Words Beats and Life is an arts education non-profit located in Washington DC which advocates for the transformative power of hip-hop culture in all its forms. As they celebrate their 20-year anniversary this January, founding executive director Mazi Mutafa looks back at the impact they’ve had on their community in the past year.

Fari Sow: How are you doing? How are things with Words Beats and life?

Mazi Mutafa: Pretty good, actually. I would say the best year ever. We’re about to turn 20 in January, and we’re delivering programming at a scale we never have before, so more staff and students and preparing to start doing some brand-new events and to bring some old events back. New funders, new clients, all great.

Fari Sow: Amazing, so as a start could you please describe the organization’s mission and how you work?

Mazi Mutafa: Yes, Words Beats and Life is hip-hop non-profit dedicated to transforming individual lives and whole communities through all the elements of hip-hop. And the way that shows up is in five priorities: Arts Education, Creative Employment, Cultural Diplomacy, Centering Marginalized Voices, and For the Culture.

Arts education is the work we do with young people, teaching hands-on classes and things like DJing, graffiti, street art, etc. But we do that also now for young adults. Creative employment is literally the process of us hiring college students, but also working artists and helping them get jobs with other organizations through things like the creative economy, career fairs. The culture diplomacy work is the work we do when we send artists abroad and bring artists from abroad to the US, mostly to do performances, sometimes to teach. Extending marginalized voices is lifting up different contributors to hip-hop that aren’t necessarily in mainstream media. We did a three-year initiative called “From Sifers to Cyphers: Hip Hop is Muslim”, talking about Muslim contributions to hip-hop, and we’re preparing to do something focused on First Nation communities here in the United States. And then, the last thing is For the Culture, which is just the events that we do that are more traditional hip hop. Like dance battles and paint battles and festivals and all that good stuff that are really designed just to bring members of the hip hop community together.

Fari Sow: Who would you say is your primary target?

Mazi Mutafa: Each of these priorities has a different target. We get asked this question often when it comes to marketing, but the answer is less about primary and more about most consistent. The most consistent target is young people because that’s the programming we do every day of the week and by young people, I mean people 12 to 22 years old. But things like the creative employment work we do is for people 18 to 35, people who want to have creative jobs early enough in their career and are still trying to figure out what they want to do. The marginalized voices work we do is more around ethnic identity groups, ethnic or religious identity groups and it’s not about age, but really just about how they self-identify. For the culture work, it’s whole families so people who are 5to 65 because it’s things like festivals at the Kennedy Center or paint jams out in the community or dance battles and the age range of the people that come is really parents to children. And then the cultural diplomacy work is usually children. Children in the countries that we go to. So that same age group is that 12 to 22 or children here in the US when we bring people from abroad. A lot of kids, but we think about our work as serving whole families, not just one group.

Fari Sow: So what is unique about your program?

Mazi Mutafa: I think the fact that most groups have a very narrow target, whether it is around age or ethnicity and that the work that we do speaks to and engages the whole human family as represented in the United States is fairly unique. And in the 14 countries we worked in up to this point abroad, I also think that what makes us unique is even though the youth work we do is the most consistent, it’s not isolated in the sense that it’s not just work in classrooms, that our students come and compete in those paint jams and those dance battles and present in those festivals. There’s a real sense of importance to the idea of mastering their skills because they’re actually going to have to demonstrate those to the larger community. Whereas I feel like a lot of youth-serving organizations, it’s really just about what happened in the classroom, not how it actually impacts the larger community.

“Extending marginalized voices is lifting up different contributors to hip-hop that aren’t necessarily in mainstream media.”

Courtesy of Words, Beats and Life Inc.

Fari Sow: So would you say it’s the fact that you can reach all of these demographics and be versatile to adapt to their different needs?

Mazi Mutafa: Yes, but it’s also that, you know, when I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily think about what happened in my classroom as being something that’s going to get presented to the larger community. The closest would be maybe a recital where my parents would come versus this idea that you master or develop a skill, and then we’re going to present you to the whole community. Strangers are going to come up and tell you how great your work is or how inspiring it is, not just the parents of people in your class. And I think that really matters, that our students see the real-world impact of the things that they are learning to do and getting better at and that there’s a community of people out there who support their continued development from an esteemed point of view, but also from motivation like this, this isn’t just important to me or just important to my family, but it’s actually important to this larger community.

