Can cultural projects targeting at-risk youth effect sustainable socio-economic transformation in cities, and if so how? In this piece, we look at a Cape Town project, Heal The Hood, which has had over 20 years of history and been successesful. What can we learn from it? What does it need to move forward?
Heal the Hood (HtH) is a community empowerment project using the elements of Hip Hop to work with young people from areas "at risk", It works to develop their self confidence and through this impact on broader community development. It was the passion project of the leader of a successful hip hop group, Black Noise which started in the late 80s in Cape Town during the time of Apartheid - one of two seminal South African rap groups inspired by the political nature of the Hip Hop of the time (epitomised by groups like Public Enemy). Emile YX? was a school teacher who eventually left full time employ, and later Black Noise, to further his commitment to social change. Today he provides the broad creative leadership to the Heal the Hood collaborative while his brother Tanswell manages day to day. HtH was formally established as an NPO in 1998. Its work has its roots in Black Noise's tours in libraries in poor areas, when Emile began to recognize the huge challenges facing young people from these areas and began doing workshops.
A series of articles on this blog have looked at the Cape Town context, explaining its challenging past and present and describing its highly divided and unequal nature. It has also looked at the myriad of flows that have conspired to further and to limit the city in terms of cultural development. HtH has focused primarily, on an aspect of the unequal divide - working with young people in the Cape Flats, the area where people of colour were forcibly removed during Apartheid and which has been plagued by poverty, unemployment, gangsterism, drugs and violence. Young people are the worst hit. With parents forced to commute long distances for work, they are often unsupervised. There is little in the form of after hour activities, and the school curriculum itself lacks key aspects necessary to build resilience. It's in this space, providing "knowledge of self", coupled with creative skills, that HtH has been most useful
Emile's experience as a teacher, has shown him both the positive aspects of education and the gaps in the system that lead young people to be ill equipped for the day to day life they face. His exposure to a Hip Hop which is positive, social justice focused and transformative has shown him the possibilities which exist when a person is self empowered through shared knowledge. B Boying in particular plays a significant role in the HtH curriculum. A number of young people who have been trained over the years and participated in competitions have moved onto other careers, usually citing their dance battling experience as critical to their development.
HtH responds to the lack of an African content in how young people are taught. Thus the project provides a grounding for people of colour - especially alienated mixed race people - in the knowledge of how first nations people engaged with the earth, instilling a sense of pride in their heritage - something sadly missing at schools. They connect hip hop elements such as graffiti with rock art, rap with story telling, and break dancing to first nations trance dances.
The project recognizes that many people are too scared to follow their own voice which may seem like an uncertain path - they would rather work in dead end jobs for the security of a monthly salary. HtH works to get youth to understand their passion has significant value and should be explored. The project helps young people to understand the independence of being able to make things - whether it is a drawing or being in a dance troupe and how this ability to earn from ones creativity, empowers on a variety of levels, ultimately bringing a sense of self worth.
"B-boying challenges one to stand alone in the middle of the circle…. its easy to be part of the circle and that's where most people prefer to stay, but the world wants to see you in the middle and we all are unique and thus the world is waiting for each of us to stand out and contribute and be all that we are able to be." Emile YX?
While HtH has been involved in a multitude of initiatives from the annual Hip Hop Indaba to raise funds to send dancers to competitions, to a film festival, to workshops and more, it has been involved for the last two years on a very consistent project taking place in schools and at community centres. This programme has been funded to the tune of R500 000 (around $38 000) annually by a Swedish workers union (ABF) and the Olaf Palmer Centre, and is in its second of a three year cycle. The small team of 7 HtH workers push the relatively small budget to its maximum. Working in 15 venues weekly, facilitators reach 1 200 young people from grades 5-8, with a curriculum that gets them to engage with a set of creative skills - dancing, poetry, rapping and drawing - as well as the core "Knowledge of Self" class. The end result of each year is having drawings published in a book during the Open Book Festival and a series of music videos.
