Close to the Edge

In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

by Sujatha Fernandes

1 September 2011

Magia Lopez and Alexey Rodriguez of Obsesion © Oriana Elicabe (p. 38) 

Who Is the 'We' that Makes Up the Global Hip Hop Generation?

Meanwhile, I was living in Chicago and checking out the hip hop scene by night. What struck me was the value that Chicago hip hoppers placed on independence, especially after I’d witnessed Cuban rappers’ reliance on the state. Did this multi-ethnic city hold the possibility for building an autonomous and truly diverse Hip Hop Nation? The city’s segregation presented serious obstacles. This took me back to my participation in hip hop in Australia during the mid-1990s and forward to Caracas in the new millennium, where hip hop was tied in to networks of grassroots activism. When our generation came together as a political force, we could find fleeting moments of connection. But, as the Paris and Redfern (Sydney) riots would reveal, some of the most powerful uprisings of the hip hop generation came not from international alliances of activists and rap celebrities, but from the everyday struggles of ghetto communities around the globe.

With berets, camouflage fatigues, and military drills reminiscent of the Black Panthers, Public Enemy revived an Afrocentric and black nationalist language that resonated with fans around the globe, from Australian Aboriginals to Samoans to black youth in South Africa, Brazil, and Tanzania. Public Enemy, a group from the black suburbs of Long Island, followed in the footsteps of Bambaataa.

Of course, one of the central issues of the book remains: Who is the “we” that makes up the global hip hop generation? The easiest part of the answer is the age group—Kitwana defines the hip hop generation as those born between 1965 and 1984. So that would include those of us now in our mid-twenties to mid-forties. The harder part is the social demographics of that group. Chang tells us that the hip hop generation includes “anyone who is down.” But, if we think of the historically marginalized communities where hip hop emerged, and the housing projects and tenements across the globe where it resonated, the global hip hop generation would not include an Australian Indian female with a doctoral degree and the means to travel around the world. In this book I use my personal narrative as a way to reflect on the nature and scope of the global hip hop generation. Underlying all my endeavors is the hope that some universal thread connects all of us who have been brought together through hip hop culture, especially those in the most vulnerable and impoverished sectors. But I also came to the realization that privilege—whether by birth or acquired, of skin color, nationality, or social class—would always inhibit the attempt to create global communities.

The early elements of hip hop culture to travel internationally consisted largely of graffiti and the dance style known as b-boying. The 1982 tour of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force had included the pioneering b-boys of the Rock Steady Crew, the Double Dutch Girls, the DJ Grandmixer DST, and the graffiti writers FUTURA and DONDI. The small audiences that turned up at the venues on the European tour were able to witness these elements of hip hop culture live. For the rest of the world, knowledge of graffiti and b-boying came from television and visual culture.

The classic 1982 film Wild Style, produced and directed by Charlie Ahearn, was a tribute to the elements of the culture. It was released in cinemas worldwide, including Japan, where the cast of the film went to promote it. Many global fans had their first glimpse of b-boying in the Hollywood blockbuster Flashdance, released in 1983. In one brief scene Rock Steady Crew members b-boy to Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Just Begun.” Over the next few years Hollywood capitalized on the international success of Rock Steady’s Flashdance cameo. Tinseltown produced a string of what Chang calls “teen-targeted hip-hop exploitation flicks,” including Breakin’, Beat Street, and then Body Rock, Fast Forward, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. These films served up a watered-down version of the culture, but they became some of the first hip hop artifacts to circulate the globe. Through both legit and bootleg copies, aspiring b-boys and b-girls everywhere saw the films, got out their cardboard strips, and in schoolyards, train stations, and on street corners they began to practice the moves.

By the mid-1980s graffiti and b-boying were in decline, and rap emerged as the central means by which hip hop culture was packaged for global consumption. Run-DMC demonstrated the cross-over pop success of rap music with its cover of the rock band Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” The group earned a $1.6 million endorsement deal with Adidas, marketing the brand as part of a global hip hop lifestyle and culture. A year later Salt-N-Pepa’s hit song “Push It” catapulted the female trio to worldwide fame; the song even made it to the Dutch Top 40 charts.

Cable and satellite television also played a role in disseminating rap music. In 1988 the show Yo! MTV Raps aired daily in the United States and soon became one of the network’s first globally televised programs. It aired on MTV Europe and then MTV Asia and MTV Latino. As a relatively new technology outside the United States, cable television was available mostly to privileged youth. Also, those with more disposable income were the first to consume rap music, because of their access to cassettes and videos through travel or relatives who lived abroad. It was not always true that the oppositional ideas of rap spread automatically from one marginalized segment of youth to another.

The MTV-mediated rap of the mid- to late 1980s surfaced during an era of cost-cutting deindustrialization and privatization of social services that diverted resources from America’s urban centers, resulting in growing crime, gang activity, and police violence. The agitating and energetic militant rap crew Public Enemy gained tremendous popularity during this time. With berets, camouflage fatigues, and military drills reminiscent of the Black Panthers, Public Enemy revived an Afrocentric and black nationalist language that resonated with fans around the globe, from Australian Aboriginals to Samoans to black youth in South Africa, Brazil, and Tanzania. Public Enemy, a group from the black suburbs of Long Island, followed in the footsteps of Bambaataa. The group sought to take its vision of a black planet worldwide through constant touring, MTV, and multiplatinum albums.

