[13 February 2012]
Location, location, location. That’s the mantra of the real estate industry indicating that property values are positively and negatively affected by the areas they inhabit. Hip-hop possesses a similar mantra, espoused by Rakim’s “In the Ghetto”: “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”
In the United States, hip-hop has experienced spells of regionalism, wherein New York rap was hailed as hip-hop’s birthplace while artists from other sections of the country sought legitimacy: bass-heavy music of Florida, the club-ready crunk of the South, the street grit of Texas, and the G-Funk of the West Coast. There are a number of rap songs dedicated to location, such as N.W.A.‘s “Straight Outta Compton”, Tupac Shakur’s “California Love”, Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”, and Ludacris and Jermaine Dupree’s “Welcome to Atlanta”. There are many, many more.
Much of this regionalism has fallen away, and there could be many reasons why, such as the fallout from the East Coast-West Coast feud of the ‘90s, the tragedy of September 2011 that in some ways marked a call for unity, less reliance on posses and crews alongside increased willingness to collaborate, the internet’s role in transcending geographical boundaries, or even thee (arguably) more homogenized sound of rap that garners radio play. Yet, on a global scale, location continues to be relevant.
Writer, hip-hop artist, and, now, Assistant Professor Sujatha Fernandes explores a host of hip-hop related issues at the macro level in Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. Her 200-plus page first person narrative chronicles her journey to access hip-hop’s capacity to heal and unify across cultural, racial, gender, and economic lines. The travelogue takes its readers to four locales: Havana, Cuba; Chicago, Illinois; Sydney, Australia; and Caracas, Venezuela. Immediately, we learn that each locale presents a distinct set of political ideals along with a unique history of social interaction. This, in turn, translates into distinctive interactions with hip-hop and its pillars of deejaying, emceeing, b-boying, and graffiti.
In fact, the use of the term “culture” in reference to hip-hop—which I’m fond of using myself—becomes difficult to define and manage through a global lens. Fernandes encounters many differences, as she notes, “All my travels seemed to confirm the idea that just as hip hop was very diverse in its origins, so it looked different as it spread across the globe.” Hip-hop, she goes on, is “strongly shaped by local concerns.” Still, Close to the Edge is a powerful document that speaks as a testament to her hip-hop sojourn as well as a set of keen observations concerning the effects and challenges of hip-hop’s proliferation.
The book’s honesty is its greatest virtue, with Fernandes approaching her subject from a political angle, as an earnest and forthright hip-hop artist and scholar seeking community and fellowship from the likeminded artists and activists in her travels. From this vantage point, hip-hop is at its most potent and meaningful when it’s politically engaged, lyrically poignant, and focused upon the struggles of the underclass. The value of her approach resides in those moments when Fernandes takes herself to task for her preconceptions and assumptions. She’s candid in her self-critique, able to acknowledge when she’s misjudged a country’s social complexities or misconstrued the value of her viewpoints to others. She says as much in the Introduction, “My own projected imaginings and desires were not being met with the enthusiasm I expected.”
Her “search”, therefore, is as much about psychology as it is about globetrotting. Potential readers won’t lose out on anything to learn that Close to the Edge ends with as many questions as it confronted at the outset. It’s a book of questions, and a story of a quest. Moreover, Fernandes comes to see her view of the “global hip-hop community” as “elusive”. Knowing this doesn’t spoil the reading because the ending isn’t the point at all. It’s the “search” that’s important, not the destination. That search reveals some interesting insights about the way we conceptualize hip-hop culture (in whatever manner “culture” should be defined in this context) and its various permutations around the world.
First, it’s interesting to consider how such a personal art form as hip-hop could become something universal. In general, art should have a personal bent, as the art form—be it dance, visual art, writing, music, or anything else—should reflect the unique style of the individual artist. Of course, the trick is that the art work should not turn out to be too closely tied to the individual artist; otherwise the audience won’t be able to connect to it. This issue of artistry is similar to the way Chicago poet Carolyn M. Rodgers describes it in her poem “Breakthrough”: “how can I / sound just like and only my self / and then could you dig it if I could?”
While Fernandes certainly finds differences in the ways that hip-hop is produced and consumed in Havana, Chicago, Sydney, and Caracas, there’s no denying the art form’s broad appeal. Songs like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”, which contains the line “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge”, are known the world over, and Fernandes finds, in her travels, an impressive connection to b-boying, deejaying, and graffiti too. Thus, the interesting aspect to this is how uniqueness of style can impress a mass audience and thereby shape the general parameters of what’s acceptable and genre-defining.
