Activists use rap music to pitch social justice awareness and action


MAUD NEVORET AND VISHAN CHARAMIS ARE JUST LIKE BOB MARLEY. They use music to inform and liberate. In “Redemption Song” Marley sang: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but our self can free our minds.” Maud and Vishan are using rap to do that in Montreal.

Maud and Vishan are part of Rap Battles for Social Justice, a Montreal collective of five activist rap musicians and other creative artists. The collective has staged 13 “rap battles” since 2015 to deliver “popular education with a beat.” Everyone shares in all the work it takes to stage each event.

Rap and a revolutionary spirit

Maud and Vishan are united by a strong sense of individual obligation to act for social justice and by a conviction that rap music is a good way to live out that obligation. However, there is nothing similar in how they each got to this point.

Maud grew up in France in a home where everything was all politics all the time. She quit school at 18 to found her own Marxist grassroots university, with about a dozen friends. They filled their days with radical talk and rap music.

Maud moved to Montreal in 2015. One night she ended up at one of the Rap Battles for Social Justice. She was completely captivated by the music and the possibilities of using the music to spread a broader social action message. She sought out and joined the collective.

Vishan’s path was different—more about the music first. However, some trouble in high school brought him into face-to-face contact with the realities of social and economic inequality. When he started to perform at open mic events those were the topics he rapped about.

“My parents raised me with the idea that if you see something wrong, do something about it,” says Vishan.

The Rap Battles for Social Justice wanted him in their collective. Vishan didn’t say no.

Two ‘battles’ a year

The Rap Battles for Social Justice aim is to mount two events a year. Work on each event starts with the organizing group choosing a focus. “We get together and build one show. It’s very friendly, warm even,” says Maud.

Each project consists of a workshop and a show.

Maud says, “I would call what we do ‘consciousness rap.’ It goes right back to what rap was when it started in the Bronx: it’s was to uplift the consciousness of the people.”

“But I would say it’s a bit spiritual, too. It’s activist, but it brings you together. The music is like charcoal during a hard winter: it warms you, gives you courage and consciousness.”

The workshop is usually held at Concordia University, as the group is funded in part by the Concordia Student Union and the student-driven Sustainability Action Fund.

The first half of the workshop concentrates on learning all about the selected issue from experts on it. The second half is a writing workshop, where games, exercises and activities are used to teach people how to write raps.

The goal is to put on a good show

The other component is staging the show. It generally involves artists from across Montreal’s hip-hop scene, and can also include an opportunity for participants from the workshop to perform.

The goal is to put on a good show that entertains, as much as it raises awareness about the issue in question, and to raise money for a grassroots group or project involved in the issue.

The show is always staged as a mock battle, with rappers making arguments and counter arguments. “It’s about knowing your enemy kind of,” says Maud.

“It’s more like friendly games. It’s always fun. It’s always warm. The most important thing is community in both parts of the event.”

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