Words of Empowerment

HOPE International Music Festival celebrates origins and diversity of hip-hop

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Rapper and activist Mona Haydar’s politically charged “Hijabi” music video screened on stage at the HOPE International Music Festival. Meanwhile, about 100 UC Santa Cruz students awaited performances exploring the origin of hip-hop and the double standards female artists face.

The Oct. 6 festival, located at the College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room, included performances from UCSC’s Kahaani and Haluan dance teams. The headliner and rap activist, “raptivist,” Aisha Fukushima taught attendees about the intersectionality of hip-hop and political activism.

Hip-hop was born in the Bronx in 1973 as a sound produced by emcees and DJs in the Black community as a mode of expression against oppression. Walking into the multipurpose room, students found booths dedicated to the history of hip-hop, problems with cultural appropriation, international expressions of the genre and the challenge of being female in a male-dominated industry.

The first act, Kahaani, a Bollywood fusion dance team, opened for Fukushima. Kahaani, which means “story” in Hindi, integrates Indian and South Asian dance with hip-hop to tell stories that break barriers between cultures. Some past themes of the team’s performances include alcoholism, feminism in the South Asian community and domestic violence.

“We try to use our platform to talk about things that people don’t talk about. That’s why we are here,” said Sumana Krishnakumar, choreography captain for Kahaani.

Following Kahaani, the student dance group Haluan performed a dynamic dance where smaller groups alternated between different student-choreographed urban hip-hop routines. Associated with Bayanihan, Haluan means “of mixed nature” in Tagalog and reflects the diversity of the dancers. Haluan coordinator Kenny Bagnol believes the team’s diversity makes its dancing more spirited and intricate, with each dancer bringing their own culture to the stage.

Aisha Fukushima headlined the festival with a multimedia approach to artistic activism. Throughout her performance, Fukushima referenced the importance of individuality and staying true to oneself in a world full of labels.

Fourth-year Paloma Figueroa thinks it’s important to learn through other’s perspectives. Figueroa felt uplifted and inspired by Fukushima’s story of how she found her voice in hip-hop and continued to expand her musicianship and raptivism wherever she traveled.

“To hear her speak and rap and everything she did was beautiful,” Figueroa said. “You could just tell how passionate she is about it and you can see that through her performance.”

Fukushima uses raptivism as a platform for education about social systems of oppression and how art is integral to change. She introduced the audience to rappers from Palestine and Senegal who challenge political issues ranging from gender norms to presidential campaigns.

“A lot of times people are like […] ‘My soul needed something to speak to it,’ and to be able to see someone in real life who is speaking some sort of truth, their own truth, that resonates,” Fukushima said. “They needed something that can be profoundly moving and that has a lot of potential to make change somehow or shift frameworks, shift how people see the world. A lot of the power of art boils down to that.”

Fukushima told the audience her story of experiencing racism as a Black Japanese American and how spoken word gave her a mode of expression that connected her with hip-hop movements around the world. She has traveled to over 20 countries spanning four continents to work on projects related to community activism. To encourage the audience to participate, Fukushima digitally mixed their voices live on stage during her final song, “Missing You.”

The event ended with an open mic while viewers ate vegan chicken wings and made raptivist pinback buttons. Dozens of students lined up to talk with Fukushima and express their excitement about continuing her raptivism movement.

“Being compassionate on a daily basis for me is a form of activism. There are so many things that tell us that we should just be self-interested, individual-minded […],” Fukushima said. “My hope is that some of the arts get people sensitized to one another again and to see and hear and recognize each other’s humanity.”