Sunday, July 17, 2005

Easing poverty in Africa--Suisun City filmmaker says hip hop could create job opportunities

From Daily Republic // July 17, 2005

By Amy Maginnis-Honey

SUISUN CITY - Michael Wanguhu has joined the ranks of rockers Bob Geldof and Bono in calling for an end to the poverty in Africa.

Wanguhu, a Suisun City resident who is a native of Kenya, prefers a different approach to solving the problem - the hip hop industry in his homeland.

"I don't believe in donations (aid)," he said. "I believe in creating opportunities."

The growing popularity of hip hop is a great starting point, feels Wanguhu, who has produced and directed a documentary on the topic, "Hip Hop Colony: The African Hip Hop Explosion."

Filmed in 2003, "Hip Hop Colony" hopes to educate the public and policy makers that a successful hip hop artist in Africa can create a multitude of jobs ranging from chauffeur to record producer.

However, at present, only 1 or 2 percent of hip hop artists are making money at it, said Annette Ruah, Wanguhu's wife. "A lot of talent is going to waste," she added.

Most of the popular Kenyan hip hop artists rely on record companies in Australia to record and distribute their work. If someone were to step forward with the same in Kenya, an industry would be born, Wanguhu feels.

Some artists have gotten endorsement deals, but there's still a long way to go, Ruah said.

"Older people are still not very warm to it. But it's creating industries. They're not seeing the bigger picture," she said.

Ruah and Wanguhu knew a different Africa than was being represented in the mainstream media and films.

"Africa isn't just about AIDS, poverty and hunger," said Ruah, who is also a Kenya native. Nor is it National Geographic-type scenes. "Once you've seen a lion in Nairobi, it's the same as seeing one at the Oakland zoo," Wanguhu said. "There are so many stories on Africa that aren't being told. But we need to tell the stories that can make a difference."

So, he ventured to Kenya twice for filming. "I had to make the people understand what I was doing. People in Africa feel a stigma," he said.

Making the film was a labor of love. "I wanted this to empower them," he said. "I saw that the only way to do that was to expose them (hip hop artists) to the rest of the world. "

Being a Kenya native helped. "They knew I was a filmmaker and they had faith in me. I could tell the story from our perspective. This was our voice. I'm part of them," he said.

"I'm still wondering how we have come this far," said Ruah, who works tirelessly to get the film into as many venues as possible and dreams of screening it locally.

She experienced the same passion as her husband, traveling to Kenya once during filming. "The idea of doing something you love is phenomenal," she said.

The couple, who have a 2-year-old daughter, cut back on expenses to help produce the film. It was about two years in the making, all the time Wanguhu working his job as a videographer. The couple also took some loans.

Interviews and performances by some of the most popular hip hop artists in Africa are featured.

Dismissed as a passing fad in the early 1990s, today's hip hop fuses traditional Kenyan music with a strong influence of American sounds.

"In the film, one of the messages is, 'America influences the rest of the world,' " Wanguhu said.

The film has been shown about 10 times, most recently at the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Though Wanguhu was unable to attend, he heard it got very positive reviews.

"It is my understanding that it attracted the most youth (at the festival) and they were heard saying that it was a movie they could understand and relate to," he said.

"Hip Hop Colony" was named the best urban film at the Houston Black Film Festival. Wanguhu is looking for a distributor and continues to show the movie as much as possible.

"I'd like the film to reach as many households as possible," he said. "It's educational and entertaining. You see the real thing. The characters connect with the audience. If the film gets in to many households, it will pretty much neutralize the stigma."

Wanguhu wants to see change in his homeland. He followed the recent G8 summit that gathered the leaders of the world's most powerful nations who pledged $50 million in aid to Africa.

"There can't be a real breakthrough without clear commitments to fair trade," he said. "Unless we tackle trade we will forever be talking about aid. Africa won't get real help until trade barriers are removed."

It is the people, not just it's leaders that need to make a difference because really, when it comes to crunch time, most individuals are only interested in their own comfortable lifestyles and value their flashy techy-advanced lives above clean water and food for Africa's children."

And, he's not impressed with the concept of the G8.

"There is no good to come out of a conference that allows the major cause of the world's problems to supposedly suggest 'realistic solutions.' You can't give a fox keys to the henhouse and suggest that he knows what's best, it is suicide, man.

"Africa has a part to play as well. It's leaders have to end corruption so that when this aid flows in it's channeled to the right places."

The film, he feels, is a good example to the world that fair trade can go a long way, noting that it can affect change intellectually, emotionally and practically.

"The U.S. has vaguely educated its citizens about Africa and Kenyans have found a way to spread their own message through their music, telling the world about their life through the rhythm and style of their music," Wanguhu said.

As for the Live 8 concerts that took place around the world two weeks ago, Wanguhu said they were a "wonderful idea that served a real purpose."

He was inspired to see so many people focus on the issues of global inequity and injustice, he said.

"But was all this people power enough to influence the leaders of the G8 summit?" he asked rhetorically. "Nah."

You can see a clip of the film and keep up-to-date with screenings at
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or

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