RAPtivism, Hip-Hop as a Tool for Social Change, and De-Centering the Narrative

An Interview with raptivist Aisha Fukushima
April 9, 2020

Interviewed by Bretty Rawson, TSW Director of Programs

Meet Aisha Fukushima, singer, speaker, educator, and founder of RAPtivism (Rap Activism), a hip hop project spanning 20 countries and four continents, amplifying universal efforts for freedom and justice. She is a multilingual, multiracial African American Japanese woman who has done lectures and performances everywhere from the United States to France, Morocco, Japan, Germany, England, South Africa, Senegal, India, Denmark and beyond. Aisha’s ‘RAPtivism’ work has been featured on Oprah Magazine, TEDx, KQED Public Television, The Seattle Times, TV 2M Morocco, The Bangalore Mirror, HYPE, South Africa’s #1 Hip Hop Magazine, and others.

As a public speaker, Aisha combines the art of performance and lecture. In her speeches, she links themes such as hip hop, global citizenship, empowerment, feminism and cultural activism with live musical performance. She was the first non-Native person to deliver a keynote address at Montana’s 2012 Schools of Promise Conference for Indigenous youth and has presented at such diverse venues as Stanford University, Yale Law School, Duke University, the National Conference On Race and Ethnicity (NCORE), People of Color in Independent Schools (POCIS) conferences, UMass Amherst, TEDxSitka, TEDxBend, TEDxWhitman, TEDxUWCCR, Rock The School Bells, Osaka University, among others.

It’s not often we get to speak with artists who we listen to on continuous loop, but we sat at a coffee shop while Aisha went for a walk in a faraway park, and for ninety minutes, she took us through the creation and power of rap activism. While each one of her lyrics communicate something distinct, underlying all her music is a vocal reminder of the unique power we each possess: our own voice.

Bretty Rawson: How and when did the label RAPtivism come about?

Aisha Fukushimas: RAPtivism as a movement, and the vision of it, started early for me. In my high school, there was so much prejudice and discrimination, particularly with racism and classism, but across many different boundaries, labels, and borders.

I started community organizing when I was fifteen years old. It first started with a project called, “Turn Off the Stereotypes,” which in many ways was similar to RAPtivism, because I saw this parallel between how the performing arts allowed people to hear each other and to make some courageous choices in conversations. And I also realized that the art of storytelling allowed people to see the humanity in one another and to be more open to starting up a conversation and really engaging. In college, I continued that venture and theme, but not even intentionally, in a way. All these things kept coming up on the college campus — people were talking about their experiences and how they weren’t heard. I started to do student government as well, and saw art as a venue to continue that conversation, so I started a musical group called the RAPtivists.

But the term actually came to me while I was studying and researching for my thesis. I read a book by Chuck D, who is a member of Public Enemy, a quintessential hip-hop activist group. He wrote this term Raptivism in the book, and it stuck with me. Years later, I got to meet him and have a conversation with him. I asked him, “Is it OK for me to use this term for a global hip-hop project?” He said absolutely. Later, he even shared some of the music we produced on the inaugural RAPtivism album on his radio station, and showed the project some love.

He’s such an open person on so many levels. I am very appreciative. One of the things that I want to emphasize with my usage of the term “RAPtivism” is that it’s such a global movement. So we have to understand, and to know, that the United States is a part of the global movement, but it’s not necessarily at the center.

While in college I had the opportunity to travel and I could see that around the world hip-hop carried significance for a lot of communities as a tool for social change. It was actually a way of life that encouraged critical thinking. It’s not to say everyone who is a RAPtivist is going to go in the same direction and agrees on the same ideas. I see it more so as a global platform for critical consciousness, intersectionality, and solidarity. I think it’s important to de-center that narrative because it tends to be fairly imperialist when we think America is at the center of everything. The term on the news, for example, when they say “international,” means everything but the United States, and I think that’s problematic.

We’re all on this planet and in this global community, so that’s a part of RAPtivism. My mission statement as a RAPtivist, and with the movement, is to challenge apathy with awareness, ignorance with intelligence, and oppression with expression. I do this through music, edutainment, public speaking and solidarity building.

