MISSION.tv caught up with the Founder & Director of Turning Tables, our NGO of the Week, just after his return from a recent engagement at the brand new Tunisia Lab.
What exactly is Turning Tables? How did the idea for the organization come to fruition?
Turning Tables started as self-interest but over time it became an altruistic project. In 2009 I was living in Beirut Lebanon and was flying back and forth to Europe to perform. In Beirut I tried to find a way to get my band down to play some gigs. To do so, I contacted the Danish Center for Culture and Development and asked if they would fund a trip to Beirut. They told me that we had to come up with a good reason for them to send us to Lebanon so I started to talk to some of my friends who worked in the Palestinian refugee camps.
We started out doing small workshops, but the response and demand from the refugee youth was massive. Through these workshops the vast potential dawned on me of how music can function as a platform for self-expression for a group of marginalized youth that is excluded from the positive effects of globalization. The aim is to start a process of reflection and self-empowerment by giving this youth a voice where they can express their travesties, hopes and dreams in a non-violent manner. We started doing this in several camps in Lebanon and then we expanded to Jordan where we have worked in three different camps and participated in a music festival. Later we set up in the Yarmouk camp in Syria, but we had to close down due to the horrible onslaught on the peaceful Syrian demonstrations for liberty that led to one of the worst tragedies of our time that still unfolds before our eyes every day.
Through our work in the Palestinian camps I connected with the wider Arabic Hip Hop movement. During the Arabic Revolutions of 2011 a number of rappers contributed to the rise and success of the popular movements with their dissident tunes about the ruling despots. This Arabic hip hop movement may or may not have received too much credit for the success of the revolutions, but the main breakthrough was that these rappers through the revolution gained access to the ears and minds of a large group of Arabic youth that identified with the political, social and economic frustrations expressed. In order to strengthen this movement Turning Tables engaged in a festival program called ‘The Voice of the Streets’ aiming at encouraging inter-regional collaboration between the young dissident rappers and to raise awareness about that the fight for freedom of speech in a region that has never know this has just begun. So far we have done festivals in Cairo, Benghazi and Amman and we are currently working with our Tunisian partners to organize a big festival focusing on artistic activism in Tunis in November 2013.
How do you believe the medium of music as can be a method for creating positive social change? What does Turning Tables do to try and educate, and empower the affected youth?
The work of Turning Tables can be applied to very different groups of marginalized youth ranging from violent urban slums in Haiti over activists rappers in the Middle East and Myanmar to street youth in Cambodia. One thing that we always try to do is to adapt to the specific context we are working in. It is very different to work with hardcore slum youth in Haiti or politically wired activists in Tunisia or Myanmar.
Secondly, we need to be a tool or platform where the youth can speak their mind. I do not believe in promoting liberal capitalistic democracy around the world since the one-size-fits-all is exactly why you see State-building and peacemaking fail all over the world. Right now Europe, for example, is witnessing the biggest democratic deficit in history where people are being trashed under the boot of austerity in order to compensate for the failure of the very democracy and free market nexus that we want to export around the world. What we like to spread is the possibility of change based on the interest and voice of the people who create change.
What results are you hoping for years down the road after the initial installment of a Turning Tables project has been completed?
While highlighting that our methodology can be applied to different groups of marginalized youth it is important to understand that the outcome we seek is different. Overall, instigating the reflexive process mentioned above would be a great achievement in all our program countries. However, when we work with activists in the Middle East we would like the outcome to be that we have established a physical space in terms of means of production and a permanent platform from which the youth can speak their minds. The same thing goes for our festival program that focus on raising awareness about the youths’ ongoing struggle for freedom of expression in a region that has never witnessed liberal rights in human history. Again, that is not to export a Western value system, but Turning Tables believes strongly that the only way for these societies to rid the shackles of both colonialism and despotism is to engage in a dialogue where all voices are heard.
Given the current fundraiser Turning Tables is promoting for Cambodian street youth, can you discuss a little bit about the projects in Cambodia and what the donated funds will be going towards?
Turntable Lab Cambodia was a product of long talks with the organization Skateistan that builds skate parks in Afghanistan and Cambodia. Initially, Turning Tables sought out a partnership in Afghanistan but this was deemed a liability to the Skateistan operations in Kabul and Mashaar al Sharif due to the sexual nature of music in the conservative religious circles in Afghanistan. We then started discussing Cambodia and we found that the match for a partnership between our organizations was much better in Phnom Penh. This turned out to be more than true since Turning Tables was able to set up inside Skateistan’s facility and benefit from the fantastic work made there by the project manager Benjamin Pecqueur and his dedicated and hardworking staff.
The two programs work very well together since the music provides a way of creative expression and self-empowerment that complement Skateistans work with providing activities for vulnerable street youth and child prostitutes. However, we are working very hard to expand our operations there in order to provide a targeted outreach program for the most at risk youth and strengthen the capacity of the Turntable lab by providing better equipment, more education of the instructors and expand our operations to include the safe haven for Western paedophiles in Sinaoukville. Therefore, we are launching an international fundraising campaign where we seek to reach a worldwide audience that with small donations can make a massive positive difference in the lives of Cambodian street youth and child prostitutes.
