Adelaide rapper Gabriel Akon (aka DyspOra) spent the first seven years of his life in Kakuma Refugee Camp in north-western Kenya after his family fled war in South Sudan.
Now he and local folk singer Delia Obst are helping to kit out a just-opened recording studio in the camp. The pair is appealing for donations before Obst travels to Kenya with Adelaide-based NGO Barefoot to Boots (BTB).
“We have great supporters for larger projects in camps and host communities, but we hope support for the studio can be really community-based,” Obst says.
BTB has been working with the camp, which is home to more than 200,000 refugees, since 2014. Founded by professional footballer Awer Mabil (ex-Adelaide United player, currently at Paços de Ferreira in Portugal) and his brother Awer Bul, its initial mission was football-driven, but it’s evolved into much more.
The recording studio launched in Kakuma in March, aided by the Lutheran World Federation. It’s one of four NGOs – including the UN Refugee Agency, International Rescue Committee and the Kenya Red Cross – partnered with BTB on the ground.
BTB was already planning a stop at the camp in early June when Obst saw an article about the studio. She reached out to Akon, who grew up with Mabil, and who runs in similar music circles.
It’s a project very close to home. “I recorded myself for the first time in the camp, when I was six or seven, on a tape recorder,” he says. Though the studio’s benefit will go far beyond music making.
“For me there was no creative outlet [in the camp]. To be able to make their own music and distribute it within their own community … in places of desolation, like that, anything to keep your spirits up and give you hope is priceless. Everyone there’s on the same mission, and that’s to survive.
“These refugees are becoming more and more diverse as the world gets more and more fucked up,” says Akon. “It’ll bring people – who maybe aren’t from the same communities – together.”
Last year Akon won Best Male Artist at the South Australian Music Awards. “One of the things I said then was: ‘If I never got the chance to be here, I would never have know what could’ve been’. The butterfly effect is a beautiful thing: you spark change on one side of the world and there’s nothing to stop it turning into a storm on the other.”
There are plans to create a channel between the studio and Adelaide that would give people from the city access to music created with the donated equipment. It’s a two-way street. “We always think they need something from us,” Akon says. “Trust me, that’s not the case. They could go on surviving without a studio, without homes, like they’ve been doing for years … But as much as you give them they’re going to give back.”
The recording studio is taking shape, but there’s still a lot it needs to make it fully functional. The window for donations of equipment has now closed. For information on how to donate funds head to the BTB website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was updated on May 30, 2018.