Hip hop: The global voice of revolution?


From San Francisco to Senegal, and from Hamburg to Havana, hip hop has gone global. In recent years in particular, the voice of rappers has been prominent in political struggles, particularly across the Arab world during the Arab Spring uprisings. How did it happen and can we really talk about a global hip hop generation? Caspar Melville spoke to Sujatha Fernandes, author of the new book from Verso ‘Close to the Edge: In search of a global hip hop generation’

He started by asking her how she first got involved with hip hop.

SF: I grew up in Australia, I was born to Indian parents and I was growing up in a working class beachside neighbourhood called Maroubra, about as far as you can get from South Bronx where hip hop originated. One of my early memories of hip hop is watching an Australian music show called Rage and seeing the song ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song really struck something in me and I think that as I went on to college and as I became politicized, and started listening to Public Enemy and KRS-One, I was learning about politics and the world through the lyrics and through the music. As all of that happened, I think it really sparked something in me to want to travel the world and to want to learn more about hip hop around the globe, and try to understand why it was that hip hop could speak to people in such completely diverse places and settings and why it resonated like that.

CM: Now of course the book title is a quote from ‘The Message’. For those people who haven’t heard it, what was happening in that particular record?

There were two things that were interesting about it. One was that it presented the ghetto reality of Reagan’s America in this gritty, hardcore, realistic way that was breath-taking.

The second thing about the song was that it was another example of hip hop’s commercialisation. The way that the record was produced was actually by a studio musician who mostly wrote and recorded the song, even those it was attributed to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five who appear in the video clip. It’s an interesting example of the way that hip hop, from its very early days, was commodified and sent around the globe. The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’ was produced by the same woman Sylvia Robinson – again an example of its commodification.

CM: There is this dialectic at the heart of hip hop, which on the one hand it never would have made it to Sydney for you to hear it if it hadn’t in some sense been commercialised and commodified. On the other, you make some claims about hip hop’s revolutionary potential, its potential political content. So I just want to get this scene in Sydney in my mind. You went to break dancing classes, who was attracted to hip hop in Sydney, what was it potentially doing on the ground there?

SF: When we were growing up and we were very young, it was of course mass culture. We were getting it through Michael Jackson, we were seeing Run DMC, Salt n Pepper in the nightclubs. It was again through this mass media, through the global networks, that these songs were reaching us. It was part of pop culture; it was just growing up in that era that this is what we were listening to and hearing. But as we became teenagers and older, a scene started to develop in Sydney where young people began themselves to perform, to start crews, whether b-boy crews, rapping, graffiti or DJing. When they actually started participating in the elements then we began seeing very distinct kinds of areas and groups where it was emerging – to the west of Sydney that has traditionally been working class and more and more immigrant in those days, and as well there were more aboriginal young people who were being relocated from the inner city into the west.  You were seeing these relocations and this growing immigrant population, from a new generation that were really not finding jobs in the same way that their parents were when they first emigrated, and they were really finding hip hop an interesting tool as a way of talking about their experiences and finding spaces of leisure and pleasure. This is really where the heart of hip hop was back in the late 80s and 90s.

CM: For the non-specialist audience, traditionally hip hop is given a four part existence; it’s not just people talking. Can we break it down for the uninitiated, when we say hip hop, what are the various techniques and styles and things that are happening?

SF: Traditionally it has been referred to as the four elements of hip hop, which are DJing, b-boying and rapping. These are seen as the traditional components, but it’s come to be accepted that there are many more components than just these four like film-making, theatre, beat-making, fashion – these can also be seen as all a part of this umbrella term.

CM: If you make a film, what is it that makes it a hip hop film as opposed to any other film? What are its defining features?

SF: It can be something about the aesthetic that is related to imagery, style, music, beat or something that draws on an aspect of the culture. It’s a really broad label for people, people can label hip hop literature or hip hop film something that is not even talking necessarily about hip hop, but that has a rhythm, a style or a flow that may be associated with hip hop culture.

CM: Your book is part a meditation about the politics of hip hop and part a memoir and travel log of your eleven year journey in search of this hip hop generation. Before we go any further, I think it’s worth having some music. Let’s listen to a piece of music that comes out of Havana. The band’s called Obsesión, the track is called ‘Se Busca’. Can you tell us about this track?

