A Soundtrack to Liberation
October 30, 2020
Anna Del Castillo (she/her/hers) is a Mississippian, Peruvian-Bolivian American, and faith-rooted activist for justice. She is pursuing a Master of Divinity as a Dean’s Fellow at Harvard Divinity School where she studies at the intersection of public policy, racial justice, and healing. She is also an Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow.
A Soundtrack to Liberation: How a Global Collective of Womxn in Hip Hop is Making History
Hip hop music, art, the movement for Black Lives, and faith-rooted activism are topics at the center of Azmera Hammouri-Davis’s work and witness. The child of two artists, Azmera grew up in the small town of Keaáu, Hawaii as the second oldest of her siblings. Along with building Follow the Keepers, Azmera also serves as the Africana Spirituality Adviser for Tufts University’s Chaplaincy Office. She is a facilitator for Friends of Sabeel North America, working to connect a network of Black Christians to grow in solidarity with Palestine. Azmera is a teaching fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and the founder of Break the Boxes, a transnational social justice initiative that aims to spark social and personal transformation through art and culture. This woman stays busy! In her words, “When God calls you and the opportunity comes to serve, if you have the capacity, why not serve?”
I sat down with Azmera to find out more about her cultural activism, specifically her involvement with Follow the Keepers, a global initiative to build the first comprehensive digital archive to focus on the artistic work of womxn and girls throughout 5 decades of Hip Hop music & culture.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
Just who is Azmera?
“I am a poet, educator, capoeirista, sister, daughter, friend, partner, seeker, dreamer, and one friend constantly says, ‘you are a healer.’ I work to uplift, encourage, and inspire people to believe in their dreams and to really hone in on what the great theologian Howard Thurman tells us,
‘Do not ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come to life and go do that because what the world needs is more people to come to life.’
For me that manifest in being a budding rapper, that’s a dream of mine–it’s new for me to name that– and that brings me to the work of Follow the Keepers, a global collective of artists, scholars, and activists committed to mining, archiving, documenting, and centering black women’s contributions to hip hop in this genre’s five-decade history.”
What is your connection to hip hop?
“My favorite class at Harvard was taught by Aysha Upchurch, the dancing diplomat is what she’s known as. The class is called Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Understanding and Embracing Hip Hop Pedagogy, and that class really began to undo things for me in my childhood that I had swept under the rug– dreams, hopes, and goals that felt really natural to who I was as a kid, but who I learned as I went along to quiet and to silence– that she wouldn’t be acceptable, that there wasn’t space for that version of me. In that class, we were engaging in culturally competent practices to work with youth.
Professor Upchurch asked us to excavate our relationship to hip hop so I really started to excavate. My mom has all this footage of us as children and of my earliest performances. My first performance was with my sisters and we sang TLC’s Scrubs. You know and we won a community talent show there in Hawaii! With my parents being artists, I could just spit Tupac. Hip hop has always been a second tongue to me.
In college, I studied visual and performing arts. We know that hip hop and rap is really poetry to a beat, and we know that poetry is deeply rooted in the African American tradition as well as traditions around the world.
The poet Édouard Glissant has a piece on the poetics of relation. He says that poetry allows for the colonized to capture the weight, the feeling, the emotion, the pain of an experience so that the colonizer may never forget and turn a blind eye.
In her chapter “Poetry is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde is talking about how poetry bridges the gap across our deepest fears of what was and what could be. Poetry is the skeleton architecture of our lives. Poetry allows us to access our deepest desires and wishes and dreams to be able to imagine a future or world other than the one we are living in. We know from Afrofuturism, you know Robin Kelly’s Freedom Dreams, that you have to be able to DREAM and you have to be able to name your desires, your feelings, and your wants. As a woman, as a black woman, nowhere in society are you going to be asked what you want. Folks are expecting you to serve, serve, serve, so when I came across Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury”, it began to make things make sense to me.”
What does hip-hop look like in your life?
“Hip hop to me is the air that I breathe, the rimbombare of lived reality, coming and going, staying and fleeing, the hip hop is the principle of giving and receiving, balance and challenge, discomfort and ease, hip hip represents a world seeking peace, the wind that sways trees, resistance, and change, disruption, and pain, hip hop resides deep inside the membranes, of black and brown youth who are seeking the truth in a world that values their lives as much as dried fruit–
What it looks like to me is permission, permission to be, and to do exactly what my essence, my instinct, my heart wants to do, without code-switching. What it looks like is permission for me to be.”
Azmera attributes much of her love of hip-hop studies and her path to hip hop to Professor Upchurch. For her final project in Professor Upchurch’s class, she decided to interview hip hop artist, organizer, producer, activist, scholar and Founder of Follow the Keepers, Akua Naru.
What is Follow the Keepers and how did you arrive at the project?
