“Hand me a microphone, man…I’ll change the world.” We’d been sitting at a street side café under the canopy of a huge umbrella on one of the multitudes of public squares in Wroclaw, Poland drinking beer and indulging in a bit of sidewalk philosophy – everything from parenting to politics. We’d met our friends, Nat and his wife Haley, in Germany where he was stationed with the U.S. Army, then travelled to Poland to see the sights. Our conversation that day had been quite the marathon – the kind of conversation that lasts for hours and when you’ve finished, you’ve solved all the problems of the world. Nat’s line has become famous in our household…first as an endearing tribute to Nat the character, now as a mantra of truth and possibility. Why the change? Very simply, we joined the Peace Corps, and moved away from a world of luxury – luxury not measured in material goods, but in the freedom to express ourselves with variety and volume.
We serve in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan; an ancient city of over 300,000 which houses five Universities and a host of international NGOs. You’d think, that in a city whose heart beats with youth and education, the town would be a hot bed of thought and activity. However, with a tradition of Soviet stoicism and a current economic climate inhospitable toward creative pastimes, the city’s youth have struggled to find positive outlets.
After a few months at site, I realized that the city’s youth aren’t without thought…aren’t without passion…aren’t without identify. They are simply without an outlet by which to convey them - and in the Spring of 2011, Ganja, My Microphone was born. It all began with a group of volunteers teaming up with the local NGOs and youth centers to mix interest with action and create a safe place for artistic self-expression. The event draws on the country’s rich history of poetry, music, and dance. Participants, most of them high school or University students, are given 5 minutes at the mic. Soon, an organic growth of both eastern and western artistry began to emerge – traditional dance, choreographed hip-hop, mugham, the poetry of Nizami Gencevi, the poetry of e.e. cummings, rap, beat box, traditional Azeri music, saz, tar, violin, piano…all merging and melding to create the new voice of the youth of Ganja.
The event is held monthly in an old Russian Orthodox church, now a state puppet theater, on the banks of the Ganja River. I can’t help but enter the building with a sense of reverence, not only for the building itself – the intricate inlaid wood floors and the solemn slope of the rafters - but for the history and the future of the building itself – for what it has witnessed. A house of worship that once swelled with the sounds of praise to an all-powerful creator now fills with the sounds of a generation of hope. This building breathes life itself.
I think of the voices that have changed the world – the words of humble men and women who had a chance to speak and an outlet with which to convey their voice to the masses, and I can’t help but scan the faces in the room searching for that voice. There’s no way to adequately express the sensation of watching a young man or a young woman walk slowly to the mic, head down, voice quavering…and to see that same person walk away changed – new and energized and full of both the realization of self and of community. As the one year anniversary of the event nears, with an average of 120 students in attendance each month, with 25-30 performers at each event, and with My Mic now spreading into neighboring regions, it is evident that as voices emerge and praise for expression abounds, hope itself grows.
“Hand me a microphone, man…I'll change the world.”