We interviewed MWB trainer and hip-hop artist, Manu van Kersbergen. Intrigued by different ways of telling a story, Manu tells stories in many different forms and aims to help young people find their own voice by giving them the tools to do the same.
The first project with unaccompanied minor refugees I did for Musicians Without Borders was in 2016 in Italy. After that, we did another project in Italy, as well as a project in Greece.
In 2015, MWB asked me to do a project in Palestine with a group of 8 Palestinian rappers who then went on to become workshop leaders themselves. I had already led workshops in the Netherlands because I believe it is important to teach young people how they can express themselves, but I noticed that young people in difficult situations feel even more urgency to tell their story. The urgency to tell your story is very important when writing rap songs or even a poem.
Young people connect to rap, hip-hop, and urban cultures easily; this makes it really easy to connect to young people through these forms of expression. Many times, with other music, you need to be able to play an instrument, which takes training. Rap and spoken word also takes training but can be more accessible, since most people can write.
I believe that young people learn a lot from each other. Peer-to-peer education is an important part of education and is embedded in the culture of hip-hop and urban cultures. Back in the day, you had schools to learn how to play the violin for example, but there was no school for hip hop. Young people who expressed themselves through hip-hop naturally created a system in which they taught each other.
For me and the other workshop leader Guus, it was really important to encourage the participants to think about what their dreams are and focus less on them as refugees. Music is a powerful tool to give people an idea of who they are. That is especially needed in situations where there might not be so much space for defining yourself or your own identity. I believe that being a refugee is not part of your identity; it is a moment of time in which you are, it is an experience. When you are a teenager the whole idea of identity building is really important for you as a person and your self-worth. This goes hand in hand with this theme of what you want to become and what your dreams and ambition are in life.
It is difficult to just pick one, but what was really exciting was how the group, in just one week, became united as a group and helped one another out. We felt like this wolfpack and all felt the urge and enthusiasm to make this beautiful song. Their enthusiasm, drive and their urgency was overwhelmingly beautiful.
Every workshop was different in set up. I believe it’s a bad thing to think you have found a formula and you use that formula over and over again. Especially working with unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers and refugees you have to be flexible as a trainer. Also, the groups always change and so does the level of existing knowledge of rhythm and rap.
What I believe has evolved, especially in my consciousness, is that as a trainer you should not decide too much before and set too many boundaries for the group. Of course, you have your building blocks, but as a trainer, you should be open for the ideas that are living in the group and see what exercises fit better within the group. It is also very important to make choosing your theme and topic a group process. In the end, it is your group of participants that are making the song, so it is very important that they feel ownership of the song and theme.