SF: This is a tune by the husband-wife rap duo Obsesión, and the song ‘Se Busca’ is talking about them and their relationship; the way that they came together through hip hop what it means to them, and how they express their love for each other through the music.

CM: That was a wonderful piece of music. You went to Havana and you stayed with the band Obsesión. One of the great things about your book is the way which you show that hip hop becomes inflected in any given place by the politics of that place, and adjusts itself. The degree to which it stays too faithful or too imitative of American styles is how it fails, but when it picks up the local politics and the local dialectical politics in particular it can become really interesting. So what did you find in Havana?

SJ: One thing when I first went to Havana in 1998 struck me is that so many people, like I’d seen in Sydney, were starting to rhyme on the street corners in their backyard, with their cousins, in their homes and that it was really taking off. When I first went and I didn’t speak Spanish, I didn’t exactly understand everything that was being said, but I could see that there was something about the everyday realities that they had moved past the stage of simply imitating American rap and trying to sound like American rappers. They were rapping in Spanish, they were rapping about things that meant something to them, and it was only a few trips later that I saw the development of this music from something that was just about the every day to something that was beginning to take on a political voice. This political context in Cuba was that Cuba had gone through what was called a ‘special period’, where the collapse of the Soviet Union lead to a lot of economic problems for Cuba. As the Cuban government started trying to build the economy in the absence of the huge contributions of the Soviet Union, they began opening to a global market and what happened was that it widened racial disparities within the country. Young black Cubans found themselves not only without the traditional tools of education and employment that had been one guarantee of the Cuban revolution for many decades for young people, but they also found themselves locked out of the new tourist economy that was emerging. The faces of tourist hotels were generally white and most of the jobs available in tourism were for white Cubans, and remittances were sent from white families to white Cubans. Young black Cubans were finding themselves locked out in both senses, and they were finding themselves the victims of increasing racism as racism became more visible in this period.

CM: One of your great contributions here is that you say that the rappers couldn’t just map American racial politics on to the Cuban situation because it was very different, including this wonderful double speak idea that everyone repeated the mantra “there is no racism in Cuba”, which was the official line that everyone followed.

SJ: This is the thing that I came to realise as I saw the way that rappers played such an important role in helping to articulate a racial politics, and helping them talk against the official line that “In Cuba there is no racism”, which everywhere people and officials will say to you constantly, especially white Cubans. They say “This is a very mixed race society, it’s not like America”, and what rappers successfully did was to turn that around and say “How you can say there’s no racism when there’s a racist?” In fact that’s a line from a rap song called ‘Black Tears’, a very popular song that was popular precisely because it spoke to the elephant in the room. It said what nobody was saying, which was that racism exists and we’re going to speak about it. It actually got the Minister of Culture to acknowledge it, and to say “Yes we have racism here, and rap music is a form that is finally addressing it”.

CM: You accredit Cuban hip hop with having made that possible?

SJ: I actually interviewed the Minister of Culture. I’d gone through all the documents before, seeing things that had been written in Cuban newspapers saying “Why is rap here, why are they rapping about race? We don’t have a race problem here!” A couple of years after this movement reached its peak was when I interviewed Abel Prieto, the Minister of Culture, and I asked him “What do you think about this rap movement?” He said “I accredit rap with bringing into public discourse this issue of race and bringing into discourse the issues of marginalised barrios which have found expression in this form.”

CM: This is one of the most fascinating things about your Cuban adventure, which is not only can the American racial politics of American hip hop not be translated directly into the Cuban situation, but also the different political structure in Cuba. You raise this wonderful point, which is not only is your question “Can hip hop be revolutionary?”, but also your question in Cuba is “Can hip hop be counter-revolutionary?” since revolution is the dominant hegemonic structure there. The government get involved in trying to sponsor it, but also trying to annex and control, so talk a little bit about that – you’re very ambivalent about this process.

