Rap artist makes plea: 'Why have we done nothing?'

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During a campus visit on Sept. 19, rap artist K’naan implored the members of his audience to ask themselves a question that has profound implications for the people of his native Somalia.

“Does your life have more currency than others?” he asked. “Does it mean more because you live here?”

If we believe that all human beings are equally deserving of life, then “we’ll do something” to help the four million Somalis facing death from hunger, he told the near-capacity crowd in the Yale University Art Gallery.

A poet and hip hop artist who earned international fame when his song “Wavin’ Flag” was chosen as the anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, K’naan spoke as part of a panel discussing the famine crisis in Somalia. Joining him in the discussion were his friend Sol Guy, a Canadian social entrepreneur and music promoter, and Yale political science lecturer David Simon. The event — co-sponsored by the gallery, the Yale World Fellows Program and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas — was organized by World Fellow Gavin Sheppard, a cultural entrepreneur from Canada whose initiative The Remix Project uses hop-hop music to help at-risk youth develop skills.

K’naan, who fled Somalia as teenager and eventually moved with his family to Canada, showed a video depicting scenes from his recent visit to the African country with Guy — his first trip back to his childhood home of Mogadishu. He noted that his celebrity status made his homecoming an emotionally complicated one for him.

“I feel like a fireman whose son is in the building,” he told his audience. “I have an intimate stake in this situation.”

Guy discussed how he and K’naan had thought about how to respond to the escalating crisis well before the famine and its effects had come to international attention.

In the music industry, Guy said, the common response has been to host a concert or to inspire people to purchase a song to raise money. He and K’naan opted instead to visit Somalia “so that we could speak firsthand,” he told the audience. While there, they visited the only hospital in Mogadishu that provides care to malnourished children and filmed a discussion they had in the hospital about the prevalence of flies where sick and dying children lie unprotected on the ground, owing to a lack of mosquito nets.

The two have since attempted to bring international attention to the plight of the Somali people, hundreds of thousands of whom, they said, will die as a result of the famine. K’naan has appeared with U2 singer Bono — who is also helping to draw attention to the crisis in Somalia — in interviews on national news networks such as CNN, among other venues.

“Artists are sensitive people,” K’Naan commented, adding that those with renown are in “an incredibly privileged position” to inspire a response to international humanitarian crises and other causes.

He recalled a time in his own life when he questioned the merit of his own artistry, a soul-searching that took place while he stayed in Guy’s home.

“I asked, is it necessary for me to create? I couldn’t answer that question. … My music is so personal, so intimate to my life. … I wondered if it was something anybody else would care about. I wondered if my specificity was not segregating me to a solitary place in music.”

Two questions, he said, became intertwined for him at that time: “Does anybody care about me? Does anybody care about anyone else?”

Once able to continue on and share his musical creations with the world, K’naan said, he found affirmation from those who told him that his music not only touched them personally but also inspired them to learn more about the Somali people.

Still, the question about empathy persists, said K’naan, as he watches thousands die in his native country, largely ignored by the rest of the world.

“Why have we done nothing?” he asked his audience.

Guy also discussed the responsibility of artists, as well as the media, to respond to international crises. He noted that while sometimes the collaboration of artists in benefit events results in an initial outpouring of public support, the activism is not always sustained. “Sometimes we do an event where the artist community rallies, and then we go home and get back to all the things that distract us,” he said.

In other situations, the role of celebrity artists simply should be to help raise awareness or facilitate a reaction to a problem, Guy added.

“If you inspire and provide action steps, the next job is to go out of the way and let people run with it,” he commented.

Simon discussed the history of the Somali conflict and noted that most Americans associate Somalia with civil war, the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab and with piracy.

“It’s a story of bad guys and victims,” the Yale instructor said, “but one that never gives agency or recognition to the people of Somalia.”

That issue was raised again following a question from a member of the audience, who asked the panel if there are ways to “re-package” the negative messages about Somalia — and its people as victims — to focus instead on the strengths of the country’s citizens.

“Just because there is war or suffering or hardship or intense poverty in a country — where we wonder how they survive — [we must remember] that these people are on the edge but alive, living immediate and vibrant lives: laughing and looking in the mirror, hoping for another day,” said Guy. “They are wanting to live.”

K’naan echoed that view, bringing a human narrative to the story of Somalia by telling the audience about the Somalis love of poetry, how families in Mogadishu helped out those less fortunate by inviting them to live and eat in their homes, and about the generous support of the Somali diaspora for those back home. He also gave audience members a “homework” assignment.

“Learn something that is good about the place,” he urged. “Tell someone something good about Somalia.”

For more information on K’naan’s initiative to help Somalis affected by famine, visit http://knaanmusic.ning.com.

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