Music

Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

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

Can hip-hop change the world? From the south side of Chicago to the barrios of Caracas and Havana and the sprawling periphery of Sydney, Sujatha Fernandes grapples with questions of global voices and local critiques, and the rage that underlies both.

Excerpted from the Introduction: The Making of a Hip Hop Globe (footnotes omitted) from Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation by © Sujatha Fernandes, published September 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Sujatha Fernandes. Reprinted with permission of Verso Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Introduction: The Making of a Hip Hop Globe

Pedro Alberto Martínez Conde, otherwise known as Perucho Conde, was probably the first rapper to compose a hit song outside the United States. A poet and comedian from the inner-city Caracas barrio of San Agustín, Conde was perplexed by the strange but catchy lyrics of the Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight.” In 1980 he came up with a Spanish version that went to the top of the charts in Latin America and Spain.

Book: Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

Author: Sujatha Fernandes

Publisher: Verso

Publication Date: 2011-09

Format: Paperback

Length: 208 pages

Price: $19.95

Affiliate: http://www.versobooks.com/books/1014-close-to-the-edge (Verso Books)

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/bythebook-closetoedge-bookcvr.jpgFar from the outdoor jams and battles of the Bronx scene where hip hop originated, “Rapper’s Delight” was packaged and designed for travel. But that didn’t mean global audiences got it. Conde baptized his imitation “La Cotorra,” the term for a pompous and long-winded speech. Other take-offs surfaced from Jamaica to Brazil; in Germany the song was called “Rapper’s Deutsch.” Cubans called it “Apenejé,” because nobody could make sense of the lyrics. As the first rap song to go global, “Rapper’s Delight” embodied the mix of fascination and incomprehension that would accompany the spread of early rap.

By the early 1980s the global circulation of hip hop through the music industry was being paralleled by the efforts of hip hop ambassadors like Afrika Bambaataa to spread a message of black brotherhood and unity. Back in 1973 Bambaataa had founded the Universal Zulu Nation, a Bronx-based street organization that drew on the mythology of anticolonial South African warriors to redirect the energies of inner-city gang youth. In April 1982 Bambaataa released his single “Planet Rock,” an anthem for this nascent movement, which was producing chapters across the city. With its mix of European technorock, funk, and rapping, “Planet Rock” was a model of fusion that imagined unity across cultures the same way Bambaataa had created unity across gang lines.

As he toured Europe and England in November, Bambaataa hoped to set the groundwork for the global spread of his movement. North African immigrant youth in the banlieues, or suburban peripheries, of Paris were attracted to Bambaataa and his message of black solidarity. Local chapters sprung up in Britain and Japan, where Bambaataa toured in 1985. In Brazil adherents like King Nino Brown preached “knowledge of self ” and experience as the foundations of hip hop. Bambaataa imparted an Afrocentric and socially conscious ethos to his global hip hop followers.

Bambaataa’s mission, to forge a global hip hop community, echoed the aspirations of the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. His mission was taken up by the next three generations. Chuck D of Public Enemy took Garvey’s vision of a black planet around the globe in the late 1980s, visiting local communities while on foreign tours. The Black August Hip Hop Project was formed in the late 1990s to draw connections between radical black activism and hip hop culture. The group organized exchanges between militant rappers in the US, Cuba, and South Africa. And the new millennium was the era of diasporic rappers, who forged a politics of global solidarity from within the heart of empire.

These hip hop ambassadors had their counterparts among intellectuals such as Paul Gilroy, who proposed the concept of the “Black Atlantic” as a space of exchange, belonging, and identity among Afrodiasporic communities that surpassed national boundaries. Music held a privileged place in the Black Atlantic, unseating the primacy of language and writing as expressive forms. But blackness did not always have to be the element connecting marginalized communities. George Lipsitz saw “Planet Rock” as part of an international dialog built on the imagination of the urban poor internationally who were suffering from the effects of global austerity policies imposed by transnational capital. Another set of scholars has more recently used the trope of the Global Hip Hop Nation to express the diffusion of hip hop and its social location as a universal cultural space. All these scholars saw the potential of the market for carrying important political ideas between cultures.

My own quest in this book mirrors the project of these ambassadors and scholars. Could hip hop create a fellowship of marginalized black youth around the globe? Could rappers be the voice not just of a post–civil rights generation in the American ghettos but of a generation of young people in the cités, housing projects, barrios, and peripheries of urban metropolises worldwide that has been excluded from the promises of a new global economy? Was there such a thing as a global hip hop generation, and could it act politically?

