The World Rocks to Hip-Hop - By Dominic Patten

“The crux of culture,” the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston once noted, is "the exchange and re-exchange of ideas between groups." By this definition, American music is at the heart of our cultural life. The exhilarating melodies of jazz, blues, rock'n'roll, and Motown have all had their day - some simultaneously. However, none of those genres has had the pervasive influence of hip-hop.

That same influence taunted the French police as it was heard in the twilight of last year when immigrant youth tore up the streets of cities all over the country. The riots started on October 27th in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois with the death of two teenagers of African origin who were trying to hide from the police. For the next three weeks, amidst the husk of thousands of charred cars and burning trucks, chaos reigned, punctuated by the sounds of urban youth taking up lyrics from American gangsta rap and chanting "Clichy-sous-Bois, it's gangsta gangsta / And Aulnay-sous-Bois, it's gangsta gangsta," a prophetic anthem of their own by domestic rapper Alpha 5.20. Hip-hop had become the soundtrack of a distinctly new France.

The patois of youth
From its origins at house parties in the South Bronx in the early 1970s to today's Senegal, Paris, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka hip-hop has become the universal patois of youth. Joseph Nye, the political scientist, noted the genre's appeal, remarking, "thousands of Japanese youth are co-opting the music, dress and style of urban black America." In a 2004 interview, Aaron McGruder, creator of the Boondocks comic strip, captured the sentiment of legions of suburban and inner city youth when he said he "looked at everything from a hip-hop perspective."

Hip-hop is conservatively estimated to bring in annual revenues of more than $10 billion from its core demographic of 13-to-34 year olds, a cohort that has, according to Forbes, annual spending power of $1 trillion. You'll see it walking down any high street in London, Paris, Shanghai, New York, Dubai, Rio, Lusaka, or Moscow and everywhere in-between, with sidewalks full of the genre's aesthetic of oversized basketball jerseys, baggy pants, and luxury sneakers. Within minutes you'll hear Jay-Z, Missy Elliot, Eminem, Nas, The Roots, Outkast or Kanye West with the signature booming bass of hip-hop emanating from passing cars, store fronts and mobile phones. For all the talk of globalization, this is the world's first truly global culture.

Though it is used internationally in the marketing of everything from automobiles, to athletic gear, fast food and electronics, for most over-30s, the intricate word play, drama, sampling, and even the beat of the best hip-hop still seems like a disjointed monologue of bravado played over the top of other people's music. This generational divide is both unfortunate and surprising because the music's roots are not particularly new.

The martyred prince of gangsta rap
However, events like the fatal shooting at the age of 25 of Tupac Shakur, a revolutionary rapper, in 1996 are bringing the culture into the mainstream. Almost overnight, Tupac became the martyred prince of gangsta rap, a popular subgenre of hip-hop, around the world. Like Elvis Presley, Tupac's life and music are more celebrated now than when he was alive.

Tupac's face can be found on t-shirts in Chicago, Karachi, and Basseterre. Americans troops took to calling the Iraqi town Albu Hishma "Tupac" in 2003 because the area is "Albu Shakur," Tupac is the bestselling western artist in Africa. His influence is not entirely benign. The killers of Sierra Leone like to have themselves photographed among corpses in Tupac's distinctive aggressive poses.

In Israel, Tupac is a hero to both Jewish and Arab hip-hop fans. This shared admiration did bring about a collaboration between Quami De La Fox, whose satirical song Black Dayz lambasts his fellow Israelis for their celebrity obsessions, and Tamar Nafar, an Arab master of ceremonies who raps in both Hebrew and Arabic. While neither performer is so naïve as to think they can eradicate the distrust between their people, both believe that their love of hip-hop can counter the violent undertones of Kobi Shimoni, (a nationalist rapper whose stage name is the misleading "Subliminal").

This is not a situation unique to the West Bank. Many performers and fans around the world have found in hip-hop a powerful subculture that they believe can affect the greater culture. Vibrant outposts of hip-hop can be found in countries as sundry as France, South Africa, Columbia, and Greenland. And it is often in their own tongue and often with their own slant on the genre and how to mould it to their own circumstances and context.

French revolution
That context can, as Tupac's death and others have shown, turn violent. That is why establishment figures are so wary of hip-hop. The slogans that the French rioters bellowed during the three weeks of unrest late last year quickly became the target of recrimination in political circles. Whether an indication of the genre's power or merely that it was a convenient scapegoat, the unrest left no doubt that hip-hop had become a part of the nation's social discourse, a reality unthinkable in France a few years ago.