The other trend to emerge in this era was West Coast “gangsta” rap, announcing its arrival with the defiance of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” But, where Public Enemy was out to fight the power, gangsta rappers were concerned with survival. Where Chuck D’s sense of community drew from a tradition of black protest, the community of the gangsta rapper was the ’hood. As these two currents appeared on the global stage in the era of MTV, they recalled the tension between the universal vision of Bambaataa and the ghettocentric storytelling of “The Message.” How these currents would be received and riffed on at the local level remained to be seen.

By the 1990s global audiences had had access to hip hop culture for over ten years; the decade marked a period of emergence for local hip hop scenes. Rather than simply consuming American rap, global hip hoppers began to create their own versions. Like their Bronx counterparts, who developed a sound system from abandoned car radios and made turntable mixers from microphone mixers, global hip hoppers adapted materials from their local environment. They made background tracks by manually looping break beats on tape recorders. They improvised turntables with Walkmans as decks. And they relied on that most basic of technologies, the human beatbox.

The visual language of graffiti and the bodily expressions of b-boying had transcended cultural differences. But black American–accented rap in English was not so easily adapted to local contexts. Japanese rappers initially found it difficult to produce catchy rhymes because of the arrhythmic nature of their language and its positioning of the verb at the end of a sentence.

Early rap outside the United States tended to imitate American rap, with performers either mimicking American rap songs or coming up with raps in English. In Tanzania, for instance, the Yo! Rap Bonanza competition, held at the New African Hotel in Dar Es Salaam in 1991, featured rappers performing in English and copying American raps. Repeating the English lyrics and copying the rhyme patterns of their favorite groups was often a way for amateur rappers to understand the flow and dissect the construction of verses.

Part of the problem was the lack of models for non-English, non-American rap. The development of bilingual rap by Latino artists in the late 1980s helped to erode the hegemony of the English language in global hip hop. In 1989 the single “Mentirosa” by the Cuban American artist Mellow Man Ace went multiplatinum. A year later the Chicano artist Kid Frost released Hispanic Causing Panic. Chicano rap gained popularity among youth in Latin America, particularly Colombia and Mexico. Around this time the Puerto Rican rapper Vico C, who hailed from the barrio Puerta de Tierra of San Juan, began to achieve fame with his Spanish-language rapping, and his two singles “Saborealo” and “María” went gold and platinum, respectively.

The biggest market for non-English rap in the early 1990s was in the Francophone world—covering the territories of France, West Africa, and Quebec. In 1991 the Senegalese-born French rapper MC Solaar released his debut album, Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo (Who Sows the Wind Reaps the Rhythm). This record went platinum, and his second album went double platinum.

The success of these French and Latino rap superstars encouraged the development of home-grown underground hip hop scenes. Local movements also began to flourish through their involvement with grassroots cultural exchanges. As a mature rap movement in the States struggled with issues of its own commodification, some rappers began to look outward to the African diaspora as a source of renewed energy.

Outside the circuit of label-organized tours, artists like Fab 5 Freddy and Paris went behind the scenes to meet with local producers, rappers, and fans. They brought their ideas, shared their techniques, donated equipment, and reported on these scenes upon their return. These cultural exchanges are situated within long histories of diasporic engagement. Global Pan-Africanism in Ghana was linked to the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and visits by black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois. After Bob Marley’s Survival Tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1979, Australian Aboriginals began to see themselves as part of a global black movement. The Cuban revolutionary government had identified itself strongly with the black power movement in the United States and the anticolonial struggle in Africa. American civil rights and black power leaders from Stokely Carmichael to Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis had visited the island. But the black nationalism of contemporary hip hop artists was received with greater enthusiasm by young people feeling the effects of racism and exclusion in a new global order.

Another, more unlikely, source of support for local underground artists was the state. For a variety of reasons politicians were realizing the benefits of associating with the increasingly popular rap movements. In Cuba the revolutionary government harnessed the energy of rappers to bolster the image of Cuba as a mixed-race nation with African roots. In France and Brazil municipal governments organized hip hop workshops in community centers. The Casa do Hip Hop in the periferia of São Paulo sponsored weekly classes in b-boying, DJ-ing, graffiti art, and rapping for neighborhood youth. The minister of culture in France under François Mitterrand brought Afrika Bambaataa over to hold hip hop seminars for young people. As problems of crime and poverty spread throughout the urban peripheries in a moment of growing inequalities, culture was seen as a resource that could help divert the energies of youth to more creative pursuits while leaving the power structure intact. But hip hop turned out to be a double-edged sword. It took young people off the streets while also arming them with new kinds of oppositional knowledge and the means for self-organization.

Hermanos de Causa - copyright Jason Florio (p. 46)

Hermanos de Causa © Jason Florio (p. 46)

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