As I traveled the globe in search of this elusive community, I saw the ways that hip hop was being integrated into the arsenal, repertoire, and landscape of urban youth. Yet the more I probed, the more I became aware of the disconnect between localized expressions of hip hop. If something held them together, it was being lost in a haze of misunderstandings, cultural assumptions, and mixed signals. My own projected imaginings and desires were not being met with the enthusiasm I expected. The easy alliance of a hip hop globe was in danger of being rejected as a fantasy concocted and imposed by the West and rejected by the rest.

The same year “Planet Rock” was released, the single called “The Message” came out. It was credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Where “Planet Rock” preached universal brotherhood and transcendence, “The Message” was an edgy take on ghetto life. Where Bambaataa envisaged a universal consciousness, “The Message” was concerned with the specifics of everyday survival. Produced by Sugar Hill Records—the same label that released “Rapper’s Delight”—“The Message” was another manufactured product. At the same time, “The Message” came to represent a profound counterforce in global hip hop history. And it offered a lesson that could not be ignored.

Exactly this local specificity emerged as key in the global spread of hip hop. Hip hop was shaping a language that allowed young people to negotiate a political voice for themselves in their societies. As I learned through my travels, the genesis of hip hop in each case was highly dependent on the history, realities, and constrictions hip hoppers faced from within their own context. The Hip Hop Nation as a transnational space of mutual learning and exchange may not have been a concrete reality. But the transient alliances that hip hoppers imagined across boundaries of class, race, and nation gave them the resources and the platform they needed to tell their stories and provided the grounds for their locally based political actions.

Global hip hop was always marked by a tension between the desire for transcendence and the need to speak directly to local realities. As the hip hop journalist Jeff Chang has said, the incongruous visions of “Planet Rock” and “The Message” could be brought together only on the dance floor. The music held spaces of possibility for unity and cross-cultural understanding that made it powerful. Yet the contradictions between the dual visions at the core of the culture would be replayed throughout global hip hop history.

My motivation for writing this book lies in the abyss that I encountered as I came of age in Sydney in the eighties. In the seventies and early eighties I was surrounded by social ferment and political engagement. I now look back on that time as one when people considered radical change a real possibility. I remember my dad and his brothers debating anarchism. During our school vacations my sister and I were sent to stay with my auntie Dina in western Sydney. I witnessed her work in the refuge movement, which protected women from domestic violence. I read about feminism and racism in the books in my auntie Joyce’s house—Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I began a correspondence with my mum’s cousin Nigel, a socialist activist who was working with the Pintubi Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory.

I reached adolescence in the mid-1980s. Unemployment was high because of a serious economic recession, public sector cutbacks, and the decline of manufacturing industries, all inspired by Thatcher- and Reagan-style free-market policies. The glass factory and Resch’s Waverly Brewery on South Dowling Street were shut down and the old buildings lay abandoned, their windows cracked and blackened. In the working-class beachside neighborhood where I grew up, youth unemployment fueled problems of heroin addiction, crime, and violence between rival surf gangs. On cold winter mornings the beach was lined with idle youth, smoking weed or surfing. And the people around me gradually withdrew from politics and into their private lives.

Hip hop was one way out of the void I found myself in. In the conscious rhymes of KRS or the funky wisdom of Salt-N-Pepa, I found a path to political awareness. And I met others who had also found a voice through hip hop, as they too compared the political vibrancy of their parents’ generation—from the Aboriginal land rights movement to the Cuban revolution—with the bleak political landscape in which hip hoppers came of age. In the media and in popular culture, our generation was labeled Generation X—the ignored generation, the nihilist generation, the apolitical generation. But these labels didn’t describe the angry and politicized young people I saw embracing hip hop culture. Bakari Kitwana had used the phrase “hip hop generation” to describe African Americans who came of age in the post–civil rights era. Given the conditions of unemployment, incarceration, and poverty afflicting not just African Americans, but young people from the banlieues of Paris to the hillside shanties of Rio, I wondered whether we could talk about such a thing as a global hip hop generation.

I traveled to Havana in the late 1990s, where I witnessed the formation and maturation of Cuban hip hop. Havana was the site of an international hip hop festival. I thought that on this revolutionary island I would find the kinds of transnational solidarities that made the Hip Hop Nation powerful. Not only was this global solidarity a mirage, but Cuba didn’t seem as revolutionary as I had hoped. It would take a crisis from the North for me to appreciate the strategic ways in which Cuban rappers negotiated both their revolution and their place on the hip hop globe.

Next Page

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image