Conference Challenges Students to See Africa in New Light

Students and activists from around the world gathered at Harvard this weekend in a unique effort to use various mediums of art to challenge contemporary misconceptions of the African continent and embrace the cultural richness of their “sweet mother Afrika.”

The first-ever annual African youth empowerment conference, entitled “Youth and the New Pan-African Renaissance,” was hosted by the Sweet Mother Tour (SMT)—a global project of artists and activists dedicated to using pop culture to spread positive images of Africa.

“Over 100 years of tyranny and oppression didn’t make an African a nigger, but 15 years of hip hop did it...and some of us are fed up,” SMT founder Derrick N. Ashong ’97 said at Saturday’s opening speech. “If pop culture can turn us against ourselves, then why can’t we use it as a tool to uplift and build up one another?”

The conference kicked off Friday evening with a banquet reception and film festival showcasing documentaries about the hip-hop movement on the African continent. Nearly 250 delegates attended the weekend’s panels and interactive workshops held in the Science Center, which were geared toward spurring dialogue about a wide range of issues facing the present day pan-African community.

Conference chair Kelley N. Johnson ’02 said the event encouraged the use of different art forms as a vehicle for social change.

“Art-making is never in a vacuum...If you intertwine certain things like social causes, political causes, and pride, [the message] comes across stronger than any PSA [public service announcement],” Johnson said.

Students from the Black Mens Forum (BMF) and the Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa worked closely with members of the SMT staff to help fundraise and coordinate campus logistics.

Student delegates from over 15 colleges across the nation—including Stanford University, Columbia University, and the University of Minnesota—participated in the conference. Attendees from abroad hailed from over four different countries, according to organizers.

During select panels, delegates stationed in Ghana, Nairobi, and Kenya participated in the live discussions through an internet portal network.

BMF President Tracy “Ty” Moore II ’06 said his organization decided to help sponsor the event because the aims of the conference to help empower youth and redefine the image of black people worldwide coincided with the BMF’s mission.

Moore said that there is a prevalent misconception that Africa is in a state of chaos, and that it is imperative for the media’s focus to be redirected toward “what we have instead of what we don’t have” in order to show the world that “black is beautiful.”

Saturday’s events culminated with the “high-energy” benefit jam, featuring local bands Soulfège and The Foundation Movement as well as a blend of spoken word “slam-poetry,” stand-up comedy, and a world fusion dance mix spun by a DJ duo.

The proceeds from the concert will be donated to the Selula Sandla AME Village, a home for HIV orphans in Swaziland, and the Liberty Hall Youth Culture Center, which teaches cultural literacy and computer skills to children in the ghettoes of Kingston, Jamaica.

“No one is strong enough to stand alone—no matter how strong your beat...the movement is stronger than the sum of its parts,” Ashong said in his closing speech, asking the audience to raise their hands in the air. “Reach out and grab that movement.”

The SMT conference was conducted in partnership with the Harvard Cultural Agents Initiative, a network of academics and artists which promotes creativity and artistic expression in youth as foundation for democratic change.

—Staff writer Ying Wang can be reached at