Hip Hop and social change around the world: An interview with Nomadic Wax

Photo: Magee McIlvaine of Nomadic Wax

Nomadic Wax is an international crew of filmmakers, educators, activists, and artists.

THROUGH FILM AND MUSIC, events and products, they encourage social change and international cultural exchange. They have operated all over the US and the rest of the world, using Hip Hop to work with local communities, unearthing, promoting, and connecting with individuals and groups who practice this art form.

I thought I’d engage them in a cyber cipher and ask them a few questions about Hip Hop and its links to social change, as well as where on the planet you might find the illest B-boys or witness the most intense freestyles.

[D]: How does Hip Hop affect social change in some of the communities you have visited?

[Emcee/activist Mikal Lee, aka the Hired Gun]: Hip Hop in the communities that I work in acts as a means to convey truth and realities to a broader audience. It also empowers individuals to tell their stories, and gives them a forum that can lead to problem solving, resolution building, and spiritual and mental healing. People don’t realize how maligned, localized and marginalized the culture was for the first 15-20 years of its existence. No one knew it would have the global impact that it’s had on any level, be it social, commercial, etc.

[Turntabilist DJ Boo]: Today, I’ve seen this art form taking negative energy and channeling it into creative and artistic endeavors. Whether it’s the B-boy in South Africa bringing pride to his community by competing in a B-boy battle, or the Syrian MC rhyming about the injustices the government is inflicting upon their people, or the Mexican MC and his song about the preservation of indigenous peoples’ rights. These artists around the world are helping give voices to those who would otherwise be voiceless. These artists are showing that a negative path is not the only option.

[Filmmaker, Magee McIlvaine, Nomadic Wax's Creative Director]: All across the world, Hip Hop has a unique ability to empower and inspire young people to do amazing things. We have seen it have profound impacts on the political landscape in some countries, while in others, its impact is more grassroots. But wherever our team has gone, the Hip Hop scenes are unique and their impact wide ranging. Perhaps one of the most profound experiences I have ever had was during a series of Hip Hop workshops with Canadian group Nomadic Massive in Port Au Prince, Haiti, a few months after the devastating earthquake. You can watch a video about that project here [below]. During those workshops, you could not only feel the impact Hip Hop could have on a devastated community, you could actually see it. The impact was tangible.

[Emcee/producer/DJ/activist DJ Nio, Zero Plastica crew in Italy]: Before any social network existence, Hip Hop culture has been a medium to express youth creativity through its elements. At the same time, Rap music has been a way to maintain ancient language for local minorities like the Basques in Northern Spain, for example, or the Sami in Scandinavia.

[Journalist/organizer Greg Schick, Nomadic Wax's Managing Director]: One of most amazing and consistent things I have seen is the direct mentoring of youth through Hip Hop. A gathering place is created in a community; it can be a community center, academy, or just any open space. It’s often started by one elder Hip Hop practitioner — a dancer, MC, DJ, or artist. These kids find hope and pride in learning about DJing in Cambodia or B-boying in Uganda and India. I know an organization in Ethiopia that uses Hip Hop to teach English. Over time, some of these kids have grown into skilled adults with opportunities to travel, tour, battle…the growth and change is measurable.

What movements have surprised you the most and why?

[DJ Nio, Zero Plastica crew in Italy]: I think that one of the most amazing movements is in Mongolia and it’s well pictured in the documentary Mongolian Bling by Benj Binks, where some of the most important MCs meet traditional music. I couldn’t have ever imagined that Hip Hop was so strong even in such a remote country!

[Magee McIlvaine, Creative Director]: One of the most interesting scenes that I have had the privilege to experience firsthand and explore a little bit is actually your scene, Dikson, out there in Zimbabwe. I grew up next door to Zim in Zambia, so that region has always been close to my heart. Given the challenges the country has gone through over the past decade, I am completely floored by not only the mere existence of Zimbabwe’s vibrant arts scene, and especially it’s Hip Hop community, but the depth and the unique qualities of Zimbabwean Hip Hop. It’s one of the most unique scenes on the planet as far as I am concerned.