Bretty: When you first took RAPtvisim to different countries, what was the reception like?

Aisha: My first year of RAPtivism, I went to six different counties — seven including the U.S. When I started the project, it came from a place of wanting to develop a deeper understanding, and to solidarity build. I also come to music as someone who loves to listen, you know? It’s hard to learn a craft unless you’re open and willing to listen, and to not just always have the talking stick or the power. I bring this up because working collaboratively across many different nations with different folks, even in one’s own community in the same neighborhood on the same block, it’s important to respect the cypher: everyone has different elements to contribute and even different strengths. I definitely had a vision of how I wanted to go about things, but it really started with me listening and developing those relationships and asking for permission consistently throughout the way. I am always checking the temperature. Through this RAPtivism journey, I hope to somehow inspire people to be more connected in their local community.

My reception in different countries and cities from Cape Town to Copenhagen and beyond has varied. I am thankful to say that many people are very open right away and equally excited to build. Other folks that I’ve met have told me about how weary they’ve become of Western people coming to their hometowns and launching projects with a savior mentality. In some ways, I think the art of listening, showing up, being consistent, being authentic to self and sharing mutual respect and appreciation has been so central to the relationships I’ve been honored to build with my friends all around the world.

Bretty: Was RAPtivism received similarly in the states?

Aisha: I remember being at one university and I was doing a whole performance lecture for an hour. There was a group of very excited students there, but there was also a group of students outside the door listening. Later on, the Black Student Union president who organized it came up to me and told me there were a few white supremacist groups in their community who didn’t want to see people attend because that would result in the Black Student Union getting more funding for future events, so a lot of students, instead of coming into the room to be counted, sat outside so they could experience it.

There was this one guy in the crowd who was really quiet, but then at the end when I asked if anyone had questions, he stood up. He had this huge cast on his leg. He could barely stand up. He was a white man, and he said, “I am so sorry. I misjudged you.” And he just started crying. He was around 40 years old. And I was surprised because I didn’t necessarily think twice — I didn’t know what had moved him. One student organizer mentioned that they thought that he might also be one of the organizers of one of the white supremacist groups on campus. I think he came in expecting to be able to push against what was being said or create a protest, and it ended up being a heart-opening moment. He couldn’t say much because he was still processing everything, but there are so many experiences like that, where I have the honor of working with very diverse audiences with different viewpoints than my own.

And that’s been a really unexpected part of my love-work, so to speak. It’s transformational both for me, and hopefully for them. And that’s not always the most conventional in the sense that instead of preaching to the choir, I have the privilege of addressing people who share different beliefs and backgrounds from all around the nation and the globe.

We’re all learning, you know? I stay humble in that sense. I’m always looking to hear other people’s perspectives. I think that makes me better as well. But I think that’s part of the art: it’s a vehicle for communicating and connecting on a deeper level. I found that in high school when I brought up the issues that were going on, not much would happen, but when I would write a poem about it or give insight into the experience through a rap, it would start a conversation. I think that is part of the testimony to RAPtivism. It has the potential to connect on a more profound level, just like storytelling, in all its different forms. There are a lot of stories being told, but it’s a question of who’s telling the story, who has the power, which ones are being repeated the most, and whose aren’t being told, and how many are still out there.

Bretty: Can you walk us through the formation of one of your songs?

Aisha: Yes, of course. I’ll jump into the theme of the album first. The Cypher EP is based on the theme of the cypher as a space where we give and exchange energy. The word cypher comes from the Arabic word zypher, which means zero, in a shape of that circle we often see when breakdancers and emcees gather. For me, the cypher is a metaphor for a space where we get to be free. It’s also a space where we create community, encouraging liberatory practices collectively. In my EP, I enact that ethos in several different ways.

The first song is “Just Breathe.” It references that cyclical element of breathing — the inhale, the exhale — just breathe. There’s a healing process that’s a part of that song, which I think is integral to conversations on social justice and activism. It’s important to be good to ourselves so we can also be great to our communities.

