Senior Aisha Fukushima receives prestigious Watson Fellowship to further research: rap + activism = raptivism

March 20, 2009
Aisha Fukushima
Courtesy of Krystin Norman, Whitman Pioneer

She thought it could be a window into the pain, joys, sighs and stances of people around the world, if someone had the time to do it – if someone could travel the world, study hip hop culture in various countries and record a rap album with local rappers. A music genre that has spread from the U.S. and become a soapbox for the disenfranchised in places such as India, Morocco, South Africa, United Kingdom and Senegal.

The album would be a musical dialogue, a discovery of the current hot issues for youth, a search for parallels in discussion topics around the globe.

Recently, the prestigious Watson Foundation decided to give her that opportunity.

Aisha Fukushima, a Whitman College senior majoring in rhetoric and film studies, will receive $28,000 to cover all of her expenses for the year she will spend abroad. The Watson Foundation, based in New York, awarded only 40 fellowships this year, and Fukushima is the only student from the Northwest to receive one.

Albert Schueller, Whitman associate professor of mathematics and chair of committee that sent on Fukushima’s proposal to the Watson Foundation for its consideration, said the committee “selects candidates that demonstrate extraordinary leadership and personal initiative.

“Aisha’s willingness and ability to organize people to address social inequality are exceptional,” he said. “We found her ability to mix activism, poetry and rap (“raptivism”) compelling and unique.”

Fukushima is convinced she can “deliver” on her Watson project. She, a singer in the band Raptivists (referring to the term “rap activist”), said the goal is an end product that will “act not only as a testimony to the globalization of hip hop culture, but an accessible educational tool that will empower and raise political awareness among youth from a myriad of backgrounds.”

“Hip hop is a very intellectual exercise,” Fukushima said.

While the public focus often goes to the rap artists whose song lyrics and videos are heavy on degrading messages and crass materialism, many artists’ works are laced with such elements as Greek mythology, the matrix and word play. Some lyrics, such as those of Grammy-Award winner Lupe Fiasco, are so complex, they go “over the head,” Fukushima said. She said the art form is a way to process life experiences, is cathartic, a way to express achievement and is inspirational and playful.

“As a self-proclaimed raptivist, I am continually learning ways to challenge and question injustices, especially in situations where under-represented voices are marginalized or silenced. Hip-hop is a rich cultural movement to explore not only because of its significant social and political influences, but also because is an art form that merits risk-taking and the ability to challenge personal limitations. Whether participating in a rap battle or allowing music to inspire improvised dance moves in the street, to live as a raptivist is to consistently seek to refine and improve one’s own artistic and intellectual sensibilities,” she said.

She said the birth of hip hop culture in Brooklyn, as explained by Robin D.G. Kelley, a black intellectual, occurred because in decaying urban environments with few places to play – playgrounds, rec centers, schools and other such spaces that foster playful, artistic or intellectual expression – hip hop was a way for playful creativity that needed little. Just a piece of cardboard to dance on and a boom box or someone beat boxing behind them.

The hip hop opportunity has spread internationally. To research that, Fukushima has called on her international contacts – established when she was a Whitman junior in France, participating in a Humanity in Action program geared toward transatlantic dialogue about human rights. And they have already connected her with prominent names in some countries’ hip hop cultures.

For example, in Senegal, where there is censorship of journalism, hip hop has become a newspaper for the disenfranchised and an assistant to Ben Herson, founder and director of Nomadic Wax, an international record label, has agreed to help guide Fukushima to develop a hip hop network in Dakar. And in Morocco, a documentarian of hip hop there has agreed to introduce her to rappers there and to a prominent rapper MC Bigg who has expressed interest in producing music with Fukushima.

“Of all the major national fellowships and scholarships, the Watson recognizes imagination, independence, resourcefulness and courage,” said Keith Raether, Whitman’s director of fellowships, scholarships and grants. “If I were to try to define Aisha, those are the qualities I would cite.”

Raether said her project is “smart, vibrant and global in its reach” and that it “has every potential of effecting the same social change that it explores.”

Fukushima said she traveled a lot between Japan and Seattle until age 7 because her parents were international booking agents. But most of her childhood was spent in Bellevue, Wash., where her mom, then a single parent, raised her as she attended the International School, which has more of a private school curriculum that enabled her to do such things as study seven years of French.

She devoured books, checking out so many she and her mother sometimes couldn’t carry them all, and she would read them all and be back the next week for more. Her appreciation for music started when she got involved in after-school music activities, and her understanding of music’s power began when she saw how even a quiet, cordial family friend would “come alive” raising an arm to the sky during soulful singing in her grandparents’ church, a mainly African American Baptist church in Seattle she and her mother sometimes attended. People, impressed with her singing gift, would recommend she try out for the American Idol television show or pursue it as a career somehow. But Fukushima of African American and Japanese heritage, who had experienced forms of racism, had an even stronger interest.

“I think that my passion for social justice is just so strong – that’s where most of my intellectual growth is honing in on.”

She said her studies in rhetoric, learning how people argue and communicate about socioeconomic issues, is her focus.

“I have such a strong dedication to that (social change) … It takes precedence – bringing about social change,” she said.

Her organized efforts to do that started when Fukushima, president of the student association at her high school among other activities, established a program there when she realized just talking with fellow students about her concerns regarding discrimination wasn’t effective. “Unwilling to accept the status quo,” she started the successful “Turn Off the Stereotypes project” that offered free singing, dancing and acting workshops.

Those and other activities made her a strong candidate for Whitman College, which offered her the Sherwood Scholarship. She found “genuine, warm people” at Whitman and wanted the smaller college environment where she has found the benefits of smaller have gone beyond small class size and students not getting lost in the cracks to, to her amazement, some of her best friends being professors with PhD’s who take the time to have coffee and cookies with her, willing to chat about various subjects.

Fukushima designed Whitman’s Whitman Institute for Summer Enrichment (WISE) program, which introduces local middle school students to college life who have academic promise, but who come from low-income families or parents who don’t have a college education. Other commitments include involvement in student government and the American Civil Liberties Union and working on immigration issues as a member of Justice Beyond Borders. She is also a member of Whitman Direct Action, a student-run non-profit program that built a house for a destitute family; hosted two international biodiesel conferences and co-founding biodiesel cooperatives and resource centers with organizations throughout Honduras and Nicaragua in order to help marginalized communities grow and produce their own fuel; and published the Water Book for international marginalized communities with water problems, which is now a resource for nongovernmental organizations across India.

Also helping her may be her spontaneous nature, cultivated by her mother who upon hearing music in the streets would make her daughter start dancing along with her. Fukushima said she’ll do things on a whim like take off on her bike into a wheat field if she needs time away from school work or more recently, upon hearing there might be a chance to meet a hip hop scholar in Seattle, she packed a backpack, hopped into a car, not knowing how she was getting a ride back, and went to find him and discuss hip hop. Find him she did, and then some – Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and author who was named by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 most influential black Americans, will be giving a talk at Whitman College April 22.

Once again, she has made something happen.

“There are leaders, and there are innovators. Aisha is both – a leader through her innovation,” Keith Raether said.

“She also possesses a spirit that gives new meaning to “indomitable.’ ”