Fari Sow: Speaking of community, if you could describe the community you operate in, even though you reach all of those different demographics, all of those different groups, do you think there is a unifying factor?

Mazi Mutafa: Yeah, I mean, I think ultimately the communities we serve are urban. We don’t do a ton of work in rural communities or in suburban communities. Almost all the work we do around the world is always in cities. I think that the community we serve is a city-based community.

Fari Sow: About the Creative Tools for Social Change program, would you say that it met your expectations?

Mazi Mutafa: I would say it exceeded our expectations because when we asked for particular materials, to be transparent, I didn’t quite understand what the packets were going to be. When we asked for, let’s say, 800. We received packets that had either six or seven journals per packet, which means that we received way more journals we were expecting. And so that allowed us to do more, like when we worked in a school during a writing workshop to actually make extra journals available to the larger school. The English language arts instructors, the people teaching English or writing loved it. We even were able to give some to teachers at schools that we weren’t at so that we could actually make the tools available because in the United States, a lot of times teachers actually spend their own money, for students as opposed to the school paying for it. So, we actually gave some away to schools as a kind of investment in the classes of those teachers.

Fari Sow: That’s great, that’s such an important resource to share for schools, especially in the United States. Are there any changes that maybe you would like to see in a program in any way?

Mazi Mutafa: I wouldn’t advocate for any changes just because the program already exceeded our expectations.

Fari Sow: Happy to hear that. In more general terms, how would you say you use creativity to foster social change in your community?

Mazi Mutafa: Ultimately, we exist to awaken the artists within, the creative within, the writer within and help young people to understand the connection between the things that they’re learning in schools and their ability to use those things to transform themselves and then to transform the communities that they are part of. And so fundamentally, social change begins with personal change, you have to first be prepared to develop yourself before you try to develop anything else. And I think that even the act of writing as a kind of solitary act can be seen as a community act. The things that you write can then be shared, the things that you write can then inspire. And so, having young poets and young MCs understand that the idea of developing their skills again isn’t just for themselves, it is for a larger community that wants to see them succeed and wants to hear their voices, want to know what kind of world they want to work towards. And I feel like that just the act of being able to give them the tools to be able to do and share that is powerful.

Fari Sow: It’s about giving tools for personal development to then be able to share all that creativity.

Mazi Mutafa: Exactly

Fari Sow: How exactly did you integrate those new tools in your existing initiatives, or how did you create new ones?

Mazi Mutafa: Because we got them for the summer, we actually instituted a journaling program where all of the students that we worked with had to do some creative writing, regardless of what class they were taking in. The creative writing could be story-based, could be poem-based. It could just be reflecting on what’s happened during the week. We actually just released the literary magazine that came out of that, but that was something we hadn’t done before. It was also part of a book club, so people use the journals to write about the books that they were reading, which is also something new that we incorporated this summer. These acts of reading and writing and reflection were the primary ways that we use the tools and now publishing the reflections of those students. The plan is to send a literary magazine to all of the school principals for all the schools that those students came from so that they also see and read the impact that these particular books in this process had on their students.

“Ultimately, we exist to awaken the artists within, the creative within, the writer within and help young people to understand the connection between the things that they’re learning in schools and their ability to use those things to transform themselves and then to transform the communities that they are part of.”

Fari Sow: And are you thinking about new initiatives that can be developed with those tools on top of the existing ones?

Mazi Mutafa: Well, because the things we developed were actually all-new, it’s really just a matter of continuing and expanding those things. One of the things that have happened I talked about growth is we’re about to go into three new schools this year. And so, the primary thing we’re going to be doing in those schools will include poetry. There’ll be just more young people writing. Currently, we’re in two schools, one with 18 students doing an arts management curriculum we have called Like a Boss. And then in the other school where we’re actually using the journals, we have 90 students who are in deejaying classes and graffiti classes where they have to write about the things that they’re learning and reflections, etc. So, I don’t know that it’s so much about something new as much as it is about expanding to reach more young people.

Fari Sow: You’re focusing on continuation, you’re just expanding your reach.

Mazi Mutafa: I would say so.

