Funk. Art. Tech. Congo? Maybe not the most intuitive progression in American minds — you may instead jump to images of child soldiers and war crimes — but the makers of Congo Week/Congo Strong want to create a fuller impression of their homeland.
"Kony 2012 was good to bring attention to the situation and shed light on the problem of the warlords, but I didn't like that it was only a piece of the puzzle," says Eric Ndelo, founder of Congo Week Charlotte.
Backed by national nonprofit Friends of the Congo, which encourages Congo Week celebrations in dozens of countries around the world, CWxCS Charlotte is hosting eight days of music, dance, activism and information from Oct. 18-26, in order to promote the rejuvenating spirit of Congolese culture while gaining allies in the struggle to stabilize the central African nation.
Between Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina is home to the second-largest Congolese-American community in the United States. But Ndelo, who returned to Charlotte in 2008 after graduating college, was struck by the city's lack of engagement with the culture or knowledge of the crisis. He began the city's first Congo Week in 2010 with the mission to raise awareness of events in the Democratic Republic. For the last two years, the theme has been "Break the Silence," and the week-long events featured very heavy subject matter: rape as a weapon of war, exploitation by multi-national corporations, torture. This year, they are going in a different direction: Liberte.
"We wanted to show the beauty, power and strength side of the Congo," Ndelo says. "So we chose the name Congo Strong, and the theme Liberte [based off the OutKast song "Liberation"]. We're drawing the connections between Congo and the rest of the world, like how capoeira in Brazil originated in the Congo, and became breakdancing in the States. We're showing the beauty as opposed to the atrocities."
The week kicks off with Nappy Luv, a music festival at the Chop Shop in NoDa. The lineup of local and international performers includes Congolese superstar Pashta Bay, breakdancers Carolina Funk, rappers Quill and Rocky Spitz, chanteuse Ida Divine and the Garvey Collective, and graffiti-style artist John Hairston Jr., among others. Work by graphic artist Jimi Thompson, whose explosive mash-ups include Diddy Lincoln and Weezy Reagan, will also be on display.
Film screenings, information sessions, poetry and food are also on the week's agenda, as is an open call for hackers and tech-oriented people to meet up and discuss ways technology can be used to foster positive change in the Congo.
"I want to let everyone know how important the Congo is to everyone's life," Ndelo says, "from cultural influences to the technology we all use every day. Congo has the most mineral riches and is last, poorer than any nation. It's the heart of Africa, so its riches make sense, but the people are not benefitting at all."
The Congo holds 60 to 80 percent of the world's supply of coltan, a mineral used to manufacture most cellphones, flat-screen TVs, gaming systems and other electronic devices, yet is poorer than Haiti. In most cases, coltan is mined illegally by rebel militia and foreign forces, then sold to multi-national corporations. Its supply is one of the reasons the nation is continually disrupted by violence. New York blogger Tiffany Drummond, aka The Opinionated Diva, posited that technology consumers are complicit in the exploitation of Congo by turning a blind eye.
"Once you are aware of a social injustice, and you don't act, you become part of the problem and not the solution," Drummond writes. "Is it murder on our hands if we pick up a cellphone? Absolutely."
Ndelo stresses taking action, starting with signing a petition to enforce U.S. laws already on the books concerning ethical mineral trade. The Dear John Campaign will send a letter/postcard to Secretary of State John Kerry demanding that the U.S. hold its allies in the region accountable for destabilizing the DRC.
"Even though the Congo is thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, we have the power here to get our government to protect it," he says. "Your tax dollars are funding war, but we have the power to pressure the government to stop."
And if you have a little fun along the way? That's a victory for all involved.
(Congo Week/Congo Strong will take place Oct. 18-26 at various area venues. Admission costs vary. Nappy Luv | The Liberation Party will be at 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at The Chop Shop, 399 E. 35th St. Admission is $10-$20. Details at www.congostrong.com.)