From the South Bronx to Southeast Europe

Today was the final day of the international debate education association (IDEA) program in Macedonia. The two tracks-- visual art (graffiti)/comics and hip-hop/poetry – were responsible for presenting their final projects.
Prior to DJ Goce's arrival, I had taken the students through a series of lessons designed to help them write an activist mission statement, and then poetry and or rap about social justice issues they were working on in their communities.  Some of the themes that emerged  were: child abuse, LGBTQ2 discrimination, ethnic conflicts, and racism.  In general, the theme of FREEDOM could be characterized as the over arching idea that came forward over and over again.
The four groups that emerged were called The Balkanoid Party Breakers, The Illuminators, Freeling, and The Arrival.  The students wrote and conceptualized their performances collaboratively.  After I took them through lessons designed to help them write, DJ Goce and I took them crate digging in order to find sample-able tracks for their poems and raps.
Sampling is a term used to describe taking riffs, melodic lines, and beats from previously recorded records. DJ Goce was able to capture these “samples" on a machine and assign them to different tracks. He could then play the riff over and over in what is called a “loop," or place it in a strategically pleasing pattern on top of a beat.   It was so good to rejoin this version of the creative process. I began writing Hip Hop verse in junior high school, and this version of studio recording was very familiar to me, though I had not done it in years.  I co-produced sample choices choices and came up with baselines.
We spent most of the preview previous day listening to records ranging from Stevie wonder to Brazilian bossa nova. The four projects that emerged were fantastic!
If I want to compare these young people's concerns with young people's concerns in the US, I would have to say that ideas about access and individuality figure more largely in the Balkans than they do in the US. For instance, in the Balkans it would be much more difficult for a young person to say, "I think I will just backpack around the continent instead of heading straight to college." There is a convoluted be VISA process because of the communist history of the countries, and the fact that they are not wealthy countries. In order to go from one place to another, citizens of the Balkans must prove they have a job in a place like England, and even have the employer to sign so that they can travel.
I would say there is a sense that anything is possible among American youth , whereas that sense is more tempered in the Balkan youth.
On the other hand, I would say they are operating with in a culture of normalized dissent and revolution.  I get the impression that young people in the US perceive the recent spate of visible protests as a reemerging phenomena that had been dormant for a time.  In the Balkans because of the history of wars and the recent dissolution of the Yugoslavian republic, the students are very used to the presence of protest and the possibility of protest.  In fact, one of the Greeks students told me that the most popular website in the country is the one that tells you which public services will be on strike for the day.
The students performed their works enthusiastically, and I am excited about how they will use the ideas they worked on in their home communities.
Check out the video here:

Your Blues is Like Mine

I have been collaborating with a Macedonian hiphop Dj and producer named Goce (pronounced GO SEE AH). He began to talk about why hip hop was resonant with him and Macedonian people. He sees hip hop as a dissident art, as he came into consciousness of it in 1989 when socially conscious groups like Public Enemy were popular. He explained that Macedonians has endured slavery under Turkish rule. He talked about the particular way the Turks stole and enslaved beautiful Macedonian women, and as a response, Macedonian men began to carve crosses into women's foreheads so they would not be stolen by Turkish enslavers.

He saw himself as sharing the legacy of enslavement with black Americans.   Goce also talked about how the lyrics of indigenous Macedonian music shared the characteristics of blues music.
These resonances gave me a lot to think about. Check out some video here:

The Global Reach of Blackness

Today I presented about Fannie Lou Hamer. This is a presentation I've done many times now, but because of the audience it was quite different. Because the audience was European and specifically people from the Balkan Peninsula, I stopped much more frequently to explain terms. I spent time on "sharecropping" "Jim crow" and explaining why voting was a signature battleground for Mrs. Hamer. The group was thoroughly engaged and asked probing questions.

 

One particularly resonant question had to do with why African Americans faced discrimination when it was clear that we had added so much to the culture. The audience member cited the arts specifically.

 

From my brief time in Europe and reading Toni Morrison, I came up with this explanation.

 

First I explained that the system of enslavement was very intimate in the US. I talked about how Thomas Jefferson had a family with his wife and a family with his slave, and (to forget complicate matters) the slave was his wife's half sister.

 

I then talked about how white people in the US gave up ethnicity to just be "white."

 

I didn't say this at the time, but they gave up their songs, and cuisines, and religions, and ancestral memories.

 

I told them that being "white" in the US is an identity that is built in opposition to being black. So, in many ways white people need black people around to provide their identity. This explains the schizophrenic "I hate you/ don't leave me" psychodrama that is much of US race relations.

 

I have to say, that after spending time with such a diverse group of ethnic Europeans-- people from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, -- I have never felt sadder for white people gave up. There is so much beauty in a multivariate whiteness that isn't self conscious and tentative. That is backed up by thousands of grandmother stories.

 

Later, I spent time with my smaller individual group whose focus is hip-hop and protest poetry. I led them in a quick and dirty lesson on prejudice, discrimination, and structural or systemized bias. Then they wrote activist mission statements. Finally, they drafted some poetry of their own.  I played Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution will not be Televised."  I also shared a poem with them that I wrote called "Caveat."  It is a feminist poem with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as the major figure. I share it for the students whose voice may not be geared toward the "rah rah" of hip-hop, but more toward introspection.

 

Then my co-teacher Dj Goce arrived. What a delightful gift he is!  Goce is Macedonia's venerated hip-hop pioneer and producer. He brought in his turntables, his beat machines, and tons of personality. His deep knowledge of the music and the culture and his producing gift is prodigious.

 

So many artists have talked about the deep love and appreciation that black music gets globally, but the sit next to this Macedonian man as he argued for a return to socially conscious lyrics in hip hop. All while spinning vinyl was simultaneously surreal and enlightening.

 

Tomorrow, the students will go "crate digging" in a local record store and work to create a complete social justice project that combines poetry and hip hop.

 

Here are some highlights from the day:

 

 

“Friend is Worth More than a Dollar”

Today I rose super thankful for not having to sleep in the airport, and then slog through an eight hour flight, a two hour flight, and then a two and half hour drive . . . unwashed.

 

My grandmother used to say, "A friend is worth more than a dollar."  Her reasoning being, if you are in a strange town stranded (like I was), one dollar would not get you a room anywhere.  A friend, however, (cue: praise hands) will (cue: Aunt Esther saying "Whoa Glory!") have a couch, a floor, or may even pay for a hotel for you.

(cue: sanctified choir chord changes)

 

CUE: HAPPY FEET!

 

So I was able to spend the night in a safe and welcoming place because of Neal and Tayari, who are now in my will.

 

After that, I rode a train and a bus back to Dulles, and besides a slight heart attack when the gate agent claimed my reschedule was invalid, I arrived in Skopje, Macedonia and then my final destination of Ohrid without  (an additional) hitch.

 

Check out the video here:

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