On a recent trip to Pakistan, rapper Mahogany Jones remembers, tears streamed down her face as she listened to a powerful song in Urdu.
Jones, 38, doesn’t speak that language, but she felt the music. When she asked the band about the song, they told her it was about mourning a lost love.
“I didn’t understand the lyrics in the song, but so much of what they do is with so much feeling and emphasis,” Jones said. “It evoked the appropriate response.”
Jones visited Pakistan and Madagascar last fall as part of the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program, which aims to connect cultures through the power of music.
In both countries, Jones held concerts and ran workshops, linking local musicians to hip-hop and merging their music with it.
To Jones, hip-hop is the culture of the underdog. It was created in the 1970s by blacks and Hispanics living in the impoverished South Bronx section of New York City.
“It’s the voice of people pushed to the edge, and I think if anyone is marginalized over and over again, it’s women of color,” said Jones, who was raised in a New York suburb. She now lives in Detroit, where she is active with local schools and nonprofits that use music, poetry and the arts to teach life skills to young people.
Growing up, she saw domestic violence firsthand, a story she shared on a local radio station in Madagascar. After the show, a male staffer approached her and lauded her for her courage, saying he had grown up in similar circumstances. She said it was one of her most emotional conversations of the trip.
While in Pakistan, local musicians showed Jones how they play their instruments, including a guitar called the rubab and several types of drums. In one workshop, Sufi Muslims taught her the songs they use in worship.
During a workshop in Pakistan on gender-based violence, she performed her song “Hail to the Queen,” which urges men to respect women for being women.
One of Jones’s most poignant moments came in Islamabad, after she learned Junaid Jamsheed, a famous musician and theologian there, had been killed in a plane crash. Jones and her band linked up with young Pakistani musicians and performed a tribute to him with a fusion of “Dil Dil Pakistan,” the country’s unofficial national anthem.
“Music is such a universal language because it’s a language of love” that opens doors, Jones said. “I’m here to learn from you as well.”
This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.