SGPIA Alumna Nora Rahimian Leverages Hip Hop to Inspire Social Change

Nora Rahimian is a 2012 graduate of the International Affairs program at The New School. Prior to earning her M.A., Nora worked with perpetrators of violence to develop community-based peacebuilding strategies. She continued this work while at The New School and on the International Field Program (IFP) in Liberia where she began work on the Liberian Prison Project, a 2012 New Challenge Award Winner. After graduation, Nora returned to Liberia to start a community-led violence prevention and intervention program that trained nontraditional community leaders as Conflict Transformers and established alternative education spaces for out-of-school youth.

During the IFP, Nora began managing Takun J, Liberia’s most popular hip co artist (Hip hop + colloqua, or Liberian English + West African rhythms and sounds = hip co).  Together, they began using hip co to address different social issues in Liberia.  Takun J was named National Anti-Rape Ambassador after he and Nora partnered with a NY-based NGO to produce 2 anti-rape songs and a video. Nora also partnered with Accountability Lab to found the Hip Co Accountability Network, a collective of artists, including Takun J, devoted to building music industry infrastructure and addressing accountability and transparency issues in Liberia.  Other organizations began reaching out to Takun J as well.

In 2012, Nora and Takun J collaborated to start the Hip Co Festival, Liberia’s first music festival.  The annual event uses an entertainment-education model to engage fans around pressing social issues while also challenging negative perceptions of Liberia by showcasing local talent and creativity.  The 2013 Festival, which focused on Human Rights, brought together 20,000 people and was featured in both The Economist and ONE.

Nora returned to the U.S. in 2014 but continues to work with Takun J and serves as the Arts for Change Strategist for Accountability Lab. She has consulted organizations, including BBC, UNICEF, and the Prop 47 campaign in California, on the arts for change approach she applied to her work in Liberia. In September 2014, Nora and her partner Natalie Crue, founded #CultureFix, a network of artists, cultural producers, and activists from around the world who use arts and culture for social change.

How does the ‘arts for change’ approach impact change?

There’s a bunch of literature on the effectiveness of entertainment-education.  But, simply, the strategy works because the arts are accessible.  Music, film, art… All these things are familiar to us, so we are more receptive to the information they contain.  And the arts have the power to elicit an emotional response that allows the message to be internalized.  It is when people feel something and relate to it that they are moved to change their behavior.  This is reinforced by the special relationship between artist and audience.  Fans listen to a message from a musician or actor or athlete in a way that they never would if the same message came from a politician or an NGO worker.  There’s a degree of trust there.  That’s why music was so effective in helping to contain Ebola during the outbreak in Liberia, for example.  A legacy of corruption meant that people didn’t believe warnings from the government and NGOs, but when musicians started speaking out and modeling behavior change, people paid attention.

You’ve taken quite a novel approach to Peacebuilding. Why did you decide to devote your work to community and youth peacebuilding and how did you get the idea to use hip hop as a tool?

There were bombs falling on Tehran the night I was born.  Soon after that, we left Iran as refugees and I was raised in a working class, immigrant community. Folks were struggling and there was a lot of racial tension, and a lot of my friends found community in gangs.  So violence and conflict have been a part of my story from the start.  When I was 15, we moved to a wealthier community and I saw the disparities, and associated injustices, really clearly.  Since then, I always felt it was my responsibility to “give back”.  I strongly believe that if you’re not part of the solution, you are enabling the problem and so peacebuilding, for me, has been the way to empower and heal.

Hip hop was a natural part of that.  It was a space where I found a reflection of my experiences.  Artists like Tupac shaped my early politics.  And the music was a way of connecting.  As an outsider, hip hop was a space of commonality, and so I adopted that into my work.  The principles of bearing witness, the allowance for expressing difficult emotions, the components of storytelling all became tools.  And then sometimes, too, it would be as simple as playing a song and having the youth realize that, despite their conflict, not only did they both like the same song, but they could both relate to the lyrics.  That would become our starting point.

What was it like going to Liberia on the IFP and ending up managing ‘Liberia’s most popular hip hop co artist?’

When Takun J asked me to manage him, I’d had absolutely no experience with business or entertainment.  But coming from the social justice world, I knew how to organize and bring people together.  So that’s how I approached it.  And luckily, it worked.  I never imagined that Liberia would become such a big part of my life, but now, I can’t imagine it any other way.

You mentioned that rape is a ‘serious issue’ in Liberia and that Takun J’s music has encouraged boys to call each other out on inappropriate behavior. What other positive effects has Takun J’s music had on social issues in Liberia?

When I first started with Takun J, hip co artists were written off as troublemakers and their music competed with US and Nigerian music for radio play.  Nobody was earning a living off their music alone.  The arts for change model that we started exploring made music economically viable.  When artists saw that, and the recognition that Takun was getting for his work, they started copying the model.  After Takun was named National Ambassador & became a spokesperson for UNICEF, for example, a whole bunch of other anti-gender-based violence songs came out.  And what that did was really make these issues part of everyday conversation in Liberia.  Radio DJs would talk about it on air before playing Takun’s song, for example.  Or women would come to his house to report their assaults to him.  I really believe that it was this success that made people so open and ready to use music and artists in the fight against Ebola later.

Since returning from Liberia you have co-founded #CultureFix, a network of artists, cultural producers, and activists from around the world who use arts and culture to create positive social change. How else is art and culture being used to create social change?

There are amazing artists and projects all over the world that are using the arts for social change.  #CultureFix helps connect them so that we can all network, share resources, and build on our intersectionalities.  Accountability Lab just announced their Integrity Idol winner in Nepal.  The show borrows from the American Idol format to educate and celebrate accountability.  And they’ve set up several film schools that not only give students technical training but also highlight social issues.  #HipHopEd hosts weekly Twitter chats that explore how hip hop culture can be incorporated into education so that education is more accessible and engaging for a broader range of students.  There are organizations that use things like skateboarding and breakdancing to empower youth, DJs that use the radio and their mixes to provide alternative representations of countries, and photographers who archive and celebrate the people’s history.  And those are just a few examples!

#CultureFix hosts a weekly Twitter chat every Tuesday at noon PST.  Find Nora on Twitter and Instagram at @norarahimian.