A powerful five-octave voice coming from a small frame is normally what describes Misia as a singer. The second hat she wears is as a philanthropic activist for Africa.
Donating money and participating in charity campaigns are not extraordinary for entertainers. So Misia felt she had to do more. She decided to visit African countries and make herself one of the most influential figures in raising awareness in Japan of various African issues.
Her prominence in these matters led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to appoint her as the honorary ambassador for the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V), which will be held in Yokohama from June 1 to 3.
“My mission is to make as many people as possible aware of TICAD and Africa,” Misia said during an interview with The Japan Times at an African restaurant in the Harajuku district of Tokyo ahead of TICAD V. “I have actually been to Africa and seen it, so I have the obligation to inform people.”
Asked what she hopes for TICAD V, which will be attended by political and business leaders of Africa, Japan, other countries and the United Nations, she said, “I would like to see national policies directly reflect the lives of ordinary people.
“The theme of TICAD V is ‘Hand in hand with a more dynamic Africa,’ and I hope the conference will yield results that will help lift every child out of poverty and other problems, and make them happy,” said Misia, who sings TICAD V’s theme song, a new arrangement of her 2010 single “Maware Maware.”
“Maware” means “go around” in both Japanese and Swahili. The new arrangement features Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose and the lyrics are about Misia’s visit to Senegal this January.
Her connection with Africa was originally through music. As a child, she learned about poverty in Africa in listening to renowned charity songs of the 1980s such as USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Her inclination for charity comes from the fact she was born and raised in Nagasaki Prefecture, where peace is a major focus of education, she said, adding that she became interested in learning about world conflicts. Also, she has lived for about 10 years on Tsushima, an island in the prefecture, which boasts a rich natural environment, making her interested in environmental issues. In 2010, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed her as honorary ambassador for the U.N. biological diversity conference held that year in Nagoya.
As she grew up, she continued to be connected with Africa. She began her singing career in soul music, reflected in her signature pieces such as “Everything” and “Aitakute Ima.” She likes soul music with its African roots because “there are few rules in soul music, such as that rhythm or harmony must be this way or that,” she said. “You can deliver your feeling however you like.”
And her interest in Africa never faded, becoming stronger after she came upon the White Band movement by international organization Global Call to Action Against Poverty in 2005.
Since then, she has performed at the White Band Fes. and other charity concerts, but her interest expanded to the point where she had to go see Africa.
“I went to Kenya in 2007 because I won’t understand unless I see with my own eyes,” she said.
She went to one of the largest slums in the world, Kibera, near Nairobi. It was the first time she saw the reality that donations did not reach places where they were necessary.
She saw hospitals that did not have enough medical equipment or doctors. She also said some of the donations such as clothes and other goods were sold on the black market, hurting local businesses that produce and sell the same goods.
“I think that not only donating but also continuing to know how donations are used is important,” she said.
She also stressed the need for education after she visited a school in Kenya.
“I took education for granted. But I heard incidents that children walked into a dangerous zone because they could not read road signs and an illiterate woman let her children drink pesticides. School is a very important community for children because they have friends and learn things there. That’s why I wanted to help with education,” Misia said.
“Children learn how important it is to wash their hands at school. They go home to teach their family members. School is important in a simple way like that,” she said.
In Africa, going to a well, scooping water and carrying it over a long distance is normally children’s work, and they need to skip school to do it. Therefore, establishing water supply systems is a great help for education in Africa.
Misia also wants to improve women’s social status, saying some families do not let girls go to school just because they are girls.
When Misia went to Africa, girls especially came to her and looked at her curiously because “it is rare for them that a woman works,” she said.
“I was told that showing (to people in Africa) that a woman can do a global job is very important,” she said.
After Kenya, she visited five more countries: Mali, Malawi, South Africa, Namibia and Senegal.
“What I am impressed with through the trips to Africa is that nature, children’s smiles, people’s knowledge and traditions are things worth a lot of respect,” she said. “People tend to associate Africa with hunger and poverty, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
Asked about the achievements of her activities, she first said she could not know of any achievements unless she watched a process of improvement for decades.
But she said an example of an early achievement would be having built and refurbished elementary schools with donated money so that more children could go to school. Providing mosquito nets and educating people in Malawi how to use them also has had a certain degree of achievement as the nets prevent the transmission of malaria. Misia added that education was important as some poor people would otherwise sell the nets or turn them into fishing nets.
In recent years, she conducted many charity activities through the organization mudef, of which she used to be a board member. Mudef, which stands for Music Design Foundation, was established in May 2010 with a mission to realize the U.N. MDGs, or Millennium Development Goals, via music and the arts.
The MDGs were adopted by 189 countries in the U.N. Millennium Summit in 2000. MDGs are eight goals to be accomplished by 2015:
1) End poverty and hunger;
2) Achieve universal primary education;
3) Promote gender equality and empower women;
4) Reduce child mortality;
5) Improve maternal health;
6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
7) Ensure environmental sustainability;
8) Develop a global partnership for development.
Misia’s goal is to play a part in helping countries achieve all the MGDs by 2015, though it is said to be difficult to do so. But she wants to achieve near-completion as much as possible, she said.
“Knowing is the beginning of everything. First of all, I want everybody in the world to know about the current situation,” Misia said. “Then I want people to make choices that make everybody happy.”