After more than 200 MPs petitioned the Justice Ministry to prosecute several hip-hop performers for their lyrics, Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, had to declare that he did not hold hip-hop "responsible for the crisis in the suburbs," "Hip-hop is a crude art," said Monsieur R., whose songs had been among those accused of objectionable lyrics, "So, we use crude words. It is not a call to violence."

Unfortunately, because many French performers rap in Verlan, a dexterous slang in which words are rearranged so bourré (drunk) becomes rébou, while bête (stupid) is now teubé, much has been lost in the generational translation. Still, performers like Akhenaton and Saîan Supa Crew, who have made France's crisis of assimilation the focus of their lyrics, have been building on the success of domestic forerunners like MC Solaar. It is proving a winning strategy. In 2005, hip-hop accounted for almost 8% of French music sales, representing a fivefold leap over the previous five years. France's youth is dancing to a beat far from la Marseillaise.

And it is a beat heard round the world. MC Yen, frontman and main lyricist for Hong Kong's LMF, has said that his first exposure to hip-hop wasn't in America, but MC Solaar while studying in France in the early 1990s.

While the overtly political hip-hop of Public Enemy and KRS-1 has fallen off the turntable in America, internationally its influence has never been stronger. In South America, rappers like La Etnnis wax about poverty. In South Africa, Godessa, an all-female crew, addresses issues like AIDS. The band Black Noise attacks unemployment and drug use and organizes the annual Indaba festival to highlight domestic hip-hop. In Greenland, Nuuk Posse, who have Inuit roots, enjoy a political role as informal spokesmen for the young.

African beat
Unlike Eminem, who released his anti-Bush Mosh just days before the 2004 American presidential election, Kenya's GidiGidi MajiMaji insist they did not set out to write a political song when they recorded Who Can Bwogo Me in 2002. Yet the number one song caught on so much that during the country's election, that opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki adopted it as his unofficial anthem. And, in victory, even referred to it in his presidential inaugural address.

On 2003's Boomerang, Senegal's Daara J draws not just from funk and soul, but also indigenous African rhythms, and reggae. Rapping in French, Daara J stresses social awareness, political activism and African pride, a message that influenced the 2003 election. With 80% of the population under 30, the Democratic Party's decision to enlist Daara J and other leading hip-hop acts resulted in a landslide victory over the three-decade-old rule of the Socialist government.

Rap Cubano was born in 1980 after smuggled tapes of the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight started making their way unto the communist island. After years of repressing the music, in 1999 the Minster of Culture officially recognized hip-hop as "an authentic expression of Cuban identity." Soon afterwards the regime began funding a national record label, Movimietos magazine and a national Cuban rap agency.

It is no coincidence that the international proliferation of hip-hop closely parallels America's post-Cold War emergence as the world's sole superpower. Globalization and the ascendancy of America's cultural legacy has shifted, with the widespread application of communications technologies like the internet, from dominance to inclusion. The urban boombox is, literally and figuratively, the heartbeat of a global youth culture.

In a region like the Middle East, where almost 60% of the population is under 25 years old, that connection is significant. In Iraq, where, as documentaries like Gunner Palace have shown, hip-hop is the soundtrack to the American military presence, the genre provides one of the few points of commonality between the nation's youth and their American counterparts in the genre's catchphrases and elaborate series of hand gestures and acknowledgments. For polarized times Tupac and Dr. Dre's 1995 classic California Love, Kayne West's or K-OS' new album might represent the best chance for a dialogue between cultures.

A perfect example of just such cross-cultural pollination occurred in 2005 when M.I.A. (real name, Maya Arulpragasam) enticed audiences and critics worldwide with her debut album Arular, and her live performances. The daughter of a Tamil militant whose family fled Sri Lanka's violence for a British council estate, M.I.A. mixed bicultural lyrics of urban realities and the developing world in a meld of hip-hop with dollops of American slang, dance hall reggae, Bhangra, punk, and electronic music.

Hip-hop is mutating as a cultural entrepreneur. Forms and functions are exported, exchanged, and then imported back with new ideas, new sounds and increasingly multiple demographics picked up along the way. If today's global culture has any form it is the re-mix, where the old, the traditional and the varied find new life. Zora Neale Hurston's observation seems as fitting as that of Eric B and Rakim, two pioneers hip-hop, who said of the genre, "it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."

- March 7, 2006

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