The end goal of the programme is a more self aware and confident young people, who in turn, the belief is, can impact on their own communities. HtH measures success through watching and assessing each participant. Workshops are documented on video and it is common to see youngsters entering the programme as quiet individuals, who say very little, and who leave being able to speak publicly and with confidence, surprising their peers and families. HtH puts huge value on growing self sustainability in the individual, thus it offers support to its participants to think about their potential singly or in groups to think creatively about their futures. One of the successful outcomes of the programme has been the Mixed Mense group - a team of three rappers and dancers who have recently brought out their own CD. The participants of the group are facilitators on HtH and are plowing back the knowledge they have learnt themselves over the years
A Challenge of Consistent Support
While HtH has worked tirelessly for over two decades, it has struggled to find the kind of financial backing locally it needs. Consistent funding has been difficult to come by. Government has been seemingly reluctant to support its broader programme and Emile questions whether the HtH project is viewed as being too political. HtH received money for a while from a provincial government social development programme. However when the MOD Recreation Centres were set up in communities in the last decade, an ambitious project around the Western Cape to create a set of after hours programmes for young people, the State poached many of the facilitators from HtH to teach dance there, but did not want to bring the "Knowledge of Self" core aspects of the HtH curriculum into it. Emile feels its precisely these critical thinking skills that are most needed to help bring about a community that questions and participates in civic life, but its particularly this aspect the state sees as "too political".
Other funders, Emile suggests, have an impression that Cape Town doesn't really need money. They see a vibrant city with a lot of activities and feel that they don’t need to put more funds in. Studies back this, showing that Cape Town is well supported by a range of arts funds - the NAC, the Lottery amongst others. However this misses that there is a vast need amongst poor young people and that it is without outlets for growth or opportunity. Corporate donors are interested in more moneyed audiences and flashier events and the kind of work HtH is doing does not fit many brands marketing strategy. HtH is less interested in funding "the shine" - ie what is needed to make an event glossy. Instead it looks to spend more money on the human development side. It is concerned less with the numbers attending events and whether they are seduced by the flash, but rather more interested in the quality of the individuals experience and growth. Moreover as an ethical project that is straight edged, HtH is careful, for example, not to associate with alcohol brands or other exploitative products.
HtH is working on two initiatives at the moment to further its work. The first is a drive to extend the project to the broader city and beyond. The second is to develop a space for their facilitators to live in, to potentially own their own homes. It is about taking self sustainability to the next level. HtH are looking to root the facilitators homes within an eco friendly community within the Cape Flats where artists residencies and workshops can happen. Fundraising to develop this initiative has started and land is being identified. A team of volunteer architects, urban designers, experts in housing are being sought to help construct this project.
Emile recognises that the strength of HtH has been to focus on listening to its core constituency, being able to respond and build them up. It has often been led by the needs of its youth and so has moved on to different projects as it has responded to time and requests. This has also been its weakness on some level. Having many new initiatives has made it hard to communicate the core work of the project - to "amplify its message" as it were and enable interested parties to take notice. "We suck at talking ourselves up," Emile suggests. Thus HtH is open for volunteers who share its vision and can provide expert support in the area of marketing and communications know-how to help guide its fundraising strategies.
The success of HtH is in many respects rooted in the passion, knowledge, profile and experiences of its founder, Emile YX?. It shows that ethical leadership, coupled with creative skills can, over time, help impart valuable knowledge and shift attitudes, helping young people to become more empowered adults. While it has definitely impacted on many young peoples lives, how much it has changed communities is still not known. The HtH case provides an opportunity for much new research into the impacts of its programmes on community development beyond individual self empowerment.
The challenge for cities wanting to provide support to at-risk youth is to recognise leaders and their projects, and to support the works of passion emerging from them that inspire and empower their communities in grounded ways. Its doubtful whether local authorities can create such initiatives out of thin air. These are almost always the work of passionate leaders and their collectives, like Emile and HtH. The task is how to surface these initiatives, how to work with them sensitively and how to consistently support them through changing political regimes.
All the photos in this piece were supplied by Heal the Hood / Emile YX?