“Akua Naru, the great empress, conductor, healer, organizer, visionary, scholar, rapper, was a guest speaker in Aysha’s (Upchurch) course, and I knew that I wanted to interview her for my final project. I said I’m interviewing Akua. I’m going to learn from her, I’m going to begin to pour and breathe life into my own craft again, and I’m going to learn the skills of music production, and that’s exactly what God allowed to happen. It’s amazing, you write something down, that ish is profound! Because that is what God allowed to happen!”
Azmera interviewed Akua and a beautiful relationship was formed. When covid hit, their relationship began to really blossom.
“There are so many barriers in the industry. Akua wanted to teach women how to produce their own music–something she knew like the back of her hand.” She worked with Azmera and showed her how to download free music editing software as well as how to edit her own tracks.
“This woman is so generous with her time, talent, and energy.” As their relationship grew, Akua invited Azmera to help her launch Follow the Keepers saying, “We can’t wait for our liberation, so are you down?” Azmera accepted the invitation, and in the coming weeks, they began producing, thought partnering, and connecting to collaborators around the world.
“The project came from deep research that Akua had conducted in years prior. Follow the Keepers is her vision that a lot of other visions are tied to, and my role and contribution has been as a learner, a thought partner, a collaborator, a producer, a performer, and as Akua says, ‘a sister in rhyme.’
What ‘Follow the Keepers’ does is creates a global platform. We’re hosting an Instagram Live event on November 1st with folks from Brazil, Paris, Belgium, South Africa, and the U.S. to really look at the global landscape of women’s contributions to hip hop.
The KEEPERS really gives access and way to the global landscape of what these contributions look like which is imperative when we talk about dignifying black life and dignifying black women’s artistry.
Our art is what provides sustenance to us in times of grief and loss. We don’t look at our computers for that, and if we are looking at our computers, we are looking to watch something to lift our spirits up. That’s what our traditions teach us and tell us, and so I feel like it’s such a blessing that I get to be called into doing that work in Africana spirituality and chaplaincy. African religious traditions vary by ethnic group, tribe, language, and custom but they are all interwoven by rituals of song and dance. Hip Hop invokes rituals of song and dance.
A principle of African spirituality is reverence for one’s ancestors, past, present, and future, and the KEEPERS allows us to honor the past, the present, and the future. It breathes life into me because I get to be a part of co-creating what that future might look like, so that little kid can say ‘hey, hey, hey, for this one ride around, this one version of life that we are going to do in this body, let’s explore these things that really animate and excite you.’”
What does it feel like to be in this global collective of womxn hip-hop artists?
“What it feels like– to be gathered across time and space and language–it feels like, it really feels like a dream, it’s like the possibilities are endless.
How does it feel to be convened in this way? It feels like We Gon’ Be Alright, come on Kendrick! It feels like We Gon’ Be Alright, because we together unite, we silence the fear and the fright!”
As we think about what’s happening in our country right now–with so much discouragement and pain–as we ponder the racial inequity all around, what role does music play in this movement for racial justice? What is the importance of art and music in activism?
“Mmmm, music is the medicine, music is the lifeblood. It’s that omnipresent thing that’s present. When you go to a march, what keeps us out there for five hours, six hours, seven hours, is hearing the drums play and then the chants. That’s all a part of this musicality, this orality, this technicality, rooted in a principality, it’s a particular mentality.”
The role that music plays? It provides a soundtrack to liberation.
In the church, can we imagine a church service without worship, or hymns, or gospels? It wouldn’t be a complete service without it. Music, it lets the heart speak. It’s medicine. Music is medicine.”
Where is God in your personal work? In creating music, in being a rapper, in being an artist? Where is God in this?
“God is where we start. God is at the center. Imago Dei. We are made in the image of God. God created us perfect in his/her image. God is the creation and God sent us here to create. When I am creating, I am always with the creator. The creator created us to create and so for me, music and God go hand in hand.
That music that I offer up might tell a story that lends itself to heal, to reveal, to unpeel the layers and let energy, God’s energy, let people feel.
What is your hope for the Keepers and what is your hope for what you will continue to do in the world?
“My hope for the Keepers is that our collective continues to garner the energy, the resources needed to really bring to life this archive that documents women’s contributions. We just closed off our campaign. We weren’t able to raise our initial goal, but we did raise a little over $20,000. We are going to launch a GoFundMe soon so that we can reach our goal of $50,000 because that’s really what it takes for us to do the technical work and to hire the folks to create the archive. My hope for the Keepers is that we will continue to garner those funds so that we will be able to do that work and so we can continue to grow our events and touch all the corners of the world so that we may ignite and disrupt to fortify the movement.
What I hope to continue to do in the world is exactly what we are doing right now– it is to continue to offer up stories and engage in deep listening and deep sharing, that I might be able to uplift and encourage someone on their journey–encourage the people who are considering giving up to just keep going…to inspire them to keep going, that’s it.”