film production + social action

Humanitarian Hip Hop

By Evan Pheiffer

I recently sat down with Dan Cwirka near NYU to discuss the origins and development of Humanitarian Notes, an NGO that promotes AIDS awareness in Namibia, Liberia and Ghana – through the distribution of socially conscious hip-hop. A novel idea, indeed!

Dan was already well into his second year of service with the Peace Corps when he had his Saul-to-Damascus moment on a rural bus in the Namibian outback. Perturbed, if not downright disgruntled, by the prospect of another eight hour-ride to the tune of blaring dunces, he was struck by a simple realization. He realized that bus drivers enjoyed a complete monopoly on their audiences’ attention – particularly that of the youth. Adolescents devour all that flows from the lips and pens of their favorite artists. Why not capitalize on this by combining good music with a relevant and powerful message?

Dan contacted his friend Clive who owned a major record shop in Windhoek, the nation’s capital, and who already had a foot in the door to much of the city’s musical scene. After several months of meeting artists and managers, Dan and a fellow Peace Corps member, Amy, had succeeded in building a reasonable base: roughly 12-14 contributing artists per album per country, with each artist agreeing to write one new song for Humanitarian Notes’ album. Incidentally, their launch coincided with both World AIDS Day and the Namibian Music Awards – the latter of which donated both TV and radio plugs for them to promote their innovative approach to music and social consciousness. Upon leaving, they left 1,000 CDs not only with radio stations, cabbies and bus-drivers, but also those most at risk of AIDS, such as long-distance truck drivers. After a successful run in Namibia, they expanded to Liberia the following year.

The three albums sponsored by Humanitarian Notes include tracks in Oshiwambo, Demara/Nama and Afrikaans (Namibia), Kpelle and Dan (Liberia); Hausa, a West African hybrid lingua franca, Ewe, Akon and Ga (Ghana), as well as English (all three). From the embryo of AIDS prevention, these collaborative artists have addressed all manners of social issues, from women’s empowerment and continuing education to monogamy and abstinence amongst the youth.

On December 6th Dan held his fifth anniversary party at Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. As for further projects, Dan has Durban, South Africa on his mind…

Music, even with a message, is fine and dandy – but what about Humanitarian Notes merits special attention? For one, it substantiates the notion of a vibrant, transnational civil society that bypasses borders and bureaucrats alike in bringing people and developmental solutions together. Sent by the American government to combat the spread of AIDS, these former Peace Corps workers found their efforts unrequited and ineffectual. Once inspired to take an alternate path, however, Dan and Amy began to make considerably better inroads in getting their initial message (awareness and prevention) to a much larger – and more understanding – audience. While the extent to which Humanitarian Notes’ collaborative CDs have made an impact on preventing the spread of AIDS cannot be measured, it is clear that Dan’s efforts have gotten people talking. And singing.

And that is a start that is hard to argue with.

Listen to music from Humanitarian Notes here.


A native of Saint Louis, Missouri, Evan has studied in Washington, New York, London and Paris, worked in Buenos Aires and Calcutta and lived in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Latin American, the Indian Continent and the Middle East. A historian by trade, he hopes to write, travel, talk and take pictures for a living.