From outcasts to role models: Albino rap duo fights stigma with music

Rene and Clifford Bouma, of albino rap duo White African Music

Story highlights

  • Albinos have long been a target of discrimination and superstitions in some African countries
  • Two albino brothers from Cameroon used music to cope with feelings of frustration and isolation
  • Now, their rap duo White African Music is fighting the stigma around albinos

(CNN)To grow up an albino in Cameroon can be an isolating, perilous existence.

As in some other African countries, albinos are held in disdain by many, and called all forms of derogatory names.
    Albinos, easily spotted by their white skin and fair hair, have long been ostracized and discriminated against, especially in Malawi, Tanzania, and Cameroon. The target of superstitions and sorcery, they are hunted down for their body parts, some of which are thought to confer magical powers.
    But now, Cameroonian albino brothers Rene and Clifford Bouma are using their rap music to shrug off the stigma and advocate for all albinos and other vulnerable communities to develop a sense of self-esteem.

    In fear of attacks

    Albinism is an inherited genetic condition characterized by a lack of pigmentation in skin, eyes and hair. Growing up, the brothers had to live with the stark pains of being an albino in Cameroon. Their skin color estranged them from other kids, and people called them names.
    "It was hard," Clifford says. "We heard stories of albinos who have been killed and offered as sacrifices to the gods to cleanse the land from any form of calamity, so it was culturally and socially risky growing up as an albino."
    As the two brothers grew up, schoolmates wouldn't accommodate their efforts to integrate and so they became increasingly isolated. But, the brothers say, isolation turned their lives around.
    "With all that rage in you, with all that frustration, we had to cope with the pen on paper," Rene says.
    "We had to spend most of that time writing poetry and rhymes," Clifford explains.
    That is how they came to form their rap duo, "White African Music."

    From outcasts to role models

    "Basically, White African Music ... tells the story of an albino guy in Africa, in the North West Region of Cameroon, who went through a lot of discrimination, but through music he was able to overcome that, and became looked upon as a model rather than an outcast," Clifford explains.
    The music has propelled the brothers into the limelight, and Clifford says the color of their skin doesn't seem to be an issue for their fans.
    "In front of people now, when I am passing they don't give me derogatory names like 'mokala,' 'ngenggerou," says Clifford. "They are like, 'hey, that's the guy who raps!'"
    "It makes me now believe in myself more," he adds. "The music has impacted me. I tell people that whatever you are going through in life, even if you are albino, if you are somebody disabled for one fact or the other, different from others, you can still come out with something good, which is internal, like talents, and then you prove [yourself] to people. They will look at you as somebody big."
    He said the same people who dismissed him as he grew up now ask him for selfies. "It's amazing how things have changed," he says.

    Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.

    Clifford further explains that he subscribes to Martin Luther King Jr.'s dictum that a person should never be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
    "It's what is innate to you that's important, and how you can impact the other person close to you, because as human beings, we have to help each other. That's what I want everybody out there to know."
    Clifford attributes discrimination against albinos to "ignorance ... because people fear what they don't know," and hopes that his music will change the narrative across Africa.

    At risk of extinction

    The United Nations recently warned that Malawi's albinos are at risk of "total extinction" amid escalating attacks against them for their body parts.
    Citing Malawi police data, the United Nations says, there have been 65 recorded cases of attacks against albinos in Malawi since November 2014.
    "Persons with albinism, and parents of children with albinism, constantly live in fear of attack," said Ikponwosa Ero, the United Nations' expert on albinism.
    Last week, on Albinism Awareness Day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the cycle of attacks and discrimination against albinos to be broken.
    But for Rene, albinos "have the power to change their situation ... they have to show their positive side, the same way we are changing attitudes through music.
    "It's a matter of self-confidence."