Hierarchies Within Global Hip Hop
Like Afrika Bambaataa in the 1980s and Public Enemy in the 1990s, the Black August Hip Hop Project emerged to spread its message of a united hip hop globe in the new millennium. Black August was a network established during the 1970s in the California prison system as a way of linking up movements for resistance in the Americas. The hip hop collective sought to draw connections between radical black activism and hip hop culture. In its statement of purpose, the collective defined its goals as “support[ing] the global development of hip hop culture by facilitating exchanges between international communities where hip hop is a vital part of youth culture, and by promoting awareness about the social and political issues that affect these youth communities.” The collective arranged for the American emcees Paris, Common, dead prez, Tony Touch, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli to perform at the annual Cuban hip hop festivals in Alamar during the late 1990s. In 2001 it organized a concert at the World Conference against Racism in Durban and proposed a tour of South Africa that again would include Kweli and dead prez, as well as Black Thought, Boots Riley, and Jeru the Damaja.
Just like the hip hop ambassadors who preceded them, the Black August rappers were met abroad with a sense of great expectation and enthusiasm. Their language of black nationalism resonated with Cuban and South African youths feeling the effects of racial discrimination as their once-radical leaders pursued policies of austerity. The Cuban emcee Sekou Umoja, from the group Anónimo Consejo, told me, “We had the same vision as rappers such as Paris, who was one of the first to come to Cuba. His music drew my attention, because here is something from the barrio, something black. Of blacks, and made principally by blacks, which in a short time became something very much our own, related to our lives here in Cuba.” The rapper Common organized a meeting with local rappers at which they exchanged ideas and stories. The Black August network brought equipment and records for the Cuban rappers. But, as occurred with the electrifying performances of Bambaataa and Chuck D, it was in the concerts that Black August’s vision of transnational solidarity was realized. The chants of “I’m an African,” led by dead prez in Alamar, thundered through the stadium as Afro-Cuban youth defiantly claimed their black roots.
The pain of racism may have been the bridge that connected the American rappers with those in the diaspora. But that racism took different forms in each context. On stage in Alamar dead prez burned a dollar bill as a symbol of American capitalism, horrifying local audiences, who saw it as a week’s worth of bread. In South Africa the American artists came to protest the racism of their own government, which withdrew from the Durban conference along with Israel. Yet when the American artists left the concert stage to return to their fancy hotels, the affinities broke down. The American artists’ treatment of leading local artists as hired drivers left a sense that racism looked different for the privileged Americans. Frustrated with this disrespect, the local promoters canceled the tour. Not the least of the problems was the American artists’ clichéd notions of African-ness. The cover of dead prez’s album lets get free featured militant black women raising guns to the sky. While dead prez claimed that the image was from the Soweto Uprising in 1976, South African hip hoppers knew that it was from the war of independence.
The attempt to foster cultural exchange and understanding instead drew claims of cultural imperialism from local emcees. Global hip hop scenes were now about twenty years old, and they had their own stars and styles. All that local rappers wanted was to be treated as equals by the visiting American rappers. But, clearly, there were hierarchies within global hip hop. And while Black August saw its mission as promoting social consciousness, some South African rappers saw it as Americans conquering Africa with their rhymes and coming to save the Africans. Other local rappers saw a gap between the politically committed lyrics of the Black August rappers and their actions. As the Cuban rapper Soandry, then of the duo Hermanos de Causa, told the documentary filmmakers Vanessa and Larissa Díaz, “It’s not saying it, it’s not singing it, it’s showing it. To me—none of these people, not dead prez, not Common Sense, not Mos Def have shown me anything. They just say what they say in their songs, but they don’t represent that.” Soandry was also bitter about the various rap collaborations between visiting American rappers and Cuban rappers. The resulting productions tended to make money for the American artists but not the Cubans. Cuban rappers, South African rappers, and others were getting tired of the one-way stream of Westerners who were treating local scenes in Cuba, South Africa, and elsewhere as exotic cultures to be packaged for the consumption of Western audiences.
In 1999 the Venezuelan producer Juan Carlos Echeandía decided to make a documentary film that looked at American hip hop. It was the first time a producer from the South—albeit a relatively privileged one—had traveled to the States to interview American artists, producers, and fans. Echeandía returned to Venezuela and documented the growing underground hip hop scene there as well. The result was Venezuela subterránea: cuatro elementos, una música (Underground Venezuela: Four Elements, One Music). The film was low budget. The dissemination was not large. But the idea that a hip hopper from the global south might have something to say about American hip hop destabilized the idea that Americans were the ultimate authority on all hip hop, including their own.