The Lab in Cambodia is our fourth worldwide. Our expectations are that with the online fundraising campaign we will be able to train about 800 vulnerable Cambodian youth a year and create a strong outreach program to reach more at risk youth living on the streets of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Furthermore, we aim to organize events and festivals in Phnom Penh and to add a Lab for music video production like the one we have in Tunisia. Another development goal is to facilitate regional dialogue and exchange by sending instructors and youth from Cambodia to the Lab we are setting up in Yangon Myanmar and vice versa. All funds donated through our online fundraising campaign will go un-cut to our future programs in Cambodia without any administrations fees.
Having just returned from a venture over in Tunis, how would you compare the engagement with those on the ground there with past Turning Tables endeavors?
Tunisia is currently experiencing a return to the police state it was in during the Ben Ali regime. The police are harassing the youth in the streets and have engaged in a systematic clampdown on freedom of expression. Right before we arrived in Tunisia the rapper Weld El 15 put out a video abusing the Police as ‘dogs’ to criticize the police brutality and harassment the young secular youth experience every day in Tunis. The case was fast tracked through a judicial system known for dragging its heels on corruption and the crimes committed by the former regime and the video instructor and rapper was sentenced to 6 years in jail. The sentence was later reduced due to ‘cooperation’ that led to further arrests of rappers. The Tunisian police used this case as a stepping stone to launch a campaign against the known dissident rappers and send out pictures of these to all the police units. When caught, the rappers were beat up and put to prison for drugs that appeared on them during the arrests.
We set up our new music and video production facility in light of the events described above, but we managed to persuade some rappers that had gone underground to resurface briefly to shoot another video for a track co-produced by Turning Tables instructors from Palestine and a Tunisian producer that criticizes the regime.
Compared with other Turning Tables endeavors this was very intense due to the time and place. In different settings it has been a more subtle struggle we contributed to but in this case it was direct artistic activism with the purpose of facing oppression head on.
What have you specifically learned about the world of social entrepreneurship since the establishment of Turning Tables?
The most important thing I have learned is literally that I do not know anything. It always comes down to context and personal relationships. Every place has its own difficulties and sensitivities. For example, the main difficulties of setting up Turntable Labs in Palestinian refugee camps are that most camps are miniature reflections of the complicated political environment inside Palestine. When you combine that with the complicated relationship that the Palestinians refugees have with their host countries you get a very explosive mix. The best thing you can do is to keep it as un-political as possible but since you need protection and cooperation from at least one group to be able to operate inside the camps your mere choice of partner frames your doings.
Moreover it is always complicated to bring music and especially Western music into the ecosystems of the camps since conservative powers will always be miffed and see them as a threat.
Regarding social entrepreneurship as a business, I was born into this realm with a borderline cynical skepticism since I saw most of the business as the story ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ by H.C. Andersen, where nobody in the mob dares to call out that the emperor is not wearing anything for his parade because they will be mocked for their lack of vision and imagination. To my surprise, I found that I slowly have started believing in the visions I sell to donors, but the most important thing is to put action behind your words so that ‘fancy smancy’ words like empowerment do not end up as another naked emperor in the streets.
What does the future hold for Turning Tables? What do you see this idea and organization growing into?
In 2013 Turning Tables will push for regional interaction between activist musicians and artists in the MENA region by inviting artists from Jordan, Palestine Egypt and Libya to do collaborations and shoot music videos with Tunisian rappers at our Turntable Lab in Tunis. The regional exchange will also be pushed through organizing a massive festival in Tunis in November that will bring the artists mentioned above together with street artists and musicians from Morocco and Algeria. The aim of this festival is besides strengthening a regional network of artistic activists to raise awareness about the ongoing struggle between MENA youth fighting for freedom of speech vs. reactionary political and religious forces.
Turning Tables will also be curating a big part of the major IMAGES festival in Copenhagen and Aarhus this summer by bringing together activist musicians and street artists from Cambodia, Myanmar, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Mali.
In time Turning Tables strives to open as many Turntable Labs for marginalized youth as possible and more important to keep instigating dialogue and exchange through music between groups of youth worldwide that does not experience the positive effects of globalization.
WATCH a video of Turning Tables working in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon:
Learn more about Turning Tables through a photo essay of their work around the world here
Watch a video of their work in Tunisia here
Check out the Turning Tables Cambodia Lab Indiegogo Campaign funding programs to bring music making to risk at youth and rehabilitated child prostitutes here
Connect with Turning Tables here
Andrew is a global enthusiast with a passion for the road less traveled. As a frequent collaborator with World Hip Hop Market and Nomadic Wax, Andrew has worked with numerous socially conscious artists from around the world in the pursuit of inspiring cultural understanding and exchange through entertainment. This fascination with the world at large has taken him to over 20 countries (so far) through studying, volunteering, and writing about his travels, with no signs of slowing his globetrotting nature down.