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How hip-hop culture is cultivating authentic leaders in East Africa

Daina Leigh is Global Conversation Catalyst for the Bavubuka Foundation and founder of fashion social enterprise Fabric of Life.

Word – Sound – Power is the belief in the power of the vibrations within speech and music to impact the world directly, for better or worse. The power of voice, and its capacity to inspire and initiate change, are central to the practice of the young indigenous hip-hop practitioners that I have had the privilege of working with as part of my role as Global Conversation Catalyst with the Bavubuka (youth) Foundation in East Africa. Observing their practice over the last couple of years, I have noticed something important about leadership that I want to share.

These young leaders utilise the power and position of the Emcee - the leader/performer - to use spoken word to convey their authentic self using their indigenous language to communicate ideas and positive affirmations, and to engage dialogue around finding community solutions.

This performance medium is being used most powerfully within Cyphers (community spaces) where young people use their gifts, such as freestyle rapping, to tell stories, share ideas and celebrate who they are. This unique way of engaging young leaders has inspired even more young people to step forward and serve their community in their own unique way.

What I have learned from participating in these extraordinary events is that voice and sound alone, without a deep knowledge of self and context, is not sufficient to generate transformative energy within communities. The power to lead that these young Hip-Hop practitioners hold, is rooted within the discovery and nurturance of their own unique gifts and personal stories, which people in the community can relate to.

What has been truly significant for me is seeing the way young leaders continually offer themselves in service to people and their surroundings, totally transforming perceptions of a ghetto youth, while also developing a new sense of pride. The young leaders I encounter do this willingly because they believe in the underlying ethos, which is that without service and connection to the community, they really have nothing of significance to say on the microphone. This is powerfully shared within the Kenyan movement ‘Hip-Hop Beyond the Mic.’

Having watched this community activity through my own eyes as a development worker, I see that despite the challenges these young people face, they have some important lessons to teach me and other social leaders about the art of leadership. For me, this has been about understanding that everything I need to be as a leader lies within me, and my aim is to find my own authentic self, leadership style and compelling story.

Finding my own voice remains a challenge, but I continue to learn in my leadership role in Uganda. Here I support the personal development of the young people I work with to utilise the Word–Sound-Power magic that is available to them to help them address the issues they encounter, whilst learning to thrive within their surroundings. Being of service to the community in this way has given me direct experience of what authentic leadership is really about.

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