Ruth Henry – Making peace with Hip Hop

I think there were two defining moments that got me started on my current path. One was as a teenager back in Boston, when I watched a friend get shot while hiding behind a car and trying to keep another friend from getting involved in the fight. My teenage years had been turbulent, as they are for many, and I’d wiled away too many hours with wannabe gangsters and true gangsters alike, but then had moved away to college. On this particular night I was back in Boston visiting for my best friend’s birthday, and the shooting was a painful but potent reminder of why I was moving my life in a different direction, and also of my connection to those I was leaving behind, and to the conditions which surrounded us that I would now be in a better position to change. My second defining moment took place two years later, in a CPR (Community of Population in Resistance) in Guatemala. The community was made up of a motley crew of massacre survivors, hailing from many different tribes and villages, but joined now after ten years of running from bombs in the jungle. Shortly before I arrived a clandestine grave had been exhumed on the outskirts of the community, and the photographs of the skeletons, with way too many children’s bones included, rested on the kitchen table in the accompanier’s house where I was staying. People would stop by, shuffle through the photos to search for anything that might identify a lost loved one, and end up spilling horrific stories of torture and mass murder that sent chills up my nineteen year old spine. At the same time I was reading about U.S. support of Guatemala’s brutal civil war for my college thesis, and my heart was twisting in knots over the cruelties my taxes had financed. It was there that I met Eva, a nun who had been accompanying the community for the past ten years, and who had just returned from a recent trip to Uraba, Colombia. She told me that what I was seeing the after-effects of in Guatemala was happening then and there in Colombia, which was what tugged me down here in the first place. Since then, my peace work has been a steady attempt to make sense of these two moments, to understand the bigger political picture which joins them, and to help other young people come together across our Americas to collaboratively build alternatives to this violence and stand up against the conditions which propagate it.


What interests you most about what you are doing now?

When I first came to Colombia in 2002, I fell immediately in love with the country’s Hip Hop movement, whose brave truth-telling in the face of civil war was a far cry from the commercial rap I’d heard on the radio in Boston. It seemed like the perfect vehicle to help my fellow U.S. citizens understand what our taxes were doing in Colombia, but without playing into the patronizing pity of traditional Latin American solidarity efforts. After all, we were all Hip Hop, all young, urban, and affected by this business, albeit in different ways on each side of the ocean. As a poet and emcee, my first connection to the movement was as an artist, which brought back echoes of underground open mics back home. But like many artists down here, it wasn’t long before I started weaving my art and my activism together, which in turn led me to get trained in Kingian Nonviolence, a global curriculum on Dr. Martin Luther King’s philosophy and methodology which has given me a viable blueprint for that activism. In Boston, I had worked with gang-involved youth, bridging them across conflicts through the arts, and much of this work had also been about facilitating analysis of the larger set of injustices that had gotten them to where they were.  But when it came to how to actually transform those injustices, I and many of my other young colleagues floundered, devoting hours and hours to reinventing a wheel which I know now has been built before and proven to roll: nonviolence. And this combination is what interests me most: Hip Hop, nonviolent activism, the adrenalin of creativity that both require, and the amazing role models for each that I meet along my path daily. And the way they keep me honest and keep me growing.


What’s been your biggest accomplishment?

As a mother of two amazing daughters, I have to put them first and foremost, given that they are the reason behind just about everything else I do. Wanting them to dream big and work hard for those dreams is what fuels me to do the same, even when nothing seems to be going quite right. But beyond my daughters, my biggest accomplishment has been the Hip Hop exchange program I founded, La Lengua de mi Barrio. With the support of Partners of the Americas, we have had eight Hip Hop exchanges to date, four from the U.S. to Colombia, and four from Colombia to the U.S. In the last four years, through these exchanges, we have held over 40 workshops across 6 cities, reaching over a thousand young people. We have participated in numerous forums, performed at over 50 community performances and festivals, and recorded 14 binational tracks. We have provided certified courses to Hip Hop leaders in Hip Hop Pedagogy and in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation. And most importantly, we have created a family, a family that spans geography and language and supports each other and loves each other and understands that we, as young people, hold the keys to a transformed relationship between our countries in our hands, in our hearts, and in our art. And with La Lengua we have created a big dream, a big project: PAZalo. PAZalo, a Spanish play on words which means something like “Peace it on”, has three phases. All designed to strengthen and unify a powerful but fragmented national Hip Hop movement. This year, we are training Hip Hop leaders across five cities in Colombia in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation through introductory courses, virtual dialogues between graduates from different cities, and a Trainer’s Institute to ensure that impact is multiplied. Following this phase, we will put training into practice through the symbolic act of passing a canvas scroll of the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace (originally signed at United Nations Headquarters in May 2001) between each city to be analyzed critically alongside the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and signed. An interactive workshop curriculum will guide this analysis in diverse sectors of each city. The final scroll will then accompany KRS ONE, one of the originators of the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace and of Hip Hop itself, on a culminating tour through annual Hip Hop festivals in participating cities in order to unify the national movement and solidify a joint commitment to nonviolent conflict reconciliation as a viable path to lasting peace. Deciding to take on the challenge of bringing this project to fruition has been a gaint accomplishment in itself, and continuing to carry out its first stages even without funding secured, in order to stay true to our timeline, has been a testament to the power of faith.


What has been your biggest challenge?

