and pursue his music career…that was really inspiring to me. Also usually when you do shows here in Canada you have some sort of fan base….there I was new and on my own…so it was a challenge that has made performing for new markets really something I can handle now.
Kevina: Black Sunday: What did you expect? –
Ron: To be honest…I did not know what to expect. We are so jaded by the media and their outlook on the world. So at first I took what I had read and learned about Soweto into account…and the first thing that we are subjected with is the violence and revolution that was there. Then when I arrived in Soweto…it was really quiet…peaceful even. I could see the remnants of a time of violence with the barbed wire fences and stories I was told about the surrounding area. When I started to meet the people there my perception changed. People were kind and celebratory…they love to sing, dance and laugh. I saw a similarity with aboriginal culture in that way…we all love to laugh, dance and sing songs….this is what really binds us as people outside of the general colonial oppression we face not just as Aboriginals but as human beings. I can’t say I expected the worst…but I really didn’t know what to expect…so I just took it all in and fought my feelings of fear and reservation…and soaked it all up…meeting and greeting as many people as I could….taking pictures with as many people as possible…and for the most part…listening to what people had to say…what they wanted to share with the world and my people. From these things I gained the most knowledge and understanding for the South African people.
Kevina: What did you find out about yourself there? –
Ron: I found out many things about myself…the most being that I am a messenger not just for my Aboriginal people…but for people facing struggle around the world. We as a people and global conscience all face these problems and they are not local to just our neighborhoods. If one person in this world has struggle then we ALL have struggle as a global conscience. Seeing a people rise from a dark history of violence and oppression gave me the strength to stand up in any forum against any voice to share and stand for what I believe in. The journey also taught me that to learn how to deal with struggle…you must go to some places which may bring fear into some people. My mother was very afraid for me when I was there…as was I for a time…but I found we must do the things we are afraid of first and get courage after.
Kevina: Even after all these years, I remember how happy I was that day. K’Naan, Jal, Awadi, so many songs and words. Almost overwhelming. How would you describe the scene and its result to you as a person, and the community in general? –
Ron: The scene there is amazing in the way of it’s AMAZING amount of unity…here in Vancouver aka Hollywood North…the scene is very cliquey and there’s not much unity or solidarity due to the polarity of people’s personal politics. In S.Afrika…those lines seem to come down for the celebrations but in the same way there are many struggles politically as well…but at the end of the day everyone comes together to share the songs and vibes. This is something I try to share and introduce more into our scene through different initiatives. Our disadvantage comes from our loyalty to TV Pop Culture and the climate of what is popular. Once we begin to liberate ourselves from these boundaries we can start to support our own artists without the influence of what TV tells us is popular. We’re starting to see it more in the prairies but not so much here in Vancouver.
Kevina: Ok that’s it for now.. you got any questions for me?
When are we going to check out more Afrika and make more liaisons for the coming convergence of Global conscience?
Ready and waiting Ron! Don’t worry we are still young!
Our Year Our Voice my young friends, let’s make something happen.
Kevina Power Njoroge