Vt. Group Aims to Entertain, Combat Racism

(NECN: Jack Thurston, Burlington, Vt.) - Vermont and its largest city, Burlington, are slowly shedding old reputations as racially homogenous spots, with immigrants like George Mnyonge, Said Bulle and Cadoux Fanoy, all musicians.

"We are now part of this new community," said Fanoy, a refugee from the Congo. "And we belong here."

A growing number of African refugees have settled in Chittenden County over the past decade, as this hip hop trio's name reflects. They are A2VT, which stands for "Africa to Vermont." Some songs on their new CD, "Africa, Vermont," coming out Friday, describe their challenging move to the United States. In their homelands, their families and neighbors had to struggle with famine, war, and poverty, the group said.

"When I tell someone I'm from Somalia," Bulle added, "They say, 'Oh, the pirates!' I'm not the pirates!"

Some lyrics on the CD are in foreign languages including Swahili, French, and Mai-Mai, a dialect many Somali Bantu use. But other lyrics are in English, showing the young men's American sides with upbeat rhythms.

"Music makes people happy," said Mnyonge, who was born in Tanzania.

The group wants to do more than just entertain. They hope the new album helps build acceptance, especially after racial tensions boiled over this spring at Burlington High School. African-born students protested what they saw as a culture of racism at BHS. At an April demonstration, students complained about name-calling from other students and inequity in the classroom.

"I've been talking to teachers and nothing's been happening," Sophomore Jacques Okuka told WPTZ-TV on April 19.

"We are taking this very seriously," said Burlington School District Superintendent Jeanne Collins.

Collins told New England Cable News those student voices were heard. She crafted an equality action plan aimed at making school more welcoming and ensuring a more diverse, and as she said, culturally competent faculty.

"Racism or harassment have no place in school," Collins said. "We have a chance to get this right - in a small, caring community like ours."

Collins credited the African hip hop performers of A2VT, two of whom are BHS grads, with helping raise visibility of the changing demographics in the Burlington area.

"I'm really impressed with what these three young men are doing," she noted.

"Africa, Vermont" was produced in large part thanks to grants from the Vt. Folklife Center and the Vt. Community Foundation, record producer David Cooper explained. It is believed to be the first CD to ever emerge from Vermont’s refugee community.

A2VT hopes fans will take away from their new CD a sense of who their new neighbors are and how glad they are to be here. Asked if he tells people he is from the Congo or Vermont, Fanoy smiled, and said, "Actually I say I'm from Vermont."

The group will celebrate its CD release with a party and performance Friday, July 27 at Studio A in the North End Studio on 294 North Winooski Ave. in Burlington. The event starts at 8:00 in the evening, Cooper said.

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