Truth be told, songwriter/producer/rapper Novel didn't know much about the crisis in Darfur, or the film Darfur Now, when he signed on to perform at the Darfur Now College Tour coming to Emory University April 25.
"I knew [the film] had a bunch of actors and Don Cheadle and George Clooney were doing something ..." he trails off. "I'm just now educating myself on the Darfur situation," he admits. "Once I started hearing about the genocide, that's really all the education I needed. I just wanted to see what I could to do to help."
Novel's awareness, or initial lack thereof, about the humanitarian crisis mirrors that of the average American. While most people are at least vaguely aware of the genocide, they aren't educated about it.
That's where the anti-genocide student organization Students Taking Action Now: Darfur and Participant Media's Darfur Now College Tour come in. The 10-school event was created in conjunction with the 2007 documentary Darfur Now, which explored the conflict in Sudan through the eyes of six individuals: actor and activist Don Cheadle, female Darfurian rebel fighter Hejewa Adam, U.N. humanitarian Pablo Recalde, humanitarian worker Ahmed Mahmoud Abakar, chief prosecutor at the Hague's International Criminal Court Luis Moreno-Ocampo and UCLA graduate student Adam Sterling.
The tour features a rotation of musical acts, including Goapele, Wale, the Cool Kids, Zion 1 and others. Atlanta's lineup includes DJ Drama, Anthony David, Janelle Monáe and Novel. Both Sterling and Cheadle are also slated to appear.
"We hope to raise awareness about the situation for the Atlanta community in general," says Emory student Danielle Smith. Smith is co-president of Paperclips for Peace in Sudan, the student organization that did the legwork for the Atlanta event. "Nothing pertaining to Africa gets a lot of media attention and the situation in Darfur is still dire."
To date, the crisis has displaced more than 2 million people and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The International Rescue Committee estimates that there are roughly 600 Sudanese refugees living in Atlanta, though none are from the Darfur region.
"I think that's the tendency of any Westernized nation, to kind of go, 'Oh, poor Africa,' and no one knows what's going on," Smith says. "It gets oversimplified, but it's a very complex humanitarian disaster."
She admits organizers are banking on the entertainers to spark the community's interest, particularly since the performers are local.
"We're hoping that [the music] will be a big draw," she says, adding that Paperclips for Peace will be hosting an in-depth conference on the genocide at Emory the day after the screening. "It's unfortunate that people don't just want to come listen to academics give lectures, but for the population at large that's not the most exciting thing."
While slapping together a quick "We Are the World" fix on humanitarian crises has been the tendency of Americans in particular, Novel insists that one shouldn't discount the power of music and its healing ability.
"Music changes a lot; it reaches people, touches people," he says. "When you do have other actors and artists that people look up to involved [in events such as the Darfur Now tour] it seems that it opens people's eyes."
Novel, whose upcoming debut, The Audiobiography, is due out on Rowdy/Capitol Records this October, touches on everything from police brutality to domestic violence in his music. So while the concept of using entertainment to interest people in a situation that's so serious may seem a little trite, he refuses to be cynical about its impact.
"Whenever you're helping people, there's nothing corny about that," he says. "It never gets corny or old."
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