[Greg Schick, Managing Director]: One discipline that gets little recognition is beat-boxing. There is a huge global community for beat-boxers centered in Germany, where the World Beatbox Championships are held. It’s especially strong in Europe but also shows up in Australia, South Africa, South Korea, etc.

Where have you witnessed the best show?

[Magee McIlvaine, Creative Director]: As you can imagine, I’ve seen a lot of shows over the years. One group that I always wished I could have seen live was France’s Saian Supa Crew, but they broke up before I could make it happen. One of the more memorable concerts in my life was a Daara J (now Daara J Family) concert in Dakar, Senegal, in 2005 when I was a young student. They murdered that show. I remember I had such a good time at that show, dancing and carrying on. The cameras filmed me and put me on national television as an enthusiastic fan. For weeks after that, people recognized me on the streets because of that.

More recently, I think one of the best performing groups in the scene right now is Canadian group Nomadic Massive. For real, no one is really touching them performance-wise. I remember a memorable performance of theirs in Port Au Prince, Haiti, in the middle of an electrical storm with the power going in and out. The concert was hosted by the Minister of Culture, but the department’s buildings had been destroyed during the earthquake. The concert was held under a small tent outside, next to the ruins of the government buildings.

I was filming and was on an elevated stand just outside of the tent for all the TV crews to film. Halfway through the concert, there was a monstrous crack of lightning and it started pouring like crazy. I had my camera plugged into an exposed socket for power and I yanked it out, covered in water, and caught a bolt of electricity through my body. I was stunned for a second, and then recovered and scrambled to get the rest of my gear out of the rain, though it was all already soaked and the entire place had become a mud pit. Everyone now crammed under this tiny tent, but no one left. The concert went on, and it was great.

What was your most memorable freestyle session and where?

[Magee McIlvaine, Creative Director]: I remember a great cipher in the rain in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, during the 2009 Waga Hip Hop Festival, with El Primo and Golgo 13 (OBC), Abramz of Breakdance Project Uganda, and El Prez (Stay Calm). Also, we recently put together our own NYC/diaspora cipher which was pretty ridiculous as well:

Man…I can’t even begin to list out my favorite ciphers! There have been so many, all so amazing. There have been some great ciphers in my minivan while trekking from one show to the next as well. Sadly, those are never caught on camera. To get at little taste try this video:

[DJ Boo]: I used to work at Fat Beats in NY, and when the store would have in-store performances us DJs who worked there would have to spin for the artists. Common was scheduled to perform and I was asked to spin. Every record I played he peeked at the labels of the records I was spinning and had a rhyme about each and every artist. I have to also say when Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, and Supanatural came in to promote the Word of Mouth Tour, the freestyle session was pretty intense.

[Greg Schick, Managing Director]: I have to say at the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival, not just because it’s our event, but because artists from so many countries gather each spring, which leads to some phenomenal multilingual freestyle sessions you would not see anywhere in the world.

Just this year alone, we had artists from Brazil, Congo, Iraq, Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Mozambique, Portugal, and several parts of the United States.

Where have you seen the best B-boys and girls?

[DJ Nio, Zero Plastica crew in Italy]: I found an amazing crew of B-boys and B-girls in the main street of Istanbul called Istiklal Caddesi in Turkey — they where shooting a video and they were literally flying!

(Mikal Lee, aka the Hired Gun]: The best Bboys/Bgirls I’ve personally seen were in Brazil. Ridiculous power moves. It was so obvious the influence Capoeira had on them there.

[Greg Schick, Managing Director]: France and Brazil always have impressive B-boys, but for me South Korea has a ridiculous number of amazing B-boys. Their power moves are incredible — very gymnastic — and they seem to have a never-ending supply of phenomenal dancers. Every year new guys show up! Watch this amazing exhibition battle from the 2011 Trinity College International Festival with Brazil’s Neguin and USA/Dominican Republic’s El Nino.

Find out more about Nomadic Wax at www.nomadicwax.com.

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  • Mary Williams

    Interview by my friend Dikson. Read and share…