In Berlin, David Hermlin is a 14-year-old who wants to be a star — and is well on his way. He plays drums and guitar, dances and sings. He performs with his dad’s jazz orchestra. He even writes songs.
But Hermlin has another life as well — as a global activist.
His dad is German, his mom is Kenyan. Hermlin spends time in his mother’s homeland, so he knows a lot about how hard life can be in lower-income countries. “Poor people can’t afford the high level of hospital care.” So if they’re sick, they may wait. And die. And they can’t even afford the cost of the uniforms and books needed for secondary schools, he adds.
That dual identity made him an ideal participant in the “action/2015” effort, which in January, with the support of the ONE Campaign, brought groups of teens to talk to their national leaders about ending extreme poverty.
Hermlin knows there’s a lot of work ahead. “If you want to change a country, like Kenya, you have to change the whole system,” he says. “The West generally can’t do a big thing like that. They need a revolution in Kenya. But it can’t be a revolution from outside. The people in the country have to face the reality, have to have the feeling they want to change something.” It will be a “long, long” process, he says.
Hermlin enjoys visiting Kenya. “Kenyans are so kind, so friendly.” But they are skeptical about his tales of life in Germany. “I tell people in Kenya: ‘If you don’t have a job or lost a job, the government will give you money every year and pay for school and everything.’ If I tell this to people in Kenya, it sounds like heaven to them, and they don’t believe it.”
Germany, of course, has its own problems. In primary school, a classmate called Hermlin a racial slur. [Note: We’re using the slur because that’s how Hermlin told the story.] “It was the first time I heard this word. I got called ‘nigger’ before I really knew what this was.
“I asked my dad, ‘Daddy, what does this ‘nigger’ mean?’ ” Hermlin says. “And then my dad said, ‘Who was this boy, let me talk to him.’ The next day my dad went to school and pulled the boy out of class, and told him, ‘these words can hurt somebody.’ And the boy had to apologize to me.”
Hermlin approves of his dad’s approach. “You can’t beat them [up],” he says. “If you beat them, you can’t change their minds.” But even with his dad’s apology tactic, he says, “sometimes the minds are changed but not always.”
He is similarly mixed in his views of whether the world can be a better place in 15 years — the goal of action/2015. Is that enough time? “To me, not really,” Hermlin says. “But I wish it could be.”
Meanwhile, he hopes to use his musical talents to nudge the world forward. A prodigy who began playing drums at age 3, Hermlin is now writing songs with lyrics like, “We are the same. We are not different.”