The Word is Yours : How a new festival in the Middle East hopes to build a more sustainable creative scene

Nereya Otieno has spent most of her spare time this year helping to put on a new festival in Amman, Jordan. She sat down with the festival’s director to remind her why it was all worthwhile.

While Denmark struggles to navigate the thousands of newly arrived refugees and migrants, a new festival hopes to create highlight the impressive talent and culture thriving in the Middle East.

The Word is Yours festival is the brainchild of Tia Korpe, a Swedish-Danish cultural producer, retired rapper, and expert on culture in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). She has now added festival founder and director to that list.

Full disclosure, besides being a The Murmur contributor, I have also been part of the four-person team that has worked tirelessly to put together this free, urban festival in Amman, Jordan. As the festival nears its launch on October 2, I have been so increasingly focused on the details that I feel that I have lost sight of the bigger picture. Why have I dedicated so much of my time – pro bono – to get this festival launched? What is the point, really?

So at our last meeting, I decided to ask Tia. Her answers are worth sharing.

Remind me again, what exactly is The Word Is Yours Festival?
The Word Is Yours is a free for all, two-day festival, taking place in Amman’s up-and-coming creative neighborhood Al Weibdeh, home to the 7Hills Skatepark (below) and Al Locanda hotel. It will showcase both established and emerging music, art, dance and urban sports from Jordan and the MENA region, the Gulf, and the Levant as well as offer masterclasses, workshops, artist talks and film screenings.

The Word is Yours festival director Tia Korpe. Photo: Kavian Borhani-Khomani

7Hills skate park in Amman, Jordan. Photo: Samantha Robison

Together, we will pioneer a platform for artists, cultural producers and creatives and open a dialogue on strengthening cross-regional collaboration and building a stronger sustainable creative scene in MENA.

Why Jordan?

There are many reasons, though it really comes down to my network. I have been working in the Middle East and the nearby region for the past six years for an NGO called Turning Tables (TT). We went to Jordan in 2010 for the first time after holding DJ and rap workshops with Palestinian refugee kids in Lebanon.

In 2013, I was on a trip to Tunisia with the director of TT when I met an artist called Boikutt who was running a music program there. He had just moved from Ramallah, Palestine to Jordan. We thought this was an opportunity to start up something permanent in Jordan together with Boikutt because we had worked with him for years and knew he was super talented and really reliable. We also knew a Jordanian rapper named Khotta Ba who had just finished his degree at university and was up for helping our. So, together with ActionAid we set up a permanent film and recording lab that people can use for free.

Another reason is the refugee situation, especially in light of the Syrian crisis. Europeans are only just realising the scale of the crisis after seeing footage of refugees walking along their highways. It suddenly became very real. But in the region it’s been a problem for a very long time. Jordan is one of the biggest host countries for refugees and they continue to take in more – this isn’t reflected in the media.

The influx of refugees into Jordan is problematic because there is a major lack of opportunities and activities. The lab was created in order to give everyone a chance to produce something for free. The last time I visited to check up on the staff and the studio, I came across 7Hills skatepark, Jordan’s first community skatepark. It was built by Mohammed “Mo” Zakaria who was also the filmmaker for TT, at the time. I was talking to Mo and asked whether it would be a good idea to put on a festival at the skatepark. He replied, “Yeah, that would be kind of awesome.” So then I thought, Yeah, I’m going to do it.

Why a skatepark? Wouldn’t an indoor place be a bit easier?

A skatepark could bring together different aspects of urban culture: hip hop, skateboarding, as well as workshops for young people including marginalised youth, refugees, and the local community. It’s not just a festival to entertain people – there will be activities, inspiration, and conversation. You don’t have to belong to a certain group, it’s open for everyone. That’s just the 7Hills spirit.

We don’t really see kids skateboarding in the Middle East in Western media. Is there interest in the activities you’re presenting? Is there even an audience for it?

Well, half of Jordan’s population is under the age of 25. That demograhic speaks for itself. But we’re not only talking about youth, we’re talking about marginalised youth –people who wouldn’t normally have access to these activities. And if they do, they’re privatised and expensive. 7Hills opened up last December and when I went in March it was full of kids. They had never been on skateboards before December. So there is a definite interest.

On the other hand, a lot of people in the Middle East don’t understand what urban culture is and it is really important that we do not leave them out. Which is why I want to stress that this festival is open to all: conservatives, local businesses, the elderly. It’s a dialogue to explain that urban culture is neither something dangerous nor will corrupt and westernize the youth. It is simply a form of alternative education. Music, hip hop and skateboarding is essentially empowerment. It is building a sense of self-esteem through an activity. Urban culture is a very accessible and inclusive – you don’t have to read or write. You’re accepted simply by being a part of it. And you can learn it quite quickly.


Did Turning Tables also use the ‘alternative education’ approach, if so has it been successful?

Definitely. A lot of the artists we started with were either in workshops or workshop teachers. Now they have more or less made it a livelihood. I still get messages from kids I taught in camps years ago who are now working as DJs. And that is a way for them to be part of an alternative economy. Palestinian and Syrian refugees are not allowed to work. You cannot even work as a taxi driver because you need a certain permit. Legally you cannot even take low service jobs. The creative sector offers an alternative way to sustain yourself as a young person.

The creative industries are growing in the Middle East, especially Beirut and Amman. There is increasing investment and a higher demand for creative solutions. That’s a global trend. I think a lot of the creatives in the Middle East have a very different way of viewing the world – they are highly politicised because they are born into a political context. In order to move through the world they have to come up creative strategies. This becomes an asset – they think differently. We have a tendency in the to be very stagnant and traditional, even with the way we do music. But someone from Jordan, for example, might have a completely different approach to making music. Which makes the entire outcome sound different. That’s really cool.

It seems like the point of the whole festival is to help people realize the possibilities in controlling their own futures. How do you make sure it reaches as many local people as possible?

The festival wants to be as locally sustainable as possible. Shermine [Festival co-founder] has been working tirelessly to ensure that. She and I have been trying to do everything with local sponsors – fundraising, promotion, program, distribution, and so on. If this festival is going to have any influence in the long term on the creative industry, it has to be done by local people. I might not even be involved after this year.

Would that be a success?

I don’t know if that would be a success. But I would like for it to be able to live on without me. I think that is my whole point – to let it live on locally and build on local capacity. My dream scenario is that we do it even bigger next year and everyone gets paid [she laughs]. That’s important to mention, because no one is paid this year – this is a complete non-profit venture. Hopefully next year we all get paid and can form a board to assist someone else who runs the festival. If we keep something going after three years – you have something sustainable. And we might have something to export to the whole region, maybe for years to come.

The title of the festival rings a few bells.  Just as Nas told us the world was his, I want to ask, as director and the force behind this festival, what’s your word?

My word is… drive. Just do it. Yalla. Go. All it takes is having drive, everything else will work itself out.

If you want to help support The Word Is Yours Festival, please click here and donate to their crowdfunding campaign. And here for the Facebook page.


By Nereya Otieno

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