Hip hop hooray for two people

If there's something creative and exciting going on for young people in the Northern Rivers, there's a good chance Nadine and Zahra Smith have had a hand in organising it. The sisters are the driving force behind an organisation called the Creative People's Collective (CPC) and for the past five years they have been involved in running numerous events involving everything from dance and hip hop, to songwriting, music production, DJing, film, theatre and the visual arts.

The collective has grown out of their desire to foster more places and spaces to perform and express themselves. They have received funding through the Foundation for Young Australians for the past three years and have been successful in getting grants for projects from other sources as well.

“We grew up at Upper Coopers Creek and went to a really small primary school. It was a very creative environment... and then went I to high school in Lismore, it was a bit of a culture shock... Throughout high school and then studying at SCU, we were both into MCing and hip hop, but there wasn't really anywhere to go and do it with other young people. Occasionally there'd be battles, but it was guys just dissing each other and getting drunk... It wasn't really our scene, but we knew we wanted to keep doing it so we started coming up with ideas to create a whole thing here rather than moving to a city,” Zahra said.

“Yeah and to create opportunities to somehow work doing the stuff we love doing, and for other people to see that it's possible as well,” Nadine added.

But it wasn't only their desire to be up on stage and in the spotlight, they also saw that artistic expression was an important tool for young people to channel some of their pent up angst and emotions.

“I was always into writing poetry and after our dad passed away in 2002, she (Zahra) made me write a song with her,” Nadine said. “So we wrote a rap song and it was like a real catharsis, a good way of expressing and dealing with some of the stuff. That's where the idea for the workshops came from, wanting to share that tool with other people.”

“It's a process that people can try and achieve something, like going to counselling, but it's like you are doing it yourself. It's empowering and you have something at the end that you can choose to share or not,” Zahra added.

Both Nadine and Zahra have skills in dance, theatre, music and multimedia, but hip hop seems to be their real passion.

“It's something you can do without having to have the most amazing singing voice... I always wanted to be a singer or be musical and it (hip hop) just made this music scene seem accessible,” Nadine said. “Helping people find their voice to step up within their communities or their peer group, it's amazing ...You can share the art form so it's removed from being just about the issue. It becomes a way people can talk about an issue,” Zahra said.

The first event they ran as the CPC was the inaugural Crankfest in Casino in 2005. Nadine had completed Honours in Business and Tourism at SCU and was working for Richmond Valley Council running their visitor information centre and art gallery.

“Council was having these 150th celebrations for the town and doing things like train rides, but there was nothing that would appeal to young people. We just decided to put on this event,” she said.

They managed to get a budget of $2000 and called in all their mates to put on hip hop battles, games and workshops at the Casino pool. Crankfest was held in Evans Head this year and has grown to be one of the biggest Youth Week events in the region. There are plans to have a separate 'Crankfest Battlezone' competition in Casino on December 12 so Casino can continue to have its own event.

People with good ideas and the energy to pull them off often suffer from burn out when they are working countless unpaid hours, but Nadine and Zahra said one of the good things about the collective is that it brings in other people and empowers them to get involved. There is enough interest from other people to take over the running of Crankfest that they feel like they can move on to other things and know it will continue to flourish. They have also seen young people who have come to one of their workshops develop their skills to a point where they are now getting paid employment and running workshops themselves.

“That's part of what we are trying to do; to provide young people with the opportunity to share their creative skills and to step into positions where they can start working in that field. There is a lot going on in the community arts sector across Australia and there's no reason why young people from here can't be stepping out into that world…That pathway thing is really important because that's what's going to sustain it,” Nadine said.

In the past Nadine has been the one who did most of the funding applications and paperwork, but now Zahra and others are taking on some of that side of it too. Zahra has recently been successful in getting some funding through the Australia Council and Conservation Queensland to develop a show about combining the arts and the environment and involving the community.

They hope the show will build on all of the work they have been doing in recent years, but that it will move to a new level as a professional touring show.

The plan is to tour it around schools in the area first and then take it to Brisbane.

“That will be our main project for the next year…You could call it hip hop theatre and it also incorporates a new concept we've developed, which is hip hop debating,” Zahra said.

For the uninitiated, hip hop debating takes the form of a standard debate with three people on each side and a given statement or topic. But instead of speaking for an allocated time, there is a DJ in the middle who provides some beats, and the performers have to give a rap response to whatever the issue is.

“We developed it in response to MC battles where they are just dissing each other... It's really lame stuff like what you're wearing or how much you weigh or using pre-written rhymes they just pull out, which is obviously not free styling. I was thinking it could be really useful if you introduced the concept of debating,” Zahra said.

They did a debate/performance at the Powershift youth environment conference in Sydney earlier this year with a group of Alstonville High School students called the Eco-Ninjas

“We had all this dancing and singing incorporated into it... We want to keep developing that idea (the hip hop debate) so it becomes something like a competitive sport, but it is also a platform for people to get political without being boring,” Zahra said.

“We did a program at Casino TAFE and did a debate about bullying which they performed at that forum at Wollongbar,” Nadine said. “It works quite well as a tool to get people to talk about stuff, but it's also entertaining.”

“And you teach other skills like teamwork... and they have to research facts, so there's all these reasons why it works and we're trying to get it to a point where we can work it into the school curriculum….We also want to put it online so you can go to a website and record something and post it and the other team replies and then it goes for a certain amount of time and people vote... You could have school against school, then state against state,” Zahra said, getting excited.

“One of the kids in the Alstonville project said how it had changed their lives, just having a place where they could be themselves and express themselves,” Nadine said. “To hear things like that you realise how powerful it is.”

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