Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 2
Since Cee Lo got the last word on the previous post, the first word of today’s guest post goes to Senegalese rapper Sister Fa. The word is Sarabah, the inspiration for point 4 in this prolix paean to Hip Hop.
4. Hip Hop is international. Although it originated in the African American community as a critique of white supremacy and an expression of community pride, it has gained international popularity over the past three decades, going viral as a musical meme, and inspiring artists from across the globe to adapt it and hybridize it with local traditions. To make a biological analogy, Hip Hop has undergone a global adaptive radiation to rival that of the Cambrian explosion.
I highly recommend the documentary film The Furious Force of Rhymes, which includes interviews with rappers in Senegal, Israel/Palestine, the United States, and Germany, chronicling its global appeal and rapid evolution. The film is a tribute to young artists who are drawn to Hip Hop as a vehicle for exploring social and political inequalities. Artists like Sister Fa, who raps in Wolof, Manding, Jola, and French. Her song Life Am reads like a public service announcement about the importance of practicing safe sex to contain the AIDS epidemic, but it’s the catchiest PSA I’ve ever heard, which is why it’s so effective. I find myself singing along to the rhythmic “utiliser le preservatif” only to realize that’s about the least sexy thing it’s possible to say in French. Voici une video, Milyamba. Sister Fa is leveraging her fame as a rapper to campaign throughout West Africa against female genital mutilation. Subjected to the practice herself, she tells her story in the documentary film about her life and activism entitled Sarabah.
Sister Fa’s use of multiple languages in the course of one song is typical of the way in which international artists have embellished the form and upleveled the wordplay. I’m particularly fond of songs that blend English with other languages, like Ozomatli’s Nada’s Por Free, sung in Spanglish (“So me levanto off the suelo straight chillando with my pena.” Ha!). I’m kvelling over this video of Ozomatli performing in Spanglish at the Tu B’Shvat Nature Fest.
Code-switching and language-switching are natural stylistic choices for a medium concerned with raising questions about racial identity. It was not so long ago that Apartheid imposed arbitrary racial categories on South Africans and enforced them with singular cruelty. (Check out this excellent documentary on Apartheid featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu.) In the context of a country attempting to decolonize its national psyche and forge more pluralistic and inclusive social structures, rapper Emile YX uses Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans to explore lingering questions of racial identity.
In Who Am I? Emile YX mixes it up like the chromosomes in his name:
I’m every brother and sister
Working in a factory
I’m Easter weekend
camping at Kommetjie
I’m Sunday braaivleis
Dik geeet en gaan slaap
I’m that stone thrower at Caspers
During Apartheid innie Kaap
I’m that dummies player, kennetjie en Akoos
I’m that ANC supporter saying the DA se ma se,
I’m that voes gamtaal talker, corner broker
Gooi neer jou tol want hier gaan jy stoke ja,
I’m that mass marcher and tyre burner,
Minimal wage sub-economic earner
I’m that doctor, lawyer and politician in the ghetto
Wait a minute … Most of them have moved out though.
So I’m that one who stays to be a good role-model,
My election promises are not just oral.
Even when I can’t understand all the content of a song, I enjoy listening for Hip Hop’s recognizable elements, as well as the unique aspects that mark its cultural adaptation.
Here are a few gems:
In Spanish: Humanidad by Ana Tijoux
In Tagalog: Bebot by the Black Eyed Peas
In Japanese: Togesashi by Inden
In Arabic: Al Kuffiyeh 3Arabeyyeh by Shadia Mansour
With Hip Hop’s increasingly international reach, it is ever more pluralistic in both form and content. What is it exactly that makes the genre so appealing to a diverse global audience?
5. Hip Hop is democratic. A key stylistic convention of the genre involves using multiple first-person narrators who rotate in order to collectively construct the story as a mosaic. In the Black Eyed Peas’ Beautiful People, each of three narrators takes turns recounting his experience of coming into his own, overcoming the obstacles presented by anti-semitism, poverty, and the INS. Pinoy poet apl.de.ap tells his story:
Back in the days when I was in Philippines,
I had a dream to be heard and to be seen.
Came overseas at the age of fourteen,
Stood behind the front, if you know what I mean.
The song explores questions of worth – self-worth, material worth, innate worth — themes which are woven into each person’s narrative so that the song tells a collective story while still allowing each individual to express his unique perspective. Macy Gray sings the melody, an adaptation of the chorus from the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man With her wonderfully scratchy voice (What I wouldn’t give to bring Janis Joplin back from the dead to hear her and Macy Gray growl a duet!) she asks, “How does it feel to be one of the Beautiful People?” Collectively, the Black Eyed Peas convey a fairly democratic sentiment: You refugee, you immigrant, you down-and-out listener (and yes you, reader): You are the beautiful people.
