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Nationally recognized motivational speaker, rapper comes to Tigard High School


Omekongo Dibinga encourages students to embrace who they are, challenge themselves, follow their passion and stand up for what they believe is right.

TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Omekongo Dibinga addresses students during a human rights assembly in the Tigard High School gymnasium.Most assemblies at Tigard High School don't begin with an autobiographical rap.

Then again, last Thursday's assembly at Tigard High was something special.

Omekongo Dibinga, a professorial lecturer at American University in Washington, D.C., who is nationally and internationally known as a "positive hip-hop" artist, author, motivational speaker and poet, spoke for about an hour to give the student body some advice and encouragement.

"I didn't always realize what I'm saying today, and to get this point, there was a lot of pain that was involved into getting to this person that I consider myself to be, which is somebody who's an upstander," Dibinga told the students. "And high school was the turning point for my life."

Although Dibinga was born in Boston and grew up in the United States, he said, his parents immigrated from Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His unusual African name and the clothes and jewelry he wore marked him as a target for mockery, harassment and bullying as a boy, he said, and the environment of poverty, gang violence and drug abuse in which he was raised made life even more challenging. He even contemplated suicide as a youth, during a particularly low point in his life.

"I'm not here to talk about that, but it's important to you all to understand that whatever you're dealing with, it can get better," he said.

Since that troubled adolescence, Dibinga told students, he has written books, released albums, started a family and more. He holds a doctorate, a degree he earned at the University of Maryland with a dissertation about hip-hop, a passion of his.

"I'm not trying to impress you," Dibinga added. "I'm not here to impress you. I'm here to impress upon you that when you make a conscious decision to take your life to another level, at that very second, though you may not see it, your life starts to change."

Just as he has built a career out of doing the things he loves — writing, rapping, motivating people, discussing issues of race, justice and inequality — Dibinga encouraged students to follow their dreams.

"If you're not pursuing your passion, there's no point, guys," he said.

TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Tigard High School students listen as Omekongo Dibinga gives a presentation — complete with rapping about thinking and acting positively — during an assembly in the gymnasium.

Dibinga also cautioned his audience on a few points.

For one, students should be mindful of the company they keep, he said.

"The people who are around you, they represent you," Dibinga said, adding that "guilty by association" is a common way of thinking in society.

He remarked, "If you're hanging around five racists, you're a racist. If you're hanging around five homophobes, you're a homophobe. If you're hanging around five anti-Semites, you're anti-Semitic. … You have to ask yourself, 'Do the people who are around me represent where I want to go? Represent who I am?'"

For another, Dibinga said, students should not concern themselves with trying to "fit in," as they minimize themselves in doing so. In high school, he said, he stopped going by his African name and started asking people to call him "O," which he said he later realized was ignoring his heritage and the meaning in the name he was given at birth.

"It doesn't work," he said. "You can never fit in, because you were meant to stand out."

Thursday's assembly was billed as a "human rights assembly." While Dibinga spent most of his time talking to students about how to think and act positively in their own lives, he also offered a poignant reminder of the effect they can have on the lives of people they have never meant.

At one point, Dibinga asked students to raise their hands if they had a cellphone. Almost all of them did. He then asked how many students were aware that millions of people — many of them in Dibinga's parents' home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a politically fragile, impoverished and war-torn country rich in many of the rare earth metals used in manufacturing electronic devices — have died to make cellphones available for people like them. Only a few raised their hands.

"It only takes a few — out of all of the thousands of people in this room, it might take one of you that will see something and say, 'I am going to stand up against that.' And then it becomes two people. And then three. And before you know it, you might have that international movement. But it's never going to happen if you have fear," Dibinga said. "Because of the work that many of us did, there are people in the Congo right now who are not being enslaved so that we can have our electronic products. There are still many who are, and we're working to change that. Well, what is your issue? What is your cause? … There are people whose lives depend on you, on you, on all of you, getting up and saying, 'This is wrong. Something has to change.' But if you don't do it, what's the point of us even being here, right?"

Every year, said Tigard High leadership teacher McKenzie Coulson, the leadership class at the school organizes a special assembly. This year, she wanted to bring in Dibinga, as she told The Times she thought he would be "a really good voice for (students) to hear."

Coulson said after the assembly, "I thought Omekongo did amazing. I thought he hit on some really crucial topics for teens and just culturally right now."

She was pleased with the level of student engagement as well.

"He delivers a message in such a different way than most people we're used to," Coulson said of Dibinga.

Dibinga received a long standing ovation at the end of his presentation. He stayed afterward for an extended workshop with about 45 more students, Coulson said, answering questions and discussing some of his points in greater detail.

TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Motivational speaker and rapper Omekongo Dibinga scales the bleachers where Tigard High School students were sitting for an assembly in the gymnasium.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor
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