The Oakland hip-hop orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) has made a name for itself through a rigorous yet inventive attention to process. There are the processes of Western classical music, which inform the structure and function of melody; of disruption, fundamental to hip-hop from its inception; and what founder and composer JooWan Kim refers to as "method sampling," or borrowing ideas and rationales from different disciplines to create something new.
All this makes EMN an incredibly dynamic ensemble to experience live and draws like-minded people into their orbit. One especially unique and synchronous opportunity came about for the group earlier this year: writing a theme song for Global People’s Summit, which takes place on Sept. 22 in parallel with the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City. Its bold topic this year is “Reimagine Humanity.”
The song, with its staccato rhymes and sweeping instrumental sections, anchors around the the theme of the death of an "old persona," decisively calling for a new future free of oppression. At its pinnacle, the music abruptly blasts open, and the lion marches in through the melody underscoring the call to action: “Rise up! Keep your passion, be in action.” As the song wanes, a flute floats above the orchestra, hopefully, like a bird after the flood. “Fear screams build walls / Love says build a bridge.”
“The world is changing in a way that old ideas and old systems do not work anymore,” says Kim. “We have to create new culture, new systems, new ways of thinking, new ways of living.”
The Global People’s Summit brings together heads of state and global change-makers to tackle some of humanity’s most pressing issues. The 2018 summit seeks to reframe the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, reimagine the role of music and culture in civic engagement, redefine the narrative on refugees and much more. Remarkably, the free event takes place entirely online and integrates participation from civilians around the globe. In 2017, the summit reached 84 million people from over 160 countries.
The bridge between the Global People's Summit and Ensemble Mik Nawooj came late last year when Global People's Summit advisor Jenni Choi met Kim after EMN’s TEDxOakland performance. (Choi has since become an advisor for EMN, which is a nonprofit entity, as well.) Seeing the parallels in vision, she introduced Kim to Global People's Summit founder and CEO Hazami Barmada.
“The language of music transcends cultures, languages and geographic divides,” says Barmada. “Our collaboration with EMN to produce an uplifting and inspirational song for the Global People’s Summit aims to harness the power of our humanity and unite us around a message for a better tomorrow.”
Though she didn’t speak to the genre explicitly, one only has to look at the astronomical rise of hip-hop’s global popularity to see the relevance of Barmada’s musical choice. As Kim and the ensemble’s two resident MCs, Sandman and Do D.A.T., explain, the thing about hip-hop is that the process of reimagining is at the core of its DNA. Through reimagining the sounds of past decades through sampling, it eventually emerged as a language, culture and style of its own. As with hip-hop, so the world?
Kim, classically trained in composition at Berklee College of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, considers himself a “serious composer.” But he experienced a hip-hop conversion in 2010, which fundamentally challenged his dedication to the Western classical aesthetic.
“I found NWA, in particular the track ‘F-ck the Police,’” he says. “At that time, I was dipped into the River Hip-Hop and reborn a hip-hop composer.”
At its foundation, “Reimagine Humanity” is a deconstruction of “Introduction et marche royale du lion” from French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des animaux. The orchestration was recorded earlier this year with a 68-piece symphony orchestra and a 20-piece choir, in collaboration with Jason Michael Paul Entertainment and Nichi Bay Productions as a commission for National Geographic’s concert series, Symphony for Our World.
Kim, with Nat Geo’s blessing, brought the composition to Sandman and Do D.A.T when the Global People's Summit opportunity came about. “I come up with the theme and general pathos of the piece, but it is almost entirely up to [the MCs] to interpret what that means," says Kim. "Naturally, they talk about what matters to them and I generally accept it because they're great artists with great ability to execute their ideas into rhymes."
Where to begin in writing lyrics for a song that will be heard by a hundred million people around the world or more? “I’m an idealist so…these are things that I think and write about all the time,” Do D.A.T. shares with a smile.
The piece starts off dark, swelling with emotion as the MCs deliver rapidfire syllables. “I wanted to express to whomever,” Sandman says, “that I understand what it is to live in a desperate, addicted, violent, narcissistic, nihilistic and predator-ridden environment, wanting to flee with nowhere to go. Though I don't know what it's like to have drones drop bombs on my block or to have chemical weapons deployed in my neighborhood, I understand what it feels like to be under constant threat while personally having no enemies.”
With its work over the last year, EMN joins an elite crew of Oakland artists—Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Fantastic Negrito and others—who are changing national and global cultural conversations with their work. Yet whether their song will become a new anthem for the international movement towards a more sustainable future is not on Kim or Sandman’s minds.
“It is unrealistic to think I can address the needs and pains of all who will hear a song I've written,” Sandman says. “I recognize my connection to humans as a citizen of the world. I seek to resolve, accentuate and sometimes indulge, and as I express this, I find partners in action.”
For his part, Do D.A.T. expresses gratitude and a vision for the work ahead. “It is a honor to have written music for the Global People’s Summit,” he says. “I hope that more hip-hoppers will be invited to spaces such as these, because of the nature of what we do I think we are the best innovators on the planet, and we need innovators to be involved with solving old problems.”
Correction: This article incorrectly stated that the Global People's Summit is part of the United Nations' General Assembly when it in fact is organized by the The Humanity Lab Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations Office of Partnerships.