Feb 11, 2009 at 12:00 am
K'naan storms the stage, beating a conga drum as though he's trying to raise the dead. Sporting a plain gray three-button sweater and a brown fedora that hides his eyes from the audience, he fires lyrics at the crowd through a microphone that seems about ready to tip over. Although most of those in attendance didn't know who he was before, the 300 or so students and visitors inside the University of Michigan's Michigan Union hall cram the front to watch this Somalia-born emcee, whose performance serves as an intersection between Damian Marley and Wyclef.

During the Hip-Hop Congress' annual Midwest summit, which took place in Ann Arbor the weekend of Feb. 7-8, K'naan was one of the biggest artists the organizers were able to book. "This is the first time I've ever played in Michigan," said the emcee shortly after his performance. "This whole experience for me has been communal, and it's a beautiful thing to feel that way once in a while." K'naan's attention was then drawn away from the reporter by new fans and friends who touched and talked to the emcee. After all, his soulful, political and passionate 30-minute set stirred up a room that was already bustling with energy

This year's Midwest hip-hop summit was the fifth such convention — although only the second for Michigan — spearheaded by Hip-Hop Congress member Amer Ahmed, who's also an associate director of multi-cultural affairs at U-M.

"I feel like we stepped up our game this time," says Ahmed, speaking from his U-M office. "We really had a great mixture of local and national artists,"

In addition to K'naaan, this year's summit featured performances from Little Brother, OneBelo, Alex Schein, Fifth Element Warriors, MT cover superstar Invincible, the ReMINDers, F.E.W. and DLabrie & Shamako.

In a nutshell, the Hip-Hop Congress is a 12-year-old, California-based nonprofit organization that uses college campuses to push hip-hop's political and social agendas.

"The goal of the summit and Hip-Hop Congress is to have a commitment to social justice so we as members of the hip-hop community are focused on engaging in education and other important issues that can empower us," explains Ahmed.

As volunteers sporting Hip-Hop Congress T-shirts continuously ask Ahmed for direction and orders, he exudes an exhausted look of accomplishment. "I feel like we've really built up our rep this year. People were really anticipating the event."

As if on cue, one such person — Jamie Wilder, a student at Indiana State University — speaks up: "We actually drove from Indiana to come here and it's been awesome."

Aside from outstanding performances, the second day of the summit included workshops on gender identity, education, activism, graffiti, break dancing, emceeing and DJing. The vibe around campus was, in a word, stimulating, as students conversed with artists, looked over workshop schedules and conjured up their own dance and rap ciphers.

Ahmed points to a flier on the wall. "We're doing different sessions and we're talking about the shifting energy in hip hop this year," he explains. "There is a broader perspective that's coming to the forefront and we need to talk about what kind of changes are happening."

At the end of the event, Khalid El-Hakim, who brought his Black History 101 Mobile Museum to Ann Arbor for the event, was absolutely elated.

"This weekend was amazing!" he proclaims. "It's really something that's necessary, especially during Black History month. Because everything that's presented and discussed here ties into what's going on in the rest of the world."