When I first started La Lengua de mi Barrio, I made a conscious decision not to seek funding. I wanted us to know that we could make things happen without needing money to convince us. And I wanted to know how deep people’s commitment really was to the idea. Over time, however, the program has grown exponentially, with chapters in six cities and another three or four cities interested in opening new ones. So now I am at a roadblock as to how to sustain it, and painfully inexperienced in fundraising and financial administration. At the same time, I am struggling to keep food on my family’s table with a day job which does nothing to further my professional passions, be present for my daughters and husband, and direct a program which now needs much more time than I have to give it and much more money than I know how to raise. I hope and pray that PAZalo will catapult us to a new level of sustainability and give us the fundraising experience necessary to ensure our future stability, but in the meantime it is a difficult balancing act.


Who or what inspires you?

Oh, so many people, so many things. Hip Hop. Art. Love. People struggling and pushing through. My girls. My man. My fam. The fact that peace and justice are possible, and that so many people put their lives on the line for them around the world, daily. The fact that this past century saw so many large scale changes brought on by nonviolent social movements. 2012. The idea that we are on the brink of great change. Humanity, the delicate need in each soul for nurture. Bright colors. Good fruits. The evening sun casting shadows.


Why is peace sexy to you? What does “Peace is Sexy” evoke for you?

Peace is sexy because it lights a fire in your belly, because the thought of actually seeing it in action, live and direct, sends goosebumps up your arms. The thing I love about the word sexy is that you don’t have to be a magazine model to be hot. You don’t have to be a particular shape, or size, or have a particular color of eyes, although often it is the magazine models we think of at first. The mold comes to mind, the image that has been pummeled into our brains. But when real life comes knocking, we realize it is not necessarily this image that lights our fire. Not everyone with the well-toned, well-oiled muscles of the slick and shiny magazine pages has the flow in real life. Not everyone with magazine curves and sculpted cheekbones has that subtle undercurrent that creeps through the veins and peeks out at the world in the spark of an eye. In the end, the image is just an image, and sexiness comes from the soul. Like peace. Peace too has been overplayed and misrepresented, as an image, as a peace sign and a dove and happy people holding hands all around a globe. But, like sexy, this image does not in any way define true peace. True peace is not usually pretty. It is ugly, it takes struggle and sweat and putting your life on the line for justice. It takes confrontation: nonviolent confrontation, creative confrontation. It is often born in jail cells, or rides through soundwaves across broken glass and used syringes. It is never, never afraid to get down and get dirty. Which makes it oh so sexy. Real sexy. Soul sexy.


What is a simple thing you do to create peace? What is something you do every day?

Principle five of Kingian Nonviolence tells us to “avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external violence.” What is internal violence of the spirit? It is the hate and revenge we let boil in our bellies and erode our inner organs, the burning coal of envy we hold in our hands, waiting to throw it at someone else but burning ourselves in the process. It is the nagging inner voice that tells us that we are not good enough, that we cannot attain our dreams, that we are too fat or too skinny or too stupid or just too damn lazy. It is the frustration and rage of impotence, the feeling that the injustices of the world are too big and that we are too small to stop them. And we have to confront this internal violence, have to learn how to nurture our own spirits, before we can pretend to solve the larger problems of our world. We have to know our own strength. Perhaps it is not a simple thing, but it is a daily thing, and it is something you don’t need masses or money or megaphones to do. Build the relationship you would like to see everyone in the world having with each other with your own sexy self. Cultivate your spirit, let it know what it is truly capable of, and when the mountains are ready to be moved, you will be ready to move them.


How would you like Peace is Sexy to make a difference in what you are up to?

Spread the word. Expand the network. Let people know what we are doing, and if they like it, tell them we can use all the help we can get! Anyone who would like to offer their support to this initiative can write to me at and we will find a way to use your talents. We are especially looking for people who can help us with fundraising efforts, document translation (English-Spanish and Spanish-English), video documentation and editing, website building and maintenance, marketing, graphic design, in kind donations of equipment, contact with Hip Hop organizations and activists in South Carolina (which has a partnership with Cali, Colombia, that we are trying to tap into), travel logistics and discounts and/or sponsorships for scholarship recipients and professors of our Trainers’ Institute, invitations to bring our workshops and courses to new audiences, and a boat to get KRS ONE from San Diego to Panama and then from Panama to Colombia. You never know what may come your way if you just put it out there.


Where would you like to see your passion go in the next ten years? Twenty? One hundred?

In ten years I hope to see La Lengua de mi Barrio on firm financial footing, formalized as an organization, with its own 501-c3 in the U.S. and its own N.I.T. in Colombia, and with a fully developed local infrastructure in each of our chapter cities. I hope to see our model and strategies being tried out between Hip Hop communities in other countries, hope to see the web that is this movement growing steadily and durably, like a spider’s web. I hope we have released albums of our binational collaborations, released a documentary of our work, hope we have a full website up and running and constantly updated. I also hope to have released my own album, to be finding time for my art, and to be supporting my family and community in finding time for theirs as well. And I’d like to have put out an album with Spanish Hip Hop artists rapping translations of English Hip Hop artists and visa versa, to continue strengthening the movement across our two continents. In twenty years, I’d like to be bringing my experience with peacebuilding and Hip Hop to bear in Israel and Palestine, where I have family, roots, and a chest full of both painful and beautiful memories to guide my efforts.  In one hundred years I hope to have left this body behind, lived out my cycle of life, but I also hope to have left behind seeds that will keep my grandchildren and my great children and those of many others steadily building the Beloved Community which Dr. King dreamed of, and the Hip Hop Nation which KRS dreams of, and the fair, kind world that we all dream of… and having fun doing it, making art and music and LIFE.


Anything else you want to tell us?

If you have read this far, you are already a kindred spirit. I hope our paths may cross and that together we can make amazing things happen. Stay sexy!

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