Can Hip Hop change the world?

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

Can hip hop change the world? Exploring the resistive potential of hip hop in the context of globalisation

Reviewer: Eitan Prince

Fernandes, S. Close To The Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books. 2011.

Basu, D. and Lemelle, S.J. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. London: Pluto Press. 2006.

Since its birth in the Bronx of the mid-1970s, the cultural movement pioneered by New York City’s working-class black (and brown) youth around the disciplines of rapping, DJing, break-dancing, and spraycan art has grown immeasurably. Hip hop is now 40 years old. It is unarguably the most dominant musical and cultural movement of its time. During its existence it also became a multi-billion-dollar industry (a growth path traced in great detail by Dan Charnas in The Big Payback.) In the period between its infancy and middle age, however, hip hop’s impact was profound – its beats, rhymes, movements, stylised art, and politics of resistance and pleasure sending ripples through the borough of its birth and well beyond the borders of the United States. Indeed, in many countries, on every continent across the globe, there are hip hop scenes already many decades old. In these sites – many of which share the socially marginalised and economically depressed characteristics of 1970s New York City – hip hop arrived via mainstream channels, but it was the culture’s most radical elements that catalysed local movements.

What is hip hop’s potential as a tool for activism and unifying the dispossessed across national borders? Can it change the world?

Two recent texts consider these questions in the context of hip hop and globalisation. Sujatha Fernandes’s Close To The Edge is a reflection on the author’s 11-year odyssey across four cities (Havana, Chicago, Sydney, and Caracas) in four countries, in search of what it is that makes hip hop such a powerful global force. For Fernandes, an ‘Indian-Australian-Portuguese gringa’, hip hop speaks to all (both the dispossessed and the privileged) in ways that activists do not and could not. Indeed the book begins with the hopeful expression of hip hop’s immense potential to create a ‘fellowship of marginalised black youth around the globe’ and to be the ‘voice of a generation of young people excluded from the promises of a new a global economy’. What the author finds instead, as she probes in the hip hop communities in the rather disparate sites she visits, is the great disconnect that exists between localised expressions of hip hop. ‘If something held them (these different scenes) together, it was being lost in a haze of misunderstandings, cultural assumptions, and mixed signals’ (Fernandes 2013: 3).

Fernandes’s approach is a refreshing shift within recent scholarship on hip hop and its global reach. It is at once hopeful and empathic and also probing and personal – even when, one suspects, she feels a little let down by her discoveries. Fernandes sets out to explore hip hop’s potential for reigniting protest politics on a global scale, with the hope that the music could bring young people together across social boundaries. What she finds instead is that while global economic shifts have created strikingly familiar cycles of poverty and violence among marginal communities the world round, the ‘global hip hop ‘hood’ remains a fantasy.

The Vinyl Ain’t Final, an edited collection by Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. Lemelle, brings together scholars, journalists, poets and proto-rappers to offer critical perspectives on hip hop’s location within the political economy of culture and capitalism as well as its symbolic, economic and cultural purchase. Split across two parts – or ‘sides’ if you will – the first half of the collection examines hip hop culture and rap music in the United States while the second offers insights gathered from across the globe in Europe, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa. The authors present a rich mix of analytical frameworks from within the academy’s disciplinary and interdisciplinary traditions and beyond as they examine moments of opposition and resistance in sites including Hawai’i, France, Cuba and South Africa (the latter in Zina Magubane’s chapter, Globalisation and Gangster Rap: Hip-Hop in the Post-Apartheid City). However, there is an uncomfortable obsession with hip hop’s proliferation of violence, nihilistic representations, depoliticisation, and the uncritical celebration of ‘bling bling’ – to borrow a phrase from Robin D.G. Kelley, the author of the book’s foreword. Though it would be short-sighted to dismiss the many critiques presented, especially when the book so successfully and convincingly foregrounds compelling cases of hip hop’s resistive potential at the frontline, it leaves this reviewer feeling uneasy that the dichotomy of ‘gangster’, materially-obsessed hip hop versus the purer, more socially conscious underground hip hop is still so pervasive in academic writing. As the editors have noted, ‘the vinyl ain’t final’: hip hop is constantly reinventing itself; it is not a fait accompli. It is perhaps time for scholars also to observe more carefully the theorising that hip hop practitioners – even those seemingly trapped in commerce – have been weaving into their art for decades. This is a criticism also applicable to Fernandes’s observations of the sometimes disparate nature of how hip hop’s resistive politics are performed in different locations: in regional scenes in the United States and across the globe hip hop artists have been expressing these differences, whether it be through the aesthetics of production, or their political-economic responses to shared social challenges.

Both Close To The Edge and The Vinyl Ain’t Final are valuable additions to the now sizeable canon of hip hop literature and scholarship, with a specific focus on ‘glocalisation’. Their interrogation of hip hop within the current global socio-political-economic context is rigorously argued and compellingly presented. Whether they satisfyingly answer the question, ‘Can hip hop change the world?’, remains contested. After all, the vinyl ain’t final – and hip hop is not dead. For now, as Fernandes suggests, hip hop remains the perfect tool for expressing rage, catalysing action and generating social criticism and musical innovation. It is an outline that you could colour with your own experience.

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