Hip Hop and Testimony

Published by
Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)
Written by
Kara Whitman

My experience in Yemen began in 2009. I arrived initially in Sana’a and after a week of sightseeing and interviews, took a bus to Aden. I found a taxi at the bus depot and got inside. The young taxi driver asked me where I was from and when I informed him I was American, he quickly rolled up the windows and turned the air conditioner on. He frantically flipped through some CDs and, after a minutes-long search, put a disc in the console and turned the volume up. 

I was warned about strict traditions and religious interpretations prevalent in Yemen. Therefore, I expected to hear an inspirational song, a national anthem, or an Aden folk equivalent. But, I got ‘Lollipop’ by Lil’ Wayne, an African-American Hip Hop artist. I laughed out loud.

The taxi driver did not speak English well and my informal Arabic lessons had only just begun. Thus, we couldn’t say much to each other. As he drove, I tried to guess what he thought about me as an African-American, or African-Americans more broadly, that made him play that song. I didn’t have any clothing or accessories reminiscent of Hip Hop culture. I wasn’t carrying earphones or a MP3. In fact, I like Reggae and Country music as much I like Hip Hop - if not more. And, although I knew about Lil’ Wayne I didn’t carry the twang of a connoisseur. 

I thought about the taxi driver many times but didn’t make sense of this experience until several weeks had gone by. I accepted an offer to teach at a local language institute and the young men who studied there always wanted to spend time with native speakers for extra practice. When they talked to me, they spoke in Hip Hop terms. They had the twang and were found dancing their way through down time, including breakdancing. They also happily granted me ‘cool points’, because I could pop and lock. Their ambitions, frustrations, and belongingness were expressed via these forms of Hip Hop dance. 

The older men and women also practiced speaking in English. They preferred however, to talk about the unification of North and South Yemen which from their viewpoint, was a hostile takeover. They often recounted things they used to do that were now prohibited and the many losses endured under the regime. But, interestingly, the conversations always changed when a white colleague came by or joined us. And when I observed conversations between locals and white colleagues, the  topics and terms were not like this. 

In communication with white colleagues, local men and women replied more often than they initiated. They spoke to get clarity more often than to reveal. They also agreed, even when they didn't.  

These same styles were repeated with other local men and women after I left the language institute. For instance, I relocated to another district, where I conducted teacher training and coordinated activities for students with disabilities at a private school. The students were enthralled with Hip Hop and the teachers, parents, and other locals were keen to talk with me about the unification and how their lives were forever changed. In 2013, I was recruited by an international non-governmental organization to support civic engagement activities based upon the sport-for-development-and-peace model. I worked with coaches, school principals and political and government leaders, and the dialogue was always in these terms.

Over time, I realized the taxi driver had noted my race and culture and recognized me through his own experience with oppression and upending music. The local people did also. Indeed, we formed a trust relationship and with nearly each new interaction, there was an explicit attempt to bond over oppression. They were not just talking. They were giving testimony. 

I remember going to church for hours on Sundays back in the day, and a large block of time was always reserved for testimony. Anyone could come to the front and speak extensively about their “trials and tribulations,” sometimes adding a spiritual song or improvisational hymn before returning to the pew. Testifying was a way to release despair and confide in God and others. It was understood that other church members would keep the person who testified in prayer and offer support according to their means. Though not exclusive to the church, the act of testifying was an ages old instrument of healing and crisis recovery in the African-American community, long before the group therapies recommended in the toolkits of contemporary and Western psychology and social work. 

Through the testimony, I understood Yemeni people were sharing information to ensure I would do right by them. They were testifying to make sure their needs and preferences were understood. They were confiding in me, with the hope my actions and the larger aid project would reflect these needs.

Indeed, Yemeni people interpreted my race and culture, located relevant communication tools, and through Hip Hop and testimony, participated in a feedback and complaints mechanism of their own design. Thus, I learned Yemenis did not share their needs and preferences arbitrarily. 

Moreover the institutional surveys, focus groups, and hotlines of aid accountability mechanisms are formal, regimented processes led by organizations. Conversely, Hip Hop and testimony are informal and improvisational instruments.

Communication via informal and improvisational instruments is significant, in part, because it thrives without an institutional lead. These instruments hold the data that isn't found elsewhere, raising concerns about the feedback we don't report and more broadly, what we don't know. The situation reports and strategic plans focused on humanitarian conditions; the travel blogs on tourist attractions. They did not account for this.

Kara Whitman is an African-American woman and humanitarian with over ten years of experience in the fields of education and mental health. Kara began her work in Yemen in 2009, via teaching and conducting teacher training. From 2013-2016, she embarked on a new assignment, helping to improve Yemeni education and community-based services through the sport-for-development-and-peace model. Kara has also conducted research and comparative policy analysis in the areas of refugee and adult education in emergencies. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Pittsburgh and presently serves as a Communications Consultant for the United Nations Volunteers (UNV). She can be contacted at karawhitman@outlook.com

 The views expressed in this blog are the authors’ own. 

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