Art and activism: Humanitarian activist Rocky Dawuni on bringing diverse people and cultures together through music

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Published: October 15, 2017 12:37:58 AM

For a decade-and-a-half, Rocky Dawuni has been singing around the world, while campaigning for clean water, women’s empowerment and AIDS awareness.

The musician has been described as one of Africa’s Top 10 global stars.

On a nearly full moon night, Rocky Dawuni’s reggae at the majestic Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur brought a capacity crowd to its feet. The dreadlock-sporting Ghanaian-American’s Afro roots music is meant to achieve exactly that kind of engagement, apart from being danceable and elevating. Creating the opportunity to bring diverse peoples and cultures together is the mantra of the Los Angeles-based musician, who divides his time between the US and Ghana. “Recognise the person next to you and look (them) in the eye,” the Grammy-nominated musician told his audience as he sang Rock Your Soul. Last month, Dawuni performed at the footsteps of the UN building in New York as part of the SDG Live concert to remind everybody how art and activism can play a major role in the attainment of sustainable development goals. For a decade-and-a-half now, he has been singing around the world, while campaigning for clean water, women’s empowerment and AIDS awareness. “My ultimate aim is to create bridges between the side you grow up with and the side you oppose,” says the humanitarian activist, who has performed with legends like Stevie Wonder and Bono.

Dawuni is aware of the significance of building bridges in a contemporary world battling violence, racism and inequalities. “It’s a time of darkness, but also a time of great opportunity to confront these issues with the power of who we are,” he says. “The best world is where we co-exist. Remember what Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.” Dawuni’s brand of “cultural evangelism” aims to open the eyes of those who have been blinded to others’ plight, something he repeats to his audiences around the world. At the Jodhpur RIFF, he shouted to the audience at the back to stand up before singing, Everybody stand up for your rights, don’t give up the fight. “Culture is thousands of years of R&D,” he says, underlining how culture gives the ability to communicate and accept others for who and what they are. “At the basic level, we are all members of the same family, our root is the same. But we branched off into different colours.” As per him, the simplest form of peace is loving. “When we know we are from the same tree, it’s difficult for us to hurt each other,” says Dawuni, who joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to celebrate World Environment Day in June this year.

Five years ago, Dawuni joined hands with Hollywood actor Julia Roberts and celebrity chefs Sanjeev Kapoor and José Andrés to campaign for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a UN initiative launched by then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “Every year, two million people die of cooking using unclean fuel. All over the world, three billion people use unclean fuel to cook,” he says. The Clean Cookstoves campaign reminded the world that the use of unclean fuel affects women and children, as well as the environment.

Growing up in a military barrack (his father was an army officer) in Michel Camp on the outskirts of Ghanaian capital Accra, Dawuni learned to respect his community traditions. Later, when he went to live in the US, he understood the need to understand other traditions as well. “When I open myself to embracing cultures I don’t come from, it teaches me how to engage,” says the musician, who has been described by CNN as one of Africa’s Top 10 global stars. It is, therefore, easy for Dawuni to understand why the 17th and last Sustainable Development Goal is ‘partnership’. “We are living in an age of partnership. And India is very integral in terms of where humanity is going because of its deep cultural richness and strength in technology,” says Dawuni, whose album Branches of the Same Tree was nominated for the Best Reggae Album of the Year at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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