SF: These are the parameters unfortunately that from the start of the revolution had been set. Fidel Castro said “You’re either inside the revolution or you’re against it” in a speech to artists, and what Cuban art has done right from the very beginning is go beyond that, because they’ve said we can be within and supportive of a process that has done a lot to change and improve our lives, but at the same time we can be very critical. I think what rappers did was they took that even one step further; they question what is the revolution, and what is it now in the 1990s and the new millennium, how different is it to what it was back in the 60s, and what is it doing for us anymore. I think they kind of changed those terms of being revolutionary and being counter-revolutionary to re-appropriate the idea that “No we are revolutionary, we are not counter-revolutionary”, but yet they are completely redefining that term and what it means, which is of course a tricky thing to do in Cuba. On the television you’re always hearing things like “We will be like Che”, and promoting revolution across Latin America, you are constantly hearing the term ‘revolution’ and so when you call yourself a revolutionary how do you do that? It’s very tricky.

CM: Isn’t it also the case that the rappers who are prepared to take on the government discourse were in danger of denying themselves exposure at these government sponsored events, or on television, and therefore the possibility of breaking through and making career?

SF: Yes and that’s a really tricky balance that for many years a lot of them played, which was that how far are they willing to talk about our realities, to really freely express what we believe and what we think, and then move that to an audience because we’re going to be shut out from the radio, censored, and not allowed to perform at the hip hop festival. That was the tightrope that many of them walked up until the 2000s when more of them began to travel, and when we had the advent of things like youtube and itunes they had many other ways of disseminating their music.

CM: So they could circumvent the governmental channels and find an audience. Clearly what’s gone in Havana was that the rap and hip hop was mixed with indigenous styles of music, and of course Cuba’s got the most fantastic musical heritage; this afro, Latin, funk and jazz type feel I can imagine is threaded through the music?

SF: There’s been a kind of debate about that because some people don’t want to bring the salsa and the traditional instrumentation, saying that this is what the foreign record labels want us to do to make it sound exotic, we’re not going to buy into the whole ‘Buena-vista-social-club-isation’ of our music. So some of them really wanted to stick to just doing American beats, and they were criticized because people said well if you’ve just got American beats, this is American music, its not Cuban music. Others wanted to innovate and they would bring in live instrumentation in to their music, like the ritual bata drum, congas or the Brazilian instruments like the balle de agua, or various different styles. You hear a lot of that in either the live instrumentation or into the beats, so producers would actually use samples from the Cuban bolero music.

CM: This is a very hip hop way of doing it – rather than having a band you cut, mix and re-program those beats. Obviously a lot of that music is available on youtube so people should look it up. I want to take you to Caracas now at a very difficult time in Venezuelan history. You talk about going to visit people in this government project, which had been built to house people after a devastating flood. But you were only protected from the perceived violence of drug dealers and local gang people because you were with people who were respected and recognised, and you can feel the tension there and the music sounds different. Here we are encountering a kind of music, you make the link in your book explicit so I think we should talk about it, which is gangsta rap.

Just tell us where and how gangster rap came in America and then why the connexion with Caracas?

SF: Gangsta rap is something that emerges on the West coast, in what some people have called the ‘penitentiary culture’; the culture of high incarceration of young balck people that turn to drug dealing and crime in a situation where there is not a lot of other options. You have the emergence of this culture on the west coast as as a means of speaking about this, and it sounded very different to the early east coast rap that emerged. What happened in Venezuela was that I went there expecting, after my time in Havana, to see a very similar kind of thing, especially since the radical leader Hugo Chavez had just come into power. I expected to see very revolutionary hip hop and socially conscious hip hop, and instead I came across a totally different reality. I think this is something that ever since the debt crisis in the mid-1980s and onwards, Venezuela has suffered large numbers of young people who are living in poverty, turning to crime, incarceration very much part of this penitentiary culture like we see in LA. So this is why gangsta rap appeals to these young people, and a lot of them talked about Tupac and as one of their icons and one of the rappers that they listen to a lot, and just in general I think the music spoke to them. They didn’t speak English so they couldn’t necessarily understand that they are also talking about being thrown in prison, and they’re also talking about growing up on the streets. It wasn’t the lyrics that spoke to them so much as the music and I think that is something so powerful about hip hop, that even without the lyrics the music itself and the tone of the music can communicate an experience.

CM: One of the words you use very importantly is the idea of rage. Lots of ideas are mixed up in hip hop; there’s a king of play, and alternative creativity going on, and partying. Famously Afrika Bambaataa decided to stop the gang violence and do the dancing. But what you’ve got in Caracas, and what you’ve got in NWA, is the articulation of impotent rage, which can sometimes be a glorification or can sound like a glorification of violence and drug dealing that comes out of an extreme political situation.