The second song, “Missing You,” sonically, has a cyclical element in that I composed it using a vocal looper. The idea first came about as I was literally looping my voice and then adding different elements to that looped vocal arrangement. Then I took it to the studio and transformed it with the help of my amazingly talented producer Scott Bergstrom. The feeling of the song speaks to what it means to be close and distant to a loved one all at once. It may be a long-lost loved one, or who has passed, or a long distance relationship. We often have loved ones across the world for a number of reasons, and so that is what that song talks about and comes from. And I also made a music video collaboration with a Danish film producer, so it’s very much a global collaboration.

The third song is called “Sweet Sounds,” and it’s about finding one’s own voice. A lot of times, I hear power talked about as if it’s over there, that it belongs to someone else, or that is exists somewhere else. And I think power is something that we all have. We all have voices. Often times, people say, I want to give that person a voice. But too often, we give the power away or don’t acknowledge the greatness we also encompass, and that we do have some sort of ability to make a difference, whether it’s in our own lives, families, or community, and so I think it was important for me to write this song in celebration of the power of finding and using our voices.

To release The Cypher EP, I organized a launch party for it in Copenhagen. As part of the RAPtivism vision, or RAPtivision, as my one of my friends call it, the event took place in an environmentally sustainable dome in Copenhagen called the Dome of Vision. I took over this dome along with a group of incredible artists, and we collectively represented all the elements of hip-hop — from graffiti to DJ’ing, breakdancing to MC’ing — with a theme of what a free world looks like and feels like to us. The dome being a representation of that cypher and the world we want to live in. I think that art plays a crucial role in developing the futures that we want to see for ourselves and for future generations. Oftentimes, the space of creativity and imagination is what allows us to recreate the status quo, to question the way things are, to dare to make something different, dare to make something even better or maybe more humane or just. So that was really a big part of how we released the songs, and the message of the EP.

It definitely was a transformative experience. Sometimes, I think that when you’re leading something or putting something together, you gotta follow that gut intuition, and it was so cool to see how the artists came together. Dreaming up the future is not always easy. Can we do this? Will it really work? There were doubts along the way, but it was so exciting to see those doubts bloom into freedom flowers. It was a collective effort, and we were also fundraising for the refugee crisis with an NGO called The Trampoline House, so they came and joined us and we got funds to go toward their efforts right now in Copenhagen.

Bretty: You can only control so much, and perhaps only want to?

Aisha: Yeah, absolutely. Isn’t that part of the freedom? Sometimes, it’s also a matter of trusting people that they will know what is best for them or what will work best. You have to trust that improv and connectivity to foster something great. I’ve learned that as a teacher: If you’re too controlling of your classroom environment without making a space for people to explore and experiment and play, then it takes something out of the educational experience and it’s not as transformational as it could be. Part of liberatory practices and part of that freedom is really allowing the space for improv and being present in the very moment.

Bretty: In one of your clips, the “Butterfly” song, you said, “how could this be the home of the brave when we live in fear?” That felt especially timely.

Aisha: That fear often comes from the unknown, right? We tend to create caricatures, monoliths, and very two-dimensional stereotypes and stories about groups of people that often use fear to dehumanize one another.

This fear can impact the way we think about the world, which impacts our actions, which impact our behaviors, which can also in turn impact our daily habits and our fundamental belief systems. Knowing that activism is a daily choice, our everyday choices can have very real life implications. As such, the narratives that we’re hearing, what media we’re consuming, and the stories we start to tell about one another also have very real implications on our ability to live in a peaceful and just society. This is one of the many reasons that I think it is very important to keep a critical lens on the media we consume on a daily basis.

In terms of some of the theme of labels that we’ve been discussing, it’s very common to have binaries. We’re seeing this with Orlando and we’re seeing this with elections — where we force people into two categories, and I just don’t think the world has to work that way. For example, as a multiracial person, people want me to pick which categories I fit into. Usually they want me to pick one category “because it can’t be both.” I see this with gender, too — which is not just a binary thing — I see it more as a spectrum and that it is also wonderful to be non-conforming to any category. If you see a binary, challenge yourself to say OK, what’s missing here? Challenge yourself to play with and think critically/creatively with the labels that are presented to you on a daily basis.

