BANGUI, Central African Republic – Lionel Fotot once watched a crowd kill a 6-year-old Muslim boy with a machete. He can't shake the memories of the brutalities he witnessed as Central African Republic collapsed into sectarian violence.
So the young hip hop artist was heartened when his One Force group, comprised of Christians and Muslims, performed to a packed crowd at the largest venue in the capital, the 20,000-seat Barthelemy Boganda Stadium.
"Our music is like a medicine that can heal the country," Fotot said. "Before they disarm their weapons, the youth have to disarm their hearts."
Central African Republic has faced interreligious and intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Anti-balaka militias, mostly Christians, fought back, resulting in thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The situation has worsened in recent months, with more than 300 people killed and 100,000 people displaced since mid-May after attacks in the impoverished country's southeast and center.
Music is one approach in trying to pull the nation together again.
Twenty young rappers from Central African Republic recently attended a jam session and cultural exchange with visiting Congolese-American rapper and academic Omekongo Dibinga. Organized by the U.S. Embassy and U.N. peacekeeping forces in the country, the event was meant to "try to inspire them and to give them hope," said U.N. spokesman Herve Verhoosel.
"Sometimes people here lack confidence in themselves and their future, because all that they have known since they were born has been conflict, people dying," Verhoosel said.
One of the young rappers at the event was Marlon Bisseni, who practices every day at home or with members of his rap group Enigmatique. The 21-year-old also studies human resources at a local university, knowing he needs a way to survive in a country where most people make less than a dollar a day.
"I love hip hop. Without music, I am nothing," said Bisseni, also known as "Rym Thug."
The country's growing community of hip hop artists looks toward a brighter future.
"We say, 'No. Stop. We don't need war,'" said 23-year-old artist Felix Ngobo. "We say, 'It doesn't matter if you're Christian or Muslim.' We are all the same."
Ngobo performs as "Felika Joker" in his LK City group, with songs entitled "We need peace" and "Reconciliation Street."
Dibinga, the visiting rapper and academic at American University, advised the young rappers in Bangui to stay true to their voice and draw on their own experiences instead of emulating U.S. artists.
"Art is community," Dibinga said. "Whether you're Muslim or Christian, whether you're whatever ... you have more things in common than things that are different. That's how we start to build. And when people are picking up the microphone, they're not picking up the guns."