SF: That’s exactly what I was coming across in Caracas, which is not really having any other way to express that rage other than the continuing negative cycle of drugs, violence, crime and killing. Caracas at some point had a homicide rate of up to 100 on the weekend, 100 homicides. That’s the kind of extreme situation that exists in the barrios, and I do think that Chavez and the social movements that have emerged around him have definitely done a lot to change that. But the reality I encountered was one that was still dealing that reality.

CM: So here again you have the government getting involved in hip hop, even a different kind of government – Chavez is a hero of the Left. In what way did Chavez’s government address the hip hop generation?

SF: I think that Chavez was trying to speak to those very young people, and I think he successfully did speak to young disaffected black people in the barrios by saying “You are not being representing in politics, I’m finally someone who came up like you did, who wants to speak to these issues”. People did say to me they’re doing the same thing that he is doing but they’re just doing it in music. So I think there were definitely those affinities, but as usual, like I saw in Havana, the places where the government gets involved and tries to promote groups and tries to start to sponsor the music, that it enters a whole different dynamic. I think that at the time I was in Venezuela it was still a very fledgling political critical movement that was emerging, and it’s hard to create a movement from the top down – the Chinese government have tried to do it.

CM: Do you think it robs the music of something vital?

SF: I just don’t think you can create a culture from the top down, which is in some ways what the Venezuelan government and other governments have tried to do. But when as in Havana, France or other places, you have this extremely vibrant movement that already exists, and the government realizes that they have to reach out to these young people because this is an important part of our population. When the government tries to reach out to those young people I think that it does introduce a whole different logic, that if it becomes dominant, I think can really rob it of something vital which is its critical potential. Some people argue that this is what’s happening in Cuba, and that’s why people started to disappear and go off into other things. The movement dispersed because state sponsorship became too much.

CM: In your book there are a number of other points on your hip hop journey including Chicago and also back in Australia, but I want to fast forward just a little bit before looking at the journey as whole. I know you’ve written recently a piece in the New York Times about hip hop in other parts of the world. So I think we’re going to have a couple of clips and then we’re going to talk about hip hop as it continues to move around the world. We’re going to start with one which is very associated with what’s been happening in the Arab spring, and this Mohammed Al-Deeb and the track’s called ‘Masra Deeb’.

How important has rap and hip hop been in the Arab spring uprisings?

SF: I think it’s played a very similar role to what we’ve seen in the African protests, starting with El Général the Tunisian rapper who produced a biting critique of his government. He put out this song that actually led to him being arrested and led to uprisings in Tunisia, and then through to Egypt and through to Libya where the music just spread. El Général’s song spread to Egypt through YouTube, al Jazeera, CNN and Facebook and became the anthem of the protests there. In fact that’s why I think that Arab is like this lingua franca of the hip hop nation because it has been so powerful in spreading the music and in inciting change. Before these uprising began hip hop was very powerful and a strong movement but it didn’t have the broad appeal that it arguably has now because it became interlinked with the movements as they were rising. So people would see these rappers at rallies and protests, they would see rappers up on the stage, they would listen to their music and they would look to them as a voice of guidance and leadership.

CM: We’ll follow that up with a track from Senegal and perhaps you can tell us about that after we’ve heard that.

What was the last track we heard there?

This last track was one called ‘Coup de Gueule’ by a group called the Keurgi Crew. These rappers were very critical of the Wade government, as the hip hop generation had just a decade earlier actually helped to bring into power, because he said that he was going to address constitutional problems that had been introduced by the previous government. The government kept trying to stay in power and Wade said he was going to make alliances with the hip hop generation and make changes, and in fact he did precisely the opposite. Once he came into power he did try to extend his terms in office indefinitely and brought in nepotism. Senegal is a very poor country where many young people are trying to escape for a better future to Europe, and the fact that hip hop particularly had helped bring in this leader who then totally turned their backs on them was very disappointing. So this track is one that was written before the uprisings started last year, the protests against Wade and his proposal to extend his term in office, and it’s a song that just talks about the rampant corruption and problems with government that exist in Senegal.