Bretty: You did one in direct response to the water situation in Flint. Are you creating things in response to anything in particular right now?

Aisha: My grandma always used to say, “Know your history or you’re doomed to repeat it.” With this in mind, I’ve been listening back to a lot of protest songs that I love such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s freedom songs. I think that I want my next album to include these historical protest songs as well as some original modern day freedom songs. I want this next album to speak to a lot of global movements that we’re seeing calling for justice and more awareness, while also giving credence to the historical legacy that precedes us and the generations of freedom that will hopefully proceed us.

Bretty: We often ask kids, “What do you want become?” Perhaps we should start with asking where they are, or where they have been?

Aisha: We have to be creative in making these connections, but also to know that there are so many historical examples of this happening. That “Butterfly” song you referenced earlier, I wrote out of inspiration from my students.

At the time, I was teaching at a local school in San Francisco, and our community was struggling to create more black and brown unity on our campus. I remember one day one of my Latinx students came back from a recent trip proud of their newly-done braids and a group of other students were like, “You look black,” and that was supposed to be an insult. And I was thinking, Woah, historically, there is so much shared Afro-Latinx history, and on top of that, even if there wasn’t, we should still not to be using identifiers as (racist) insults. So I started to make posters showing examples of black and brown solidarity builders throughout history and put them around the school. It seemed so simple, but I genuinely saw the culture of the students change. The kids could see examples of how people had worked together and to learn that unity across different races is nothing new. Seeing that and learning about that history inspired them to create more peace in the hallways, and more peace hopefully outside once the bell rings. Solidarity is a tradition we have been doing for a very long time.

Just because we didn’t learn about it, doesn’t mean it’s completely new, which happens with a lot of things, including histories that go unmentioned in our school books.

Bretty: Right. When we study something as a subject, we tend to not study ourselves as a subject of that thing, which hits at what you mentioned about a shared history and sharing in that history.

Aisha: A knowing and recognition of one’s own experience is a very important thing. That said, I think a big challenge with the theme of labeling and belonging that we’ve been discussing is that it can make an individual feel very isolated.

For me, it’s helpful to remember that a lot of my individual experiences are also connected to a larger systemic structure of power and privilege in society. In other words, the experience that one person goes through is connected to another person’s experience and, of course, the history that proceeds us. With this in mind, I think that it’s also important to remember that the systems of inequality that we are immersed in on a daily basis are not written in stone. Like people, those systems can change and we have collective power to change it. With this in mind, it’s easier to not get caught up in a divide-and-conquer mechanism, where people want to give up or start fighting one another. Sometimes, when I tell my story, for example, in a lecture or in a workshop, people say, “Oh, I went through something similar and I can relate even though I come from a very different background, and now I can see the larger thing at hand and I want to do something about it, I have some ideas.” I often try to get people to network in my session. I say, “Hey, talk to your neighbors, they were just talking about the same thing.”

You gotta coalition build, create something. I think that’s very powerful — coming together and hearing people’s stories lets us know we are not alone and gives us the strength, or even awakens our realization, you know? Don’t underestimate the power of your community.

Headshot of Aisha Fukushima

Aisha Fukushima is a public speaker, singer-songwriter, and facilitator. Fukushima’s work has been featured by Oprah Magazine, TEDx, KQED Public Television, The Seattle Times, TV 2M Morocco, The Bangalore Mirror, HYPE (South Africa’s #1 Hip Hop Magazine), and more. She also been featured on event lineups alongside Bernie Sanders, Emory Douglas (Black Panthers), KRS-One, Tim Wise, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, adrienne maree brown, Ibram X. Kendi, Boots Riley, Angela Davis, Favianna Rodriguez, Flobots, The Isley Brothers, and M1 (Dead Prez). In 2021 she was awarded Whitman College’s Trailblazer Award for Diversity and Inclusion. She is a lso the recipient of World Trust’s award for Social Justice Leadership Through Hip-Hop.

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