Fari Sow: Are there similar cultural offers to similar services, similar programs that your beneficiaries could choose from?

Mazi Mutafa: So, the answer is probably yes. I don’t consider them to be similar like we’re the only hip-hop organization in Washington DC that does all of the elements. There is, for example, a dance collective or two, and they’re mostly focused on adults rather than youth. Historically, there was another graffiti-based organization, but much like one of the things that’s happened over the last 20 years is there have been other organizations that do similar pieces of what we do, but most of them have closed because they were generally led by artists who really just wanted to be artists who didn’t necessarily want to build organizations. But there are other opportunities in DC that young people could take on. I just don’t think they’re like us there. So, there are other arts organizations, but not necessarily hip hop. There are other writing organizations like there’s a poetry organization called Split This Rock and they have a youth poetry component. They normally organize a festival of poetry for adults. So, I think in that way, we’re uniquely situated, but there are other arts offerings, just not like us.

Courtesy of Words Beats & Life Inc.

“A big part of our effort is to be the kind of educational experience that students actually benefit from and then become advocates for.”

Fari Sow: And you’re uniquely situated because of your reach?

Mazi Mutafa: I’d say it’s about to reach, but it’s also about the curriculum. It’s about how old we are as an organization. So being here for 20 years, doing work with young people and communities and schools, now we’re getting ready to have a partnership with the DC jails to go in to do a comic book workshop with incarcerated adults. So it is that working with youth and adults, it is the curriculum. It is a fact that we offer 20 different classes versus most of our peers probably offering two to three classes. So, it’s about the scale. It’s about history. It’s about the depth. We’re now in a place where we’re doing intermediate-level classes for things that people are interested in. We’re in the final stages of building a recording studio in our office, and that’s going to allow for us to do more podcasting, more recording in a professional setting where nobody else really has that other than the DC Public Library. They have a recording space. It’s open to the general public, but they also don’t have staff to operate it like you have to know what you’re doing to use the equipment versus we have engineers and staff to come and teach you how to write, perform, etc.

Fari Sow: With the way you’re expanding your programs to structures like jails, maybe schools in underserved communities, would you say, in your opinion, that creativity can change the world?

Mazi Mutafa: I know it already is. I know it is because I witness it every day and it’s not just an opinion, it’s the young people who themselves will tell us the difference. I probably should share with you the one of things we did. We do an end-of-session performance where students showcase their work so I could share the one from the summer where there’s this one young lady who talks about the book club and the poetry. She was like, you know, before Words Beats and Life, I hated poetry, and now who would have thought? I love poetry. I love reading poetry. I love writing poetry. I love performing poetry because you are open me up to something I never really saw as relevant to my life. And I was like, that’s probably because she was reading in school or like really old dead white dudes who have contributed to the canon, but they don’t necessarily see them as relevant to their lives.

Fari Sow: It’s really about opening opportunities finally for everyone and yes, changing lives. At the Moleskine Foundation, we have this belief of creativity for social change. Any thoughts on that?

Mazi Mutafa: Yeah, I mean, I think that for me, social change begins with personal change, so that’s why we talk about transforming individual lives, whole communities. Now, that young lady is a freshman in college and she’s active on her campus life, this idea of becoming an advocate for kind of educational experiences like she had with us becomes more relevant. Many of the students who have worked with us were part of this initiative, called the Summer Youth Employment Program, which basically gets them a job through the D.C. government to work at an agency. And they talked about the real difference that being a part of our program had on the way they thought about what that program should be. And then, they become advocates for changes in that program. That’s a government program. So, I think a big part of our effort is to be the kind of educational experience that students actually benefit from and then become advocates for.

Fari Sow: Any final thoughts on the program, the foundation, anything you want to share?

Mazi Mutafa: I mean, I think the major thing is just the real value of not just the tool, but the name. To be transparent, I wasn’t necessarily familiar with Moleskine before the partnership, but when I told anybody in the organization, they were like “Wait, from who?” They knew and they were excited, not just about the tool, but about the idea of a partnership with the foundation. I think that the reputation of the company and the efforts of the foundation are valued tremendously by a lot of people. I think that should just be known, that kind of brand integrity and reputation for quality and knowing where that support comes from for those people.