CM: You make some quite broad claims or big claims for the political impact of a song like this. Why isn’t this just some youths getting together and recording a video? It’s actually having a real political effect.

SF: I think one of the reasons is because people are not really saying this in other forms. Until the protest erupted last June people were scared to say things out loud for fear of retaliation or fear of being thrown into jail. The rappers criticized Yousen Dorve, for instance, and his traditional style of music for not taking a political stance and for being apolitical. Soo it’s really with rap music that these rappers first, in a really strong way, take on these issues. They style themselves as modern day Griots, who were the earlier rhymers and poets who used to criticize the government in power. They say that they’re carrying on that tradition and in some ways they’re the only ones speaking out and saying these things.

CM: One of the fascinating things about this kind of reorganising and decentring of the hip hop world is that those of us who don’t speak Arabic, for example, are put in the position of those Arab youth or Havana youth listening to American rap, in that we don’t understand what the words mean. I mean that Deeb track sounds fantastic and you can still get a sense of what he’s saying and the power of it. As you said it’s not just in the words, it’s the flow, it’s the delivery, it’s the whole package.

SF: I think it goes back to my point about rage. I think there is at times an understated, at times overtly militant feeling associated with the music that really communicates so powerfully. I would make the big claim unlike any other musical form makes that it hits a nerve for a certain generation, and perhaps for several generations, who have undergone a similar series of processes that have led us to where we are today.

CM: In your book there’s a beautiful epilogue, and there’s a certain sense of disappointment and it leads you to certain conclusions. At one point you say that you had hoped that you were going to find something, which was kind of a community, in search of this hip hop generation you were going to find a hip hop nation. In fact the strength of hip hop was not that it formed a grand global movement but rather the myriad forms of expression it made possible in the local.

SF: I think this can correspond to our thinking about hip hop today with the Arab uprisings and the African protests. I was trying to put too much on hip hop, I was trying to make it be a grand social movement that could unite people across the world and in the end it is just music. Artists are concerned with the music that they’re doing, but even if they are political and even if they’re voicing political ideas, in the end they are artists and the role of art is not necessarily to be as instrumental as just putting forward a political message. Nevertheless I still think that hip hop played a very powerful role in each of these locations where it came. Even if people have moved on, and in the epilogue I give a kind of snap shot of where people have gone and what they’re doing now, and many of them have moved on and many of them are disillusioned with where hip hop is right now, but I think that they all acknowledge that it played a very important role in their own formation. I think that it’s possible that several of them might have been in jail or dead or on a very bad path in life if they hadn’t come across this musical form that had given them a way to articulate their experience, and in some cases helped formed political movements that did bring about changes in society.

CM: Just to bring this back around to you, there is a part of the hip hop generation that has developed its own academic tradition and there are several academics that describe themselves as hip hop intellectuals; people like Trisha Rose and Amali Perry. Do you consider yourself a hip hop academic and how have you brought what you learnt there into what you do now?

SF: It’s undeniable that hip hop has completely informed the way that I do the research that I do. Definitely when I teach I teach social theory, Marxist economic theory and media, I go through a whole range of traditional social theories and I use hip hop to teach those things. When my students walk in the classroom I ask them about what shoes are you wearing, have you got Nike shoes, let’s think about hip hop fashion and the political economy of that. When I’m teaching I find that hip hop, because it still continues to be such a powerful mode for young people and the way they think and what they consume, it just helps me to articulate and to discuss with them complex ideas that otherwise they might not necessarily care about or be interested in.

CM: I just want to emphasise to anyone listening who feels that they don’t want to plough through an academic text about hip hop that your book is in no way an academic book; it is very readable, personal. What did you do consciously to make this a book that could be read by anyone, including many of your subjects and informants?

SF: It has to be told in a voice that is more engaging than simply writing an academic text. As you said we’re schooled in academia to write in this voice that is impersonal, that doesn’t use ‘I’, that is not colloquial, that is very formal. I think that writing a book like this could not have been told in that voice.

CM: In that way it’s a wonderful embodiment of what you’ve said about hip hop, and why in a way this is a hip hop book. Thank you so much it’s a wonderful book, and thanks for the interview it’s been fascinating.

SF: Thank you so much I really enjoyed chatting with you.