Another favorite example of a song that uses rotating narrators to tell a single story is the Fugee’s Rumble in the Jungle. Seven narrators take turns paying homage to the historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that took place in Zaire in197. At the height of the Black Power movement, Muhammad Ali’s journey back to Africa took on a significance and symbolism that became a source of shared pride bolstered further by the fact that Ali was the World Heavyweight Champion and a radical to boot. Ali was an early Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, stating succinctly, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong; No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger.’” The song opens with a quote by Ali, so in a sense he becomes an eighth narrator:
“I’m gonna fight for prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want to win my title and walk down the allies, set on the garbage can with the wineheads. I wanna walk down the street with the dope addicts, talk to the prostitutes. So, I can help a lot of people.”
I recommend the documentary When We Were Kings, a biopic about Ali, which situates Rumble in the Jungle in its historical context, including the glaring irony of the event: the fact that it was funded by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had only recently assumed power via coup after the C.I.A. orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically-elected Patrice Lumumba. For more on the story of this egregious episode in American foreign policy, two good resources are the film Lumumba and the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a fictional account of the period surrounding Lumumba’s assassination. Interestingly, her novel also uses the device of rotating first-person narrators to structure the story. When telling a story about democracy – or the deliberate undermining thereof – the technique of weaving multiple narrators’s perspectives is apt in that it models pluralism.
Women’s voices are too often missing in Hip Hop, so I am particularly smitten with Cell Block Tango/He Had It Comin’ by Macy Gray, L’il Kim, and Queen Latifah. This song uses the multiple-narrator format to address a serious topic in a campy tone: domestic violence. The song’s over-the-top Broadway style (it was written for the musical Chicago) signals to the listener that we are in the realm of fantasy as each artist imagines violent revenge against her lover/abuser. Queen Latifah sings the first verse with characteristic sassitude:
I mean imagine, why was he hittin’ his woman?
Why was she takin’ that?
Now picture her fightin’ back, picture the ass kickin’
Think of his ass flippin’ down the stairs
And me at the top smilin’, he shoulda stopped wildin’.
Now could you picture me tryin’ to finish him off?
See why I pictured me on this side of the law?
High heels leave holes, you’d a thought I was gunnin’!
Now the cops comin’, I ain’t runnin’!
Hip Hop is very much a macho, male-dominant form, misogyny being its blind spot. So Queen Latifah’s is a minority voice. But that’s just it. Even if yours is a minority opinion, if you can voice it with enough panache, and what you’re saying smacks of truth, then you can have your day in court in Hip Hop. The democratic nature of the form has a lot to do with the method by which rappers rise in fame and credibility: the rap battle.
6. Hip Hop is competitive. Emerging rappers can be recognized in public because they carry a notebook in their pocket which they frequently take out to jot down rap lyrics and song hooks. They are avid consumers of rap music, noting other rapper’s cadences and rhyme schemes, and honing their skills in cyphers. A cypher is a group of rappers who get together and take turns improvising raps either acapella or over a beat. If you have ever seen this live, you know how impressive this ability to extemporize is. Here’s a home-made video of a stellar cypher I saw live as part of the annual Life is Living Festival. (Check out the 9-year-old who rocks the mic at 3:20 and 13:28!) Cyphers provide creative community and serve as training grounds for the high-stakes battles that put rappers to the test. Many of you are familiar with the battle scene in Eminem’s 8-Mile, a film that is notorious in my mind largely for its terribly unsexy sex scene. (And they didn’t even “user le preservatif!”) Here’s a link to the final battle scene in 8-Mile, in which Eminem wins by confessing his flaws to the crowd first, stealing his opponent’s best ammunition.
In a rap battle, two artists at a time compete. They are each given a time limit, taking turns addressing each other back and forth, all the while wooing the crowd with their artistry and skills. When the beat drops – one they have not heard in advance – they have to deliver a performance that: a) belittles the competitor; b) self-aggrandizes; c) references a comment or event that just occurred, demonstrating that the lyrics are improvised in the moment; and d) impresses the crowd. This last one is critical, as it is the audience who decides who the winner is in an instant and rambunctious plebiscite. Picture an Occupy General Assembly, but with different hand gestures. Hip Hop’s virtuosos are vetted in the democratic forum of the rap battle.
Apropos of democracy and internationalism, I’ll give the last word of today’s post, part 2 of 3, to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Enjoy this funky rallying cry from Occupy London.