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UCPH graduate helping refugees with urban festival in Jordan

Festival for rap, street art and Arabic calligraphic graffiti will take place in Amman, Jordan

An American graduate from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) has joined forces with a rapper and DJ to create a new festival that will help give voice to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Along with two other young women working out of the Middle East, Nereya and Tia have been volunteering the last 11 months to create a festival ‘The Word Is Yours” for the young creative minds of the Middle East and North Africa. The festival will take place in the city of Amman, Jordan 2-3 October 2015. Jordan hosts more than a million refugees from the civil war in Syria.

Photo: Kavian Borhani-Khomani

Nereya Otieno, who graduated from the Music, Cognition and Communication programme at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) has joined forces with rapper and DJ Tia Korpe to create an entirely new festival there.

”You can be a musician, you can be a rapper, you can be a graffiti artist, you can be a skateboarder. If people want to carry on and have seen it as beneficial, that would be my mark of success!” says Nereya.

Nine urban disciplines

The festival will feature artists from ten countries, participating in nine different disciplines. The disciplines are rapping, DJ’ing, dancing, painting, spoken word, production, street art, skateboarding and calligraffiti. The art of calligraffiti combines the ancient Arabic calligraphy with graffiti and functions as a symbol of what the festival is also about – to combine Arabic culture with the street arts.

Nereya Otieno: “You don’t often get to speak to refugees, but this way you can get the story from them directly and not from somebody else.”

Over the course of two days art and music workshops and classes will be held in the area of Al-Weibdeh in Amman, along with concerts, dancing and skateboarding competitions. International professionals will be judging the competitions as well as showcasing their own skills for the enjoyment of the guests. Artist talks will provide the platform meant to strengthen cross-collaboration between creative industries in the region, and the creative community as a whole.

The festival will culminate in a grand party at the rooftop of Al Locanda Hotel with a view over Al-Weibdeh.

A platform for young people

The aim of the festival is to develop a platform and an outlet for young people to express themselves, and the four women have been working hard to engage artists from the Middle East and North African region. Together they hope to create a festival that will provide young aspiring artists and a growing number of refugees in the region with a place, where they can cultivate their talents or learn entirely new skill sets within the street arts.

”We want urban culture to be recognized as a legitimate culture and form of expression for people in the region. We want to create a space for young people to meet and voice their opinions and ideas. Urban street culture is a very constructive way to do this,” says Tia Korpe.

Tia has been working in the region for the past seven years, promoting street culture as an art form. As a former raptivist (a play on the words ‘rap’ and ‘activist’, ed.) and an active DJ she appreciates the opportunities that street culture offers the young people who have limited ways of expressing themselves.

Photo: Kavian Borhani-Khomani

”We hope to establish a sustainable network in the region that will endure after the festival is done. A network of artists that will focus on the creative arts”, she continues.

Nereya, the former UCPH student adds that her master thesis was about “sound as touch and the physicality of music. I write that experiencing and feeling music is more of a communal aspect that really brings people together”.

Huge potential

The aim of the festival is to further the social cohesion between host-community and the refugees groups.

”The creative potential in the Middle East is huge. A solid foundation from where it can thrive just hasn’t been established. That is what we are trying to help them with,” Tia explains.

”The traditional Arabic music culture was very strong and extremely rich, but it has been stripped away, so the communal aspect of getting together has disappeared, and this is where this can help rebuild that community and help people be together in public spaces, as that doesn’t happen as often as it does here” says Tia.

A title with a message

The name of the festival ”The Word Is Yours” is not randomly chosen.

”We wanted to signal that this festival is meant for the young creative minds to speak out, have their voices heard. The word is theirs,” says Tia.

An extra level to the name lies in the play on celebrated rapper Nas’ song ”The World Is Yours”, which also happens to be the favorite of Tia Korpe.

A new perspective

Nereya and Tia met through their mutual love of music and the project suited their passions and experiences.

”I used to do festivals in LA and San Francisco. Also free festivals, world music and that sort of stuff. since I moved here. Yet I have never really got involved with things happening in the Middle East and I didn’t know about the politics. I was suddenly in a news sphere that wasn’t in the United States and provided me with a very different type of news,” says Nereya.

Photo: Kavian Borhani-Khomani

Nereya is now committed to a global issue.

”Learning individual refugees’ histories through music and with people speaking a language that I could understand provided me with a new perspective. You don’t often get to speak to refugees, but this way you can get the story from them directly and not from somebody else. You get their opinion on the war. It’s a perspective you don’t get to hear,” says Nereya.

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