Carol O’Connor has just released the 4th issue of “Telling Our Own Stories”. When I met with her at Annie Mae’s restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi where she was visiting to promote the booklet, I had a chance to read some of it . After finding out how passionate Carol was about “Telling Our Own Stories”, I was really moved to interview her and do my part to spread the word about how she is using hip-hop as a teaching tool as well as a form of expression to give a voice to young people all around the world.
Q: First off, can you let our readers know a little bit about Carol O’Connor and what inspired your new project, the booklet “Telling Our Own Stories”?
A: I’m the founder and president of the Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation, a nonprofit we formed to utilize elements of hip hop culture directly in education. We’ve hosted international concerts and conferences in Jackson, on the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona, in Ghana and Ethiopia. In addition to our work with live performances, we’ve brought rap and graffiti artists into schools to interact directly with students and share their knowledge and experiences. Our other major focus is on “Telling Our Own Stories”, which are full-color booklets of young people’s writing and art that we distribute free of charge. We just published the 4th issue and I think it’s our best one to date.
Q: Where are some the young artists featured in the newest issue “Telling Our Own Stories” from?
A: This issue features writers and artists from the Apache and Navajo reservations in Arizona, the Globe-Miami area in Arizona, from Mississippi, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia – including the tribal areas in the south. And we’re working to expand the next issue.
Q: That’s a very diverse list of places. Are there any common themes that resonate throughout all the works featured?
A: Yes, the universal human themes of challenges and sorrows, but with lots of humor and joy too. One of the benefits of Telling Our Own Stories is that it gives students and other young people the opportunity to express themselves and be recognized for who they really are.
Q: How is Hip-Hop utilized as a form of expression in “Telling Our Own Stories”?
A: Hip hop culture – especially rap – is a medium for individual expression. In Telling Our Own Stories many of the writings are rap lyrics and many of the other writers reference hip hop explicitly in their poems and narratives. Graffiti is of course one of the elements of hip hop and the majority of art in the booklet is graffiti or street art. And one of the writers from Uganda described the b-boy dance project they do with urban youth, so we have several elements directly included. In this issue for the first time we have included a banner at the top of each page to indicate the writer/artist’s nationality or location, thereby aiding them in representing for their home place.
Q: Can you share with our readers any particular artist’s story that really stayed with you from any of the issues?
A: From the four issues there are many stories that stay in my mind. In the second issue, a Hamer student – Wengla Wancho – wrote about how he had been living alone and supporting himself since the age of 8 so he could have the opportunity to get his education. He said that even when he had no food he always went to school because as he said, “I know if I have education, I can have all things.” He writes and performs in his own language, but also in English which is his third language. Another powerful piece is rap lyrics by Apache high school student Byron Preston who wrote about the difficulties he faced growing up in his community – violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and poverty – which resulted in a sense of hopelessness so profound that he tried to kill himself. Fortunately, he was found just in time and rushed to a hospital. Later, he realized that his life had meaning since he could help others facing similar circumstances. He concluded by saying, “Hip hop saves our lives.”
Q : Wow…that’s deep. 8Ball of 8Ball and MJG wrote the foreword. How did he become a part of the project ?
A: I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with 8Ball several times, and then last November I had a chance to talk with him about the booklets and gave him a copy of the 2015 issue. He noticed that Boosie had written the introduction to that issue, and when I asked him if he’d write the intro for this next one, he agreed. C-Murder wrote the introduction for the first issue, and Ethiopian rapper Teddy Yo wrote for the second one. Those first two issues were published in Ethiopia while I was living there, but now we get them printed in Arizona.
Q: Also the cover is very unique. Can you tell me a little about it ?
A: The cover art is indeed unique! It’s wildstyle graffiti art and reads, Create. It was done by Apache graffiti artist Robert Wilson, who also did the graphic design for the booklet. He also did the cover and some of the interior art for the previous issue. He will be doing live graffiti at the King of the Slab Car and Bike Show in Dallas in August.
Q: How can people who are interested in getting the newest booklet do so?
A: They can contact me through Facebook , email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (601) 940-4197 and I’ll mail them a copy. Or whenever I’m in Jackson, I’ll be happy to meet up with them and give them one. Also, I’m going to leave copies at OffBeat in Midtown, so they can pick one up there.
Q: Well, it’s been a great honor to be able to interview you. I have to say I’ve learned a lot reading your work and I think people will learn a lot and be touched by the newest issue.
A: Thanks so much for helping our young artists and writers get the acknowledgment they so richly deserve!
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