The American rapper Bomani “D’Mite” Armah once said that “music is the language of spirits.” In a conflict zone, however, music can literally be the language of life and death. Conflict can take many forms. Many in the realm of social justice are most likely to think of conflict zones as war zones such as those in Sudan, Burma, or the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.). The truth of the matter is that the term “conflict” applies to many aspects of society. Conflict exists in every day society, in “developed” countries, inner city neighborhoods, suburban enclaves, religious institutions, and even in our educational institutions.
Chuck D of The 1990s popular rap group Public Enemy once referred to rap music as the “Black CNN.” When he made that statement, he was referring to the fact that in the United States, mainstream media depictions of life in inner-city Black neighborhoods primarily portrayed the Black community negatively. As someone* who grew up in an inner-city Black neighborhood and still lives in one today, I attest to Chuck D’s sentiment. The media, even today, but especially in the Eighties and Nineties, primarily shows images of Black people in the city as gangsters, drug dealers, and as other forms of uneducated crime perpetrators and victims. Rap music helped paint a more balanced perspective of Black community life.
While we were dealing with the pejorative issues portrayed by mainstream media in our communities, most rap music, particularly during the “Golden Age” of the late Eighties and early Nineties, also helped portray a community where education was valued, church participation was vibrant, our history respected, and family life cherished. Music groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Brand Nubian helped many of us in the inner-city community keep our heads high even while much of the nation (and world) had an unfavorable view of us.
As it relates to our educational system, many of us in Black America looked at our schools as a conflict zone, and this is no exaggeration. In our schools, we were taught that our origins began with the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and not with the great kings and queens of Africa. As Malcolm X said, “Once you think your people never did anything, you think you can never do anything.” We were taught that there was no reason to be committed to our people because we would end up slain like Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught to aspire to be athletes and musicians because the great contributions of Black people to America only came in those forms, save for the few posters of Black academic achievement that appeared on the walls during the 28 day celebration entitled “Black History Month,” which was often sponsored by beer companies.
It was during this period that rap music truly served as our educational tool of empowerment and served as a counterbalance to the brainwashing that was our educational system. When teachers were dragging me to the office and calling me a “fucking punk,” KRS-One (referred to by many of us as “The Teacher”) was telling me in songs like “You Must Learn” that:
What do you mean when you say I'm rebellious 'Cause I don't accept everything that you're telling us What are you selling us the creator dwellin' us I sit in your unknown class while you're failing' us 'Cause you don't know that you ain't just a janitor No one told you about Benjamin Banneker A brilliant Black man that invented the almanac Can't you see where KRS is coming at? With Eli Whitney, Haile Selassie,
Grand Bill Woods made the walky-talky Lewis Latimer improved on Edison Charles Drew did a lot for medicine Garrett Morgan made the traffic lights Harriet Tubman freed the slaves at night Madame CJ Walker made a straightin' comb But you won't know this if you weren't shown The point I'm gettin' at it might be harsh 'Cause we're just walkin' around brainwashed
For those of us that looked at education as a conflict zone, rap music for many of us was our only saving grace and tool of empowerment. In fact, many successful Black Americans under the age of 40 who came from the inner-city will definitely reference positive rap music as an important part of their upbringing and creation of self esteem, even if they grew up in a positive household.
It should be easy by now to understand how music helped many of us survive the conflict zone I describe as inner-city America. Having explored that topic, it is now important to turn to music in war conflict zones. Across the globe and throughout history, music has served as a tool to not only inspire and motivate the suffering, but to liberate them as well. Music in, about, and from conflict zones can also educate the masses on conflicts that they are not aware of. A recent example—and the one that I am most familiar with—is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.1
The D.R.C. has been engulfed in a bloody war since the mid-1990s, a war that has taken many incessant forms. Since the beginning of this conflict, over five million people have died. What began as Rwandan and Ugandan forces invading eastern Congo to allegedly prevent rebel invasions into their own countries has turned into a war where over 20 rebel groups now occupy eastern Congo, fueling their movements by raping both the country of its natural resources and its people. Many of these resources funnel their way through Uganda and Rwanda, who are now leading exporters of diamonds and gold, resources they do not even possess! What has been sad for many of us is that most of the world knows nothing of our plight.
The ignorance by the global majority that their electronic products, such as televisions, cell phones, game consoles, and computers, are coming from the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II has fueled my work as a musician. As a Congolese-American, protesting against violence and exploitation in the Congo has become the family business. As far back as the 1800s, my family has been fighting against Arab enslavement, King Leopold’s occupation, Belgian colonialism, and neocolonialist policies. After exhausting many efforts to reach the public and raise awareness on the Congo through traditional academic means, I realized that the best way to reach, educate, and motivate the masses to action in this multimedia age was through music.
While working in Congolese refugee camps in 2002, I experienced the crisis first-hand. I worked with 5,000 internally displaced persons who had fled eastern Congo. Though I had written songs that had given an historical perspective on the Congo before: the dead bodies, the people we drove to the hospital who died the next day, losing my 22-year old cousin who died from a common cold on the same day I met him, and having bodies being found bloated because they hadn’t been embalmed, told me that I needed to use music to speak to the masses on this plight. While in Congo, I wrote “Welcome to the Congo,” which detailed my eyewitness account of the Congo (excerpt below):
I’ve visited Congolese refugee camps To find that there’s not even any refuge for refugees Abandoned Congolese mothers and children Living in tents made out of empty rice bags While lice drags through their hair And their daughters living in despair, Start having babies at 12-years-old With 50-year-old married men with no humility Who pay them $0.25 for their virginity And the possibility of exchange for AIDS
Along with several other artists, music has become the tool to inspire the masses to take action on the crisis in the Congo. I, along with other non-Congolese artists such as Norah Jones, Mos Def, Damien Rice, Angelique Kidjo, Bat For Lashes, Rodrigo y Gabriella, and Amadou & Mariam, have lent our voices to an album entitled “Raise Hope for Congo” designed to raise awareness and funds for the people of Congo. Student groups like STAND NOW, which originally began as a Sudanese advocacy organization, have also taken on Congo as one of its primary causes. Across the U.S., protests have taken place demanding that legislators adopt tough conflict mineral legislation (HR 4128); in front of organizations like Apple, Dell, and Microsoft; and against colleges and universities that patronize the aforementioned companies.
While music is not the only reason that there is increased activism on the Congo, in this multimedia age in which we live, music is the primary and most easily recognizable vehicle to, as they say, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.” Any musician who has been given the gift from above to communicate the voice of the voiceless, inspire action, and save lives but refuses to do so is committing a criminal act. To quote the late, great artist and activist Paul Robeson, “the artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice.”
*To learn more about Omékongo Dibinga, visit his website here.
1. Omékongo Dibinga is featured on the "Raise Hope for Congo" album, a project aimed at raising awareness of the crimes against humanity occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other artists featured on the album include Norah Jones, Mos Def, Angelique Kidjo, Sheryl Crow, and many more. To learn more about the "Raise Hope for Congo" album, visit here.