Reviewed: Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation, By Sujatha Fernandes (New York: Verso, 2011)
Through a journey spanning Sydney, Havana, Caracas and Chicago, sociologist and author Sujatha Fernandes explores the narrations of hip hop culture across the globe in her new book, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. This search for international solidarity seems both possible and elusive. Despite its global impact, hip hop also remains isolated within experience and the definition of experience, through history, identity, culture as well as societal and class struggle.
Fernandes commences her search with a foray into the history of hip hop. This includes a look at Afrika Bombaataa, the movement aimed to regenerate itself into a global movement which expounded upon solidarity with black communities and the transformation of song into a language of social consciousness.
The character of hip hop ensures that the message transmission reaches, first and foremost, the community which embraces the artists divulging a collective social commentary. The hip hop movement enabled communities to organize themselves; gaining and imparting knowledge about their immediate environment. The reason for the performance enhanced marketing the music within the community as a unified expression of what needed to be changed.
A divergence occurs here between the hip hop artist and the commercial scene. While artists realized that the social issues they faced were the triggers which necessitated a performance, commercial music outlets and record labels presented hip hop as an alternative form of musical innovation. By negating the socio-political scene, the hip hop artists were divided between those rapping for a more political cause and those rapping for monetary gain and fame. This divide was evident between US and non-US singers.
The global hip hop scene is also fraught with a contradiction between global unity and cross cultural awareness. While international issues may unite artists around the world in a vociferous chant for recognition of oppression, each community has its own unique characteristics, its own problems, and its own manifestation of solidarity. Some communities may criticize capitalism through memory and theory, while others have had to contend with the reality of low wages, poverty and marginalization. The export of hip hop has not necessarily meant the export of experience; rather the music has served as an inspiration for communities around the world to narrate their own biography.
A look at hip hop in the four cities mentioned in this book gives the reader an integral overview of how the movement became a meaningful interlocutor. Growing up in an era which had no tangible recollection of the literacy campaign, or the achievement of free education and healthcare following Fidel Castro’s revolution, Cuban hip hop artists have negotiated their abhorrence of capitalism through a theoretical approach. Having come of age during the special period when the fall of the Soviet Union forced Cuba into austerity measures, hip hop artists in Cuba relied on revolutionary slogans to justify their stance against racism on the island which, Fernandes states, was more conspicuous in areas such as Alamar, which was harshly effected due to supply shortages.
In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush stepped up the political propaganda against Cuba, labeling it a terrorist state and culminating in the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, as well as closing the airspace for planes traveling to Cuba. Cuban hip hop artists amalgamated this political aggression and the war in Afghanistan in their lyrics, pondering the next victims of the US’s War on Terror and contrasting the war propaganda with Fidel Castro’s speech of solidarity broadcast on TV.
By contrast, Chicago’s hip hop scene was inspired by a split society which segregated black neighborhoods from the white middle class. The antagonism against capitalism stemmed not through theory, but through the direct experience of poverty.
Venezuela’s hip hop scene negotiates some similarities with the US. The hip hop movement evolved and referred to Hugo Chavez’s political discourse for reform. Both the Caracas and Chicago rappers’ songs focus on the social environment, with street gangs and the sense of belonging or exclusion being the norm in these communities. As with US hip hop, the music is both commercial and underground. The yearning for stability in the barrios, as expressed in the rap lyrics clashes with the commercial lyrics of other groups who perceive record sales as an achievement. By diminishing the call for improvement in social conditions of the poor, the commercial hip hop artists disassociated themselves from the social reality.
Hip hop in Sydney became a vocal expression for the Aboriginal community and a manifestation of multicultural experiences for migrants. The Aborigines’ deprivation of land rights and immigrants displaced by wars in Lebanon and Middle Eastern countries brought a unity within hip hop artists, each group invoking words in their native language to assert their cultural identity. However, for migrants, the border crossing and the ensuing racism and rejection of identity were far more resonant than ancestry, which was a significant theme for the Aborigines.
Fernandes also ponders the difference between hip hop and political activism – marking a divergence between the narration of an experience and the rhetoric expounding an experience. Hip hop delved within its immediate realm, which include the social injustices faced daily in the local community. While political activism was a factor unifying people for a cause, a global hip hop society was harder to sustain due to its dependence on the social structure of its immediate community.
The necessity of belonging to a community created a pattern of interdependence within the same social structure, while at the same time redefined social and political circumstances through experience. Hip hop music has navigated a unique space, stirring a global movement which is connected through the music yet derives its strength from its identity within a particular community and environment.
Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.