Hip-Hop Diplomacy, Part 4

By: Felicia Miyakawa (Austin, TX) //

“Girls Be Brave PSA,” produced and performed by the students of St. Karen’s High School in Patna, India with the help of Next Level.

The scene: Two teenage boys—doing their utmost to appear cool—loiter against a concrete wall in Patna, India. Two smiling teenage girls, deeply engaged in their own conversation, walk by the boys, who immediately start whistling, cat calling, and ogling, demanding the girls’ attention. The girls ignore them, but the boys follow them down the street with cries of “Oh, sexy!” and “What’s your name, baby?” When the girls turn around, the boys corner them. One of the girls, a Very Brave Girl, abruptly twists the boy’s arm and chastises him for grabbing her: “Stop it! What do you think this is? Do you think girls are a source of entertainment? Girls are weak? If you think so, you’re wrong! You protect your Mother and sister from this outer world. I am also someone’s daughter. I am also someone’s sister. I am also a woman, like the Goddess whom you worship. Now change your mentality, and move on.” The boys appear thoroughly abashed. One of them repeats what he has just learned to the other. They return to school. Later, the Very Brave Girl discusses the incident with her parents, who express deep concern for her well being and praise her bravery. The video ends with young voices rapping encouragingly: “Be cool, calm, and bold; Behave, be brave; to be better, be the best; break up bitterness; be strong and face the stress.” Against this rap, text fills the screen, one phrase at a time: “Listen to our girls. Support our girls. Be brave.”

This video is a public service announcement produced and performed by students at St. Karen’s High School in Patna, India, site of the first Next Level residency. The topic of the PSA—sexual harassment, rape, and gender violence—was chosen not by Next Level staff but by the students themselves. Sexual violence is a particularly urgent issue in India. Although government officials decry brutality against women and the new prime minister—Narendra Modi—claims to prioritize the protection of women, in rural areas practices such as feudal honor rapes and killings are not uncommon. In May 2014, even before Modi introduced legislation to broaden definitions of rape, the students of St. Karen’s (no doubt aided by Next Level dancer Ansley Jones, a.k.a. Jukeboxx, who specifically requested a post that would allow her to work with victims of sexual violence) exhorted girls to “be brave” and other listeners to “support our girls.”

Feminist scholars might argue against the blame-the-victim mentality of the PSA. Preventing rape is not about teaching girls to be brave. Preventing rape means re-building a misogynistic society from the ground up, creating a citizenry that takes for granted the equality and value of all people. Feminist scholars might also take issue with the Very Brave Girl’s claim that she has worth because (1) she is someone’s sister and daughter; and (2) she is a woman like the (unnamed) goddess. This girl has worth because she exists. This is/should be enough, but the video is nevertheless compelling and important. While politicians dither over definitions, these young people identified an important issue in their community, framed the problem within their own social values, and expressed their hopes in a video using a new skill, rapping, a skill they developed while working with Next Level ambassadors. This is an organic and grass-roots political statement, buoyed (but not directed!) by cultural ambassadors from the United States, and given voice by young people who want to change their own society.

With the help of Next Level teachers, students at St. Karen’s High School also created PSA videos about the dangers of pollution (“Preserving India”) and the responsibilities of civic engagement (“Use your Rights”). “Preserving India” begins with an ominous decree: “This is what India could look like in 5 years.” The screen changes to a desolate urban scene: a river of garbage flanking a crumbling town. The students then demonstrate Earth-friendly practices: bringing reusable bags when shopping, planting trees, recycling, and biking instead of driving a vehicle to prevent pollution. They offer these suggestions while dancing (showing off their rudimentary b-boy / b-girl skills) and rapping in both Hindi and English over a crisp hip-hop beat. The video ends with another decree—“This is what India should look like in 5 years”—and a still shot of a beautiful river sunset, complete with two peaceful humans poling through the water in their boat. https://www.youtube.com/embed/JdUZvzOZkkE

“Preserving India PSA,” produced and performed by the students of St. Karen’s High School in Patna, India with the help of Next Level.

Again, the students have zeroed in on an issue crucial to their country’s health and stability. In May 2014, the World Health Organization declared that New Dehli has the worst air quality in the world. The cities that ranked third and fourth in terms of poor air quality are also in India, and Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar and home to over 2 million people, is second on the list.

The students’ third and final PSA, “Use Your Rights,” commemorated the first general election in five years, held in April and May of 2014. According to some news sources, some 815 million voters were eligible to vote, 100 million more than in 2009. Unsurprisingly, safety for women was a hot button issue. For the first time in Indian electoral history, technology played an important role: social media sites such as Facebook played host to young political activists, especially supporters of Modi—casually known as “Internet Hindus”—who urged their brethren and sistern to vote. In the PSA, the students of St. Karen’s construct a domestic scene. A mother (played by an older student) welcomes a daughter home after school, offering her refreshment. The daughter then welcomes home her harried-looking father. He washes his hands and face, and then returns to the sitting room to hand books to his daughter, who is clearly working on homework. Mama brings tea while Papa massages his daughter’s hair. When Mama asks Papa, “Did you ever vote?” he replies: “No. I had a very busy day.” “Papa!” the daughter exclaims. “Don’t you care about my future?” He looks ashamed. The scene changes, and four students perform prayer rituals associated with major religions while a fifth bears a sign with the image of a finger pointing straight up—a common image from this election cycle. (Voters received a mark in indelible ink on their index finger after voting.) The sign simply says simply “Vote.” The four other students then twirl in turn. Now they hold signs that spell out a message: “Vote for better tomorrow.” All five then sway together to the beat of the music. https://www.youtube.com/embed/baTV2a74f-g

 “Use your Rights PSA,” produced and performed by the students of St. Karen’s High School in Patna, India with the help of Next Level.

These PSAs premiered at a public theater in Patna before a host of dignitaries: the State Art, Culture and Youth Affairs Minister, Vinay Bihari, was expected to attend, as was the Department’s principal secretary, Chanchal Kumar. Via hip-hop, the students of St. Karen’s High School had the opportunity to address the ills of their community. They “spoke truth to power,” a time-honored practice in Hip-hop culture.

These PSAs (and the other performances generated by Next Level artists and participants) illustrate the power of art to foster relationships. But Avid readers who are familiar with Hip-hop culture will also recognize that the political action these students undertook is familiar Hip-hop territory. Hip-hop has been an important vehicle of protest since its earliest years, and as it spread around the world, it became a way (sometimes safe, sometimes not) to dissent from the state or majority. In the United States, rap artists such as Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Kendrick Lamar have for years drawn national attention to urban woes. In Australia, indigenous rappers voice their struggle against majority culture. In France, rap artists air tales of police brutality. In Germany, Turkish rappers detail immigrant struggles. My list could go on and on, and could also include b-boys and b-girls who embody resistance in their power moves, and graffiti writers who bomb urban and suburban areas with messages of protest and rage. In short, the U.S. Department of State is correct: Hip-hop culture, when shared, can give people the tools to express the needs of their community.  

(Special thanks goes to Mark Katz for generously sharing information about Next Level!)

For Discussion

  1. If you were to create a PSA about your community (however you wish to define “community”), what issue(s) would you address? Would Hip-hop be an appropriate tool for you to express these issues?
  2. Look ahead on The Next Level Facebook site, or for other stories about Next Level available on the internet. What grassroots themes seem important to the Next Level participants in the other residencies?

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