Second, Close to the Edge urges us to confront the question of content. In other words, must the personal narratives of hip-hop lend their voices to struggle and revolution in order to be “legitimate”? Further, we have to wonder whether personal insights into such issues as race and gender are too specifically individual to truly transcend the very boundaries they discuss. For example, the book refers to Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”, a remake of Aerosmith’s song of the same name that’s performed with Aerosmith, and it’s duly noted that this song is extremely popular in a variety of countries. And it should be, given its special blend of rock and hip-hop at a time when hip-hop was fighting for radio play and cultural acceptance in the United States.
“Walk This Way” appeared on the 1986 LP Raising Hell. On that same album was “Proud To Be Black”, Run DMC’s homage to Black history and prominent social figures like Harriet Tubman, Jesse Owens, and George Washington Carver. “Walk This Way” was a big hit, so it makes sense that people the world over would flock to it. But then, you have to wonder, could “Proud To Be Black” have been as big or was it a bit too specifically located in the racial spectrum? The importance of the inquiry, I think, is that the influence of “Walk This Way” as cultural capital and exchange gives us the answer to the earlier question of “legitimacy”, as “Walk This Way” is arguably as “legitimate” as “Proud To Be Black”, with or without a social agenda.
However, there’s a tendency in global discourse to privilege rap that’s rooted in struggle over rap that parties, dances, and indulges in excess and materialism. Close to the Edge often reminds us that when we think globally, we have to realize that lyricism can’t be our only concern, since some English rap songs gain popularity despite the fact that English and hip-hop slang aren’t second nature (or even coherent) to portions of the global population.
To use my own example as a guide, a listener in, let’s say, Havana, could enjoy Run DMC’s “Proud To Be Black” without understanding the lyrics. That listener might simply enjoy the “flow”, the “beat”, and the overall style. Has this listener still engaged with “hip-hop”? I would say so, albeit in a different way from someone who connects lyrically as well as musically and stylistically.
Fernandes’s experiences in Australia, where Aborigines fought for social and political acceptance under extreme economic and cultural oppression, demonstrate the ways in which political activism undergirds the need for artistic expression. It’s as cathartic as it is progressive. But then, in the absence of political activism, Australia’s multicultural hip-hop movement experienced a decline.
Since message-oriented rap has not commanded the attention it once did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it seems to me that, at least for the sake of diversity of subject matter, hip-hop tackling important issues should continue to be heard. That is, of course, if there are artists wanting to create it and audiences desiring to listen to it. It follows, then, that the converse is also true: if message-oriented rap is a healthy part of the rap tradition and is vital to the art form’s diversity of content, then the same might be said of other “types” of rap (i.e., “bling rap”, “ring tone rap”, and so forth). The burden of measuring artistic vision, it seems, may have to ultimately rest with the artists.
When we start talking about “types” of rap, we inevitably find ourselves discussing “commercial rap” and its implications. Close to the Edge brings shades of gray to that discussion, so that we can’t simply sideline “government sponsored” rap in Cuba or “privileged” rap in Venezuela as patently “commercial” and therefore the result of “selling out”. The truth seems to be more complex, that commerce and distribution can be vital to individual success and the exploration of community concerns through song. Sometimes, the prospect of being heard can overpower the impulse to directly deal with an issue like gang violence or the lack of opportunities for upward mobility.
And then, to take the matter further, does “real hip-hop” even have to deal with “reality”? As much as the “keeping it real” slogan would have us believe every story in rap is obliged to be true, hip-hop has a robust amount of fantasy and even sci-fi material. When Ghostface Killah, for instance, rhymes about being underwater and meeting mermaids with “Halle Berry haircuts”, we allow him the license to be imaginative and we don’t say he’s betrayed the art form. Artists should have that license, and they shouldn’t be criticized for using it.
Close to the Edge, then, is a fascinating read that makes us reconsider how we define “culture” in hip-hop. It also encourages us to discern which aspects of hip-hop we find most important and meaningful. Fernandes found meaning in politically engaged hip-hop, and she looked for signs that hip-hop could bridge gaps in income, race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. That makes for a fascinating journey. It lends itself to a conceptualization of the “hip-hop community” as a unified amalgam, seamless and indistinctly overlapping.
Personally, I’ve always thought of it as a quilt. Individual portions of the quilt may be unique, but they all contribute to the whole. What we learn from Close to the Edge is that there is limitless potential for additional threads to the fabric.