How a spoken-word musician is turning his talents into a global megaphone to stop atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Editor’s note: Omekongo Dibinga has worked with some of today’s best-known musicians, including Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Damien Rice, Angelique Kidjo and Mos Def, to release an album called Raise Hope for Congo to raise funds and awareness about the crisis in the Congo. We invited him to share his story as we all travel the road to conflict free.
I was a sophomore at Georgetown University in the fall of 1996 when I first heard about the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), my ancestral homeland.
As an international affairs major with aspirations to one day be the United States Ambassador to the Congo (then called Zaire), I focused on doing everything possible to raise awareness of the struggle of the people of the Congo.
War was spiraling toward a second genocide in less than 100 years. At the turn of the last century, rubber was exploited for tires and other products. It was often called “red rubber” because the hands of Congolese workers — or their children — would be cut off if the rubber quota was not met.
This happened for decades until American writers like Mark Twain and W.E.B. DuBois helped draw attention to these atrocities, ultimately ending the mass murders taking place at that extreme level.
Omekongo Dibinga lends his vocals to help spread Intel’s conflict-free initiative in the Congo.
The struggle today is to stem the profits from conflict minerals that fund violence. In short, the war in the DRC turned into a war for resources by several countries and internal Congolese rebel groups. At one point, at least 26 were operating in Eastern Congo exploiting people in the worst ways as they extracted minerals from the soil.
In addition to diamonds and gold, other mineral resources are being plundered so that you and I can have the latest cellular phones, tablets, gaming console and basically anything else that has an “on” switch. These materials are known as the “3 Ts”: tin, tantalum and tungsten, which are used to build electronic products we use in our everyday lives. Copper is also on the list of minerals being exploited for our benefit.
The result has been unspeakable sexual violence inflicted upon girls and women, boys being turned into child soldiers and men who resist being thrown over bridges and shot on the way down. Many consider this to be the worse human tragedy since the Holocaust.
I witnessed this tragedy first hand when, in 2002, I traveled to the Congo as part of my master’s program at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. I stayed in the capitol city Kinshasa and worked with over 5,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had fled the war in the east.
Their stories are seared in my mind forever.
I met people in those camps who were dead the next day, their bodies inflating because they were not embalmed properly. I remember one girl telling me casually that “We are condemned to die here.”
As I looked into the eyes of those IDPs, I saw the face of my mother, Dr. Ngolela wa Kabongo, herself displaced at least three times in the Congo before coming to America and receiving her doctorate from Harvard. In the faces of the few men who had not been killed on the way to the camp, I saw my father, Dr. Dibinga wa Said, who came from the same area where the conflict is taking place and eventually received two doctorates, one from Harvard and another from the Sorbonne.
I remember meeting my cousin who became my proverbial final straw. He was 22 years old with a girlfriend and a two-year-old son. He had developed a cold that could not be treated because medicine could not be delivered in a country afflicted by war. I went out for a tour of the city with my uncle (his father), and when I came back that night my cousin was dead.
In order to raise awareness of the crisis in the Congo, I turned to the one talent that I had been working to perfect for most of my life — music. As a rapper and poet who performs in English, French and Swahili, I knew that I had to use my skills to speak up for the Congo. And if DuBois, Twain and others could stop the atrocities taking place during their time without social media, computers and television, what could I do in this new millennium?
Lyrics flow through me and have ever since I learned about poetry and how it can empower and inspire people to action. My musicality developed as an escape and release from the bullying I was experiencing at school. Ironically it became my megaphone to help stop the most extreme form of bullying taking place in the Congo.
And once I started writing and sharing my music, I found a small community of other activists fighting for change in the Congo. People like John Prendergast of the Enough Project, JD Stier of Stier Forward, and Congolese activists like Fidel Bafilemba and Denise Siwatula.
As we built this movement together, students got involved and pledged to make their campuses conflict free. City governments pledged to do the same for their communities. Then celebrities, athletes and politicians got involved.
Actors like Robin Wright, Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Emmanuelle Chriqui spoke up. Mariska Hargitay of “Law & Order SVU” even created an episode on her show dealing with this issue.
We shot a hip-hop music video with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Congo-born linebacker Andy Mulumba. President Obama added provisions to his legislative agenda making it required for companies to document where their minerals were coming from.
People were listening, but what about the computer and tech companies themselves?
If you are reading this essay and know me now, it is because of Intel. Intel stepped up with a campaign to make all of their products conflict free in 2016. Some computer companies have done nothing or even denied that they are involved in this conflict. Intel went to the region, worked with the supply chain and did the hard work to make a change.
But to effect true change in the Congo takes a wide and diverse range of contributors and everyone has a role or talent that can be used to help people. I believe that my music has the power to change the world and bring people together. It has already allowed to me to inspire many people across the globe.
There are multiple media streams available today to get your music or your words heard. My personal philosophy is that we as artists have a gift that should be shared with the world. You may not sell a million albums, but what if your words could help save a million lives?
Fighting for change in the Congo is the family business. It’s something I inherited — this struggle — from my parents and they inherited it from their parents and so on.
My hope and my dream is that working together on this international level will allow my children and yours to be free of this struggle. Together, we can help the Congolese people to be as free as we are in America.
Let’s strive for the day where no one will need to die so that we can have a cell phone or other electronic product. You and I have the power to make that happen. To not do so is to say in essence that all life is not created equal. The people of the Congo deserve peace. They deserve freedom. They deserve to live conflict free. Join the movement and help make that happen.