Who Put the 'Hip' in Global Hip-Hop?

Sorry if I drift into ethnomusicologist territory, but it's fascinating I think how music is percieved so differently by different individuals, groups, societies. This perception will impact the role of the music in the society and ultimately the sound of the music itself (which of course steers the perception et reductio ad absurdum).

This applies not least to hip-hop, which is global enough to spin off into all sorts of directions. Communities of musicians in different places will each have a different "hip-hop" as theirs. How exactly this divergence happens is very curious and occasionally seems totally arbitrary - the music can have one position in one country and be something else entirely in its neighbour.

Here are four of these possiblities, roughly in order of how well-integrated they are in the local musical culture and coincedentally in vague downwards order of social class. I'm not sure if the two are related.

Firstly, hip-hop can be reduced to a series of purely musical attributes to be strongly integrated into pop music. Japanese hip-hop, for instance, tends to be just as manufactured, fractured and wonderfully strange as the rest of that country's music - "hip-hop" becomes another dialect of the broadest pop music and is not treated as any kind of cultural separate. As a consequence it tends to be a tad superficial, and it's hardly a coincidence that the only area where Japan can fully compete in the urban stakes is street clothing.

A similar attitude can be found in other countries with strong domestic pop traditions like Thailand, but also to a surprising extent in Kenya where it is very much part of a broad pop vocabulary. I guess the vaguely hip-hop oriented local urban styles like kwaito in South Africa could also qualify in this category, but they're not hip-hop per se.

Another fairly superficial approach to hip-hop is to see it as a movement (as cemented circa 1989) with a rigid set of "four elements" and definite ideological rules. In Britain, for instance hip-hop tends to be a strongly middle-class affair where purists weed out any non-believers. Such an approach tends to produce very few hits, and indeed domestic hip-hop never really worked as a genre in the UK (until it was parodied).

Brazil also has a largely middle-class oriented hip-hop subculture, as did South Africa until a few years ago. Significantly, each of those countries had a strong working-class urban style at the same time, blocking a potential trickle-down of hip-hop (jungle/UK garage/grime, kwaito and funk respectively).

Most hip-hop in the world seems to fall into a third, broadly subcultural category like the Hungarian video above. Throughout Europe, for instance, hip-hop tends to be a clear community-formed subculture that tends to go beyond any social categorisation - it's just music. Here in Sweden, our best-selling rappers can unproblematically be from an affluent background or academics or hippies or owning catering companies, it is a freely accessible subculture like any other.

At the deepest level, though, hip-hop takes over near-completely as the predominant working-class (or minority) urban youth expression, where it acquires a dual role as the voice of the poor and as great music. Hip-hop has this "kwaito role" in France, in Tanzania, in Senegal and increasingly in Cambodia. Maybe all this music will eventually settle in new local styles as the Tanzanian and Cambodian examples are clearly in the process of doing, but in some areas it's been going strong since the mid-eighties.

Perhaps the fact is, though, that hip-hop is (even in the US) pretty much all of these things. It is a broad, popular style. It does have a strong history that some groups will strongly defend. It is a subculture that cuts across society. And it is a deep expression of the opressed urban youth. Perhaps it is futile to see hip-hop as any one thing in one country if it is as multifaceted and global as it actually is...


wayne&wax said...

For real, watch whose turf you're steppin on ;)

Srsly tho, this is a subject near and dear to my heart (and resume). I'm actually teaching a course called "Global Hip-hop" this coming semester, and part of our task will be to attempt to tease out how the genre, and various localized fusions/offshoots, does particular cultural work in particular places.

It can be awfully tricky to generalize about this since so many places not only have hip-hop scenes qua hip-hop scenes (e.g., people committed to various models of hip-hop, from underground to commersh to old school, etc.) but also have distinctive local hybrids of various sorts (kwaito and funk carioca certainly come to mind), often in an antagonistic relationship to the backpackers / papermakers, etc.

I'm not sure I can subscribe to the typology that you lay out at the moment. The main reason being that I just don't know enough about the social/cultural context in these places. I can't tell simply from watching a video whether hip-hop is treated as pop or still has something of an oppositional resonance. That latter point ("oppositional resonance") calls attention to another complicating factor in all of this: what exactly do we define as essential to hip-hop (including and in addition to certain musical structures)? Must it signify opposition to some status quo? Alignment with African-Americans (and whatever that means wherever we're looking at it)? A commitment to some notion of community? An embrace of conspicuous consumption? What kind of cultural politics might be served by any of these things depends heavily on who is doing them, thinking them, saying them, and who is listening.

I suppose I'll have a lot more to say about this, though, as the semester marches onward.

Birdseed said...

I was going to include a bit on the delimiting of hip-hop (and one on history) but I thought the post was running long enough as it is. One thing I noticed, especially when browsing through South-East Asia, Latin America and Africa, is that there is so much "hip-hop" that's sonically a lot closer to ragga. I think it's a curious quirk that there's such a tendency to look to the US for nomenclature and Jamaica for musical inspiration.

wayne&wax said...

Good to see you pick up on the ragga dimension in your own research. That's always been pretty apparent to me too, and in just about every scene outside the US I take a glance at (not to mention in US hip-hop as well, though we tend not to notice it, and ragga style is not as popular here as it was in the early 90s). Indeed, the ragga-fied sounds of so much global hip-hop was something I explored in my dissertation -- an intertwined history of hip-hop and reggae -- to help me argue about the two genres being two sides of the same coin: it's downright remarkable how much "global hip-hop" has a jamaican accent!