Celebrity intervention in humanitarian efforts is often looked on through a cynical lens, but last night a panel discussion in the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium hoped to highlight how some big names can make a difference.
The Monday panel featured K’naan — the rap artist known best for his hit single, “Wavin’ Flag” — and explored the famine in Somalia and addressed the humanitarian efforts taken by K’naan in the country. Sol Guy, a social entrepreneur and promoter who works alongside K’naan as an artist and activist, was also on the panel, in addition to Yale political science professor David Simon. The event attracted approximately 200 students, faculty and members of the New Haven community.
The panel was introduced by Gavin Sheppard, a 2011 Yale World Fellow, who had collaborated with both K’naan and Guy in the past on community rebuilds and youth mobilization programs that focused on the use of hip-hop. Sheppard described the rapper as “a very beautiful thinker,” while calling Guy “a visionary who practiced social entrepreneurship before it became a ‘buzzword.’”
Simon talked about the historical context of the Somalian famine, noting that the dominant image of Somalia is of the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab or pirates off the coast, a viewpoint that he said limits the agency of the Somalian public. Simon added that the panel was aimed at challenging this notion of Somalia as a “hopeless place.” Following Simon’s remarks, there was a viewing of a video of K’naan’s recent visit to Somalia in response to the Somalian famine.
“In the entertainment industry, there are certain things you are supposed to do when these things happen,” Guy said about celebrities’ response to the famine. Guy said that rather than using previously exhausted methods such as holding a major concert or writing a song to attract attention to social causes, Guy and K’naan decided to visit the site of the famine and film their trip.
K’naan also discussed the subject of celebrity in his homeland of Somalia and how it is a complicatedconcept.
“It’s hard to see the celebrity of the scenario, because I feel like the fireman whose son is in the building,” K’naan said. “I have an intimate stake in the situation outside the incredible and privileged position people see in celebrity.”
K’naan added that the effectiveness of the response to this famine largely depends on whether people care about each other in a global scale.
In that sense, Simon noted that many studies in academia are concern whole countries and overlook the individuals caught in the crossfire, making it easy to lose the human element. In contrast, he said, artists and musicians often provide a platform that gives the neglected people a voice.
“It’s a question of equality, a question about life,” K’naan said. “Does your life have more currency than others? Does it have more value because of where you live?”
Guy discussed the importance of thinking about steps that can build on the initial inspiration given to a group through different types of media, saying that well-publicized plans often fail in their implementation of real changes.
“If you inspire and provide action steps, the next job is to go out of the way and let people run with it,” Guy said. “After a while [the celebrities] get in the way.”
The panel also discussed the importance of not engaging in “accentuated victimhood,” Simon said, stressing the importance of viewing Somalia not simply as a victimized place but also as a vibrant place. As K’naan mentioned, Somalia is known as “the nation of poets.”
During the panel, the invitees were asked questions by members of the audience, which included at least two students of Somali descent. Among other subjects, the panel also discussed the importance of artists’ ability to question their work and the efficacy of humanitarian effort.
The event was sponsored by the Yale World Fellows Program, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and the Yale University Art Gallery.