By the new millennium, the divide between American and non-American rappers was becoming somewhat irrelevant as diasporic rappers came on the scene. As global hip hop began to come of age, hip hoppers found themselves increasingly torn between the need to make a living and the desire to pursue their art. With record labels picking off a scant few to sign and promote, the rest were left to wonder where their lives were headed. For many, pursuing a career in music meant leaving the comfort of their local scene and heading to international cities. Local superstars in Brazil or Kenya became busboys in New York or taxi drivers in London in order to pursue their dreams. The other source of diasporic hip hop was second generation immigrants from Haiti, Somalia, and Egypt, among other places; these young people were beginning to find a political voice through hip hop. As artists and fans, they generated new circuits of performance, activism, and solidarity that brought into question the fixed national boundaries that had defined hip hop scenes.
In some ways hip hop has been both global and diasporic since its beginnings. Hip hop’s lineage includes the West African griots, or professional singers. It has strong roots in Jamaican dance hall music, itself a mélange of different musical influences. Several founders of hip hop culture were Caribbean immigrants: DJ Kool Herc was Jamaican and Grandmaster Flash was from Barbados. B-boying draws on influences as varied as Brazilian capoeira and East Asian karate films. Even today American rap songs incorporate global cultural forms, from Bollywood film songs and Rastafarian religions to Tahitian dance styles. The global is at the heart of hip hop culture, which from the start has borrowed and appropriated and sampled from cultures around the world.
But the diasporic rap of the new millennium emerged in a unique context—that of the post 9/11 world. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, drastically reshaped the contours of race, politics, and global war. The world became embroiled in a “war against terrorism,” in which those perceived as “against us” were often Muslims and people of color. Arab and South Asian immigrant communities were seen as the internal enemy. The children of immigrants born and raised their whole lives in the United States, Australia, France, England, or elsewhere were made to feel like outsiders.
Diasporic hip hop has forged a new global politics of solidarity that connects racism against African Americans to anti-Arab profiling in urban areas and links these issues to the occupation in Palestine and the war in Iraq. Palestinian American emcees such as the Michigan-based Iron Sheik challenge the erasure and denial of Palestinian histories in American public discourse. As the anthropologist Sunana Maira recounts, diasporic rappers have come together in cross-national collaborations such as the 2007 Arab Summit, a project that includes the Palestinian American rapper Excentrik, Ragtop from the Filipino-Palestinian-American group the Philistines, the Syrian American rapper Omar Offendum from the NOMADS, and the Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcicyst from the trio Euphrates. These kinds of collaboration are rooted in cross-ethnic activist alliances of black activists from hurricane-stricken New Orleans, Palestinian activists demanding a right to return, and people opposed to the militarization of the US-Mexico border and the apartheid wall in Palestine. For British rappers, such as the South Asian Muslim groups Kaliphz and Fundamental, criticisms of local racism and the global war on terror are couched in the language of militant Islam. At a time when Islam has replaced black power as the enemy within, it’s not surprising that it has reemerged as a possible axis for solidarity in the hip hop globe.
Rap has provided a means for young people from immigrant communities to break the silence and network with others locally and globally. And these youth have become the latest hip hop ambassadors to emerge. The Liberian American Blade Brown raps about building a Pan-African consciousness, and in his rhymes he connects racism and slavery to the poverty of many African nations. Although based in the Twin Cities, Blade’s producer is from Tanzania, and Blade has collaborated with other diasporic artists in the Twin Cities such as the Kenyan American MC Baraka. African emigration to places like the Twin Cities, Toronto, and New York is creating alternative spaces that break down national boundaries.
Four generations of hip hop ambassadors have traversed the globe with the desire to transcend their immediate realities and link up with others through a universal politics of justice. This communitarian strand of hip hop culture now exists as a counterpoint to the grossly materialistic, individualist nature of corporate rap. But it has sat uneasily alongside the storytellers of the genre, who have been concerned not so much with grand gestures as with rap as a chronicle of everyday life.
In its most contemporary manifestation, hip hop again faced the incongruity of the desire for unity and fellowship across borders and the need to be grounded in a specific place and experience. Diasporic rappers didn’t draw the same charges of cultural imperialism that earlier rappers did; first-generation immigrants in particular were deeply rooted in the cultures and
histories that had produced local scenes. But, as their years in the diaspora went by, it became harder for these artists to maintain a bridge with their past. Their concerns were now different from those issues they had left behind. Unmoored from place, they were in danger of losing touch with the specificity at the heart of their music. The Cuban DJ Ariel Fernández, who emigrated to New York City in 2005, posed this question: “Cuban rap doesn’t have the same value outside of its context. It was made in Cuba and for Cubans. How will the movement continue with the same importance outside of Cuba? We cannot pursue it with the same time and energy. And there is not a big public for Cuban immigrant rap.” It has been difficult for rappers as new immigrants to pursue their art, given the demands of everyday survival. They don’t have the same sense of being part of a movement, now that they are scattered in different cities and often separated from their group members. Without the realities of place to anchor it, a politics of global solidarity might start to sound hollow. And at its core hip hop has always been about bearing witness.