Background Information on The awareNet Peace Song Collection 2011

Are you aware yet?

This blog provides more information to the music CD The awareNet Peace Song Collection 2011, which will be published soon.

The challenge – write a theme song for awareNet

Popular music culture is big amongst the youth worldwide – in Grahamstown East the Rap and Hip Hop music forms are particularly popular ways in which the youth express their hopes, joys, fears and frustrations of daily life. In July 2011, Anna Wertlen, with Corinne Cooper, Lunga Heleni and the local HipHop group Inyaniso, visited schools in Grahamstown East to present the VSA’s new awareNet project.

We put the idea out there that awareNet needed a theme song and invited five groups of learners to write the lyrics and develop the music in the studio. Corinne Cooper, who owns a music studio in Grahamstown, and Lunga Heleni, a professional recording artist, assisted with the project on an entirely voluntary basis. Their role was to help tap into the learner’s hidden talents and give them a good grounding in the skills required for writing, creating, performing and recording music. With a small window of eight weeks the challenge was on, and at the end of it they would perform in front of their peers and community at the awareNet Peace Day Celebrations in September 2011 in conjunction with PeaceOneDay.


The process – training the young musicians

The process was entirely voluntary with learners who had an interest in music committing themselves to the project. Every week we visited the five schools – Benjamin Mahlasela SS, Nombulelo SS, Mary Waters HS, Nathanial Nyaluza PSS and Victoria Girls HS – and helped the learners with their choice of words, rhyming and scansion, as well as educated them about the important difference between underground and commercial forms of rap, the former of which tends to be more subversive and the latter which is rap in its more popular form and which sells. They were also taught performance techniques for their debut on the music stage. They grand prize the young musicians were aiming for was to have their song recorded.

The broad aim of the project was to demonstrate not only how literacy skills are important for self-expression, but also how opinions and feelings can be shared through popular culture, performance, and later through a variety of social networking applications. At first meeting we discovered learners who knew little more about the process of transferring knowledge other than to be passive receivers of the information being shared with them. Slowly, over the two months there was a noticeable shift in attitude and they began to actively participate and gain the confidence to begin sharing their own ideas. And so the awareNet theme song project came to life. The learner’s confidence grew to such an extent that they began to start up their own things and at Nyaluza PSS, where the school system literally fails the children, the learners even started their own band and began writing their own lyrics.

Many of the learners who attend the awareNet social networking workshops have very little idea of what to do on a social network. An important focus of our workshops is to combine real-life issues experienced by these learners with their computer work in order to demonstrate how technology is of relevance in the real world and not just a skill to be acquired. This approach enhances their passion for the computer and its abilities and it begins to makes sense to them to know how to read and write, which is the basic skill underpinning the necessary tools for operating a computer.

Making music and social commentary

To start the process of writing the lyrics, the learners were given just a few ideas – such as awareness, peace and your life – and the songs that were inspired by each group were remarkably unique. The Mahlasela group portrayed their school and their lives in their community; Nombulelo wrote about the drug problem at their school; Mary Waters were visionaries and wrote about crime and war; the Nyaluza group used religion as their departure point; and the Victoria Girls group were about self-esteem in a world where social norms in terms of body image put a lot of pressure on the youth.

With the help of a young professional music artist, Gabriel Spilkin, to get the right backing for their lyrics, four out of the five school groups made their own melody while the fifth chose rap as their main musical medium. The end products were five startlingly relevant songs containing social commentary written by the learners that would convey a heartfelt message to their communities at the Peace Day celebrations.

The awareNet workshops are all about computer skills, reading and writing, and most importantly community outreach – and this was a project that spoke directly to our aim to inspire social change by encouraging communities to think about education differently. The five groups of learners had directly experienced how education can occur outside of the school too; and we had realised our aim to encourage the learners to take ownership of their own education, believe in their ability to lead their peers, and to help us create a system of champions of change in their communities.

At the awareNet Peace Day celebrations in September the crowd’s response made it clear that the Mary Water’s group of three rap artists took the prize for the music video. However, we felt that all five groups had grown in so many ways, not least in stature as leaders amongst their peers. Generous sponsorship from Makana Municipality for the hiring of the venue, music equipment, transport and recording has allowed us to record all five songs for this CD.

And, to fittingly crown the success of the awareNet theme song project, we are pleased to announce that the ECSPIRT Project made it into the second round at the 2012 Impumelelo Social Innovations Awards – watch this space to see our progress into the final rounds.

More about awareNet

awareNet allows the creation of student communities in a safe, rich environment that spans the digital divide. This is free, open source software that has the potential to bring learners all over the world together in a collaborative learning experience, thereby expanding young people’s worlds beyond the confines of their local communities. .

A unique feature of awareNet is that it allows the creation of a single social network that brings the network to its users, instead of expecting them to come to the full Internet, which is too expensive for the majority of the many potential users in Africa. awareNet can be hosted locally within a mesh, allowing a large number of servers worldwide, all of which may only have intermittent access to each other. This allows participants to use rich technologies (multimedia) in collaborative projects with other learners anywhere in the Internet. Responses may be delayed, but they are at least enabled.

Learners on a mesh network or a LAN can make use of the broadband Internet to produce strong local content (including videos, their own music, and picture galleries) and share it overnight with learners in the rest of the world.

awareNet is being developed further in close cooperation with the learners to adapt its functionality precisely to their needs while they learn basic computer skills. This method particularly motivates the learners to cooperate in a focused manner, because changes are visible immediately. New insights into the perceptions of young African users may make awareNet a highly popular tool, helping bring Africa onto the Internet and making generations of young Africans more aware of our global community.

We believe that we can make this system work through the funding we receive to employ mediators from the community who are already thinking about education differently. NGOs such as Masifunde Learner Development and IkamvaYouth already have their local champions who are willing to share their knowledge. We aim to encourage such NGOs to use awareNet to learn how to use social networking to share tools such as educational videos for learners and lesson plans for teachers.

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