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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Rapper engages in activism through music

From its roots in the Bronx in the 1970s til now, hip-hop and rap music has had its finger on the pulse of social issues in the United States. From Public Enemy calling to “fight the power” in inner-cities in the 1980s to Kendrick Lamar’s expression of what it means to be black in America in “To Pimp a Butterfly” and Run the Jewels’ songs of protest against police brutality, social activism has been at the heart of this genre.

Monday night, in the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library, Aisha Fukushima, a “rap activist” or “RAPtivist,” explored the ability of hip-hop and rap to act as a catalyst for change and explained how her background led her to a career in activism. Fukushima also performed a few recently released songs.

Fukushima said her unique upbringing contributed to her early political views and allowed her to witness the power of music.

“I grew up as a multiracial child, both African-American and Japanese heritage, and for me, that looked liked living in Seattle, Washington, as well as Yokohama, Japan,” Fukushima said. “I think at this early age, I started to see how global music was. That pulse of music to be able to travel around the globe. No matter where you’re performing ... I didn’t know the word solidarity yet, but I was feeling that through music.”

When she spent time back in the United States, Fukushima said that she first experienced the racism that would later help inform the civil rights message she would later advocate.

“I was one of very few students of color in the entire school,” she said. “We had our tires slashed over 17 times. There were different seeds of hatred and discontent that would manifest sometimes in actions like that, even in my local community.”

Fukushima said one avenue through which she was able to express her feelings about discrimination was through writing poetry, which she could share with her high school classes. Fukushima found that students were more likely to listen to her concerns through this medium. This experience led her towards rap, a genre that she believes there are many misconceptions about, she said.

“Often times, we get the booty, bling, bullets and sometimes bourbon,” she said. “Part of my experience in traveling around the world and connecting with hip hop activists — whether they be locally or globally — there is more to the hip-hop identity than this single story.”

Fukushima said that the activist roots of hip-hop are come from the Bronx.

“People used the phrase, 'The Bronx is burning,' to describe [the 1970s] because the landlords figured out they could acquire more money by burning down buildings and collecting insurance money than through the rent,” she said. “Hip-hop was born out of this place. Hip-hop was, in many ways, a response to the destruction that was going on.”

Fukushima said that this activism was not limited to the United States and cited the impact of the Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi.

“He created an album, ‘Presidénts de l’Afrique,’ talking about the different African leaders he didn’t see outlined in any of his textbooks,” she said. “He traveled the continent of Africa for 10 years collecting archival materials, speaking to the families who were still alive, and putting that into an album and music videos.”

Recently, Fukushima’s own activism has centered around helping the people of Flint, Michigan.

“One of the issues that compelled me to speak out was Flint, and the water crisis there that has recently reached 1000 days of them not having access to clean water,” she said.

Recognizing the severity of this crisis, Fukushima recorded and released a music video about the situation in Flint with all proceeds helping the residents of the city.

Fukushima also advocated for restoring parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

“A lot of time King gets boiled down to single stories — whether he is a martyr in his death or we celebrate him and his non-violence [or] we just focus on the work he did around segregation and bus boycotts,” she said.  “But people tend to leave out the narrative about the last year of his life ... Around this time, he spoke out against the Vietnam War [and]he started to speak out about three main pillars ... he wanted to talk about racism, militarism and policy.”

Fukushima ended by advocating to engage in social activism, citing Cornel West’s idea that “justice is what love looks like in public.”