Thursday, 13 October 2011
BROTHER AKALA ON HIP-HOP, AND PASSING COMMENTARY ON THE RACISM IN PROF GREEN's 'JUNGLE' VID
Contrary to popular mythology, the art of rhyming rhythmically over the beat of a drum (rapping) was not invented in 1970s New York. The cultural wellspring from which hip-hop was drawn, goes far deeper, making it all the more powerful. It can be traced through reggae, jazz, blues, and ultimately back to the African griot traditions of the medieval west African empires. .
When understood in its full context, rather than as a misogynistic, materialistic handmaiden of American capitalism, it is easy to see why hip-hop has such power. It may still be, as Chuck D of pioneering 1980s hip-hop group Public Enemy said, the "black CNN", but it has increasingly become a news network of the downtrodden, oppressed and the socially conscious across the globe.
Each branch of this worldwide family brings its own specific stories and cultural reference points to the movement and it has happened because of the inherent democratic values of the genre and how adaptable and open-minded it is as a cultural world view.
With its modern incarnation having originated through the African-American struggle against white racism, the best of the culture of black people in the Americas has become a symbol of strength and resistance for humanity across the world whatever shade they, or their particular struggle may take. Most crucially, however, this now worldwide cache was achieved by way of incredible beats and great lyrics.
Today we have MCs in Brazil rapping in Portuguese over the berimbau, multilingual MCs in Copenhagen expressing themselves in English, Danish and Arabic, Iranian MCs like Hickas speaking in Farsi, telling tales of the everyday struggle in Tehran and French-Congolese rappers like Bajoli addressing one of the largest conflicts of the 20th century in his home nation, a conflict all but ignored by the world's "traditional" media. As far afield as Vietnam and Mongolia you can find paintings of the bat-like "W" symbol of, perhaps, hip-hop's most poetic collective, the Wu-Tang Clan.
There is no other genre through which such diverse voices have found themselves, all sharing a common sense of what it is to "be hip-hop". You either have skill or you don't, gimmicks never last.
Hip-hop has even generated its own media, represented by production companies like Nomadic Wax and their Democracy In Dakar documentary, that deals with the role rappers play in the political process in Senegal. We even have hip-hop schools such as the Herman Brood academy in Holland.,
The UK is no exception. Artists like Lowkey, Mic Righteous, Durrty Goodz and me to name but a few, are all building international fan bases with little, if any support from the mainstream. . And as far back as the first records from Rodney P, Black Twang and Linton Kwesi Johnson who preceded them, social commentary has been a constant feature of UK MC culture.
However, unlike the brief period in the late 1980s, early 1990s in the US that gave us Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Wu-Tang, the UK has as yet been unwilling to acknowledge our voices on a national level, even when artists prove they are able to succeed with little or no investment.
Is it too much of a stretch for people to believe that popular entertainment is not just about what will and won't sell, but also about what will and won't maintain particular states of consciousness? Can we really have young, working-class, predominantly black and brown people becoming opinion formers in people of all classes and creeds the way Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur or Chuck D were?
And for those that would single out a particular strand of rap music as being responsible for societal ills, like the August riots, I would say the following: rap is often a means of communicating and expressing the sometimes brutal reality of life in areas neglected by those in power.
The success of NWA (the first "Gangsta Rap" group) was preceded by some of the worst gang violence (and all the racial, political history that created the "ghetto") in the US and indeed world history. How could they have created events that preceded them? Those so eager to scapegoat rap may also want ask themselves who owns the record labels, TV and radio stations that are so happy to promote and profit from a particular image of black youth?
Increasingly, educators are realising that a love for language and expression, whatever form that may take, is a healthy thing and should be nurtured.
For those of us that love this culture and music, hip-hop has lost none of its power to translate and convey feeling, meaning and cries for social justice that, ultimately, can help quell rather than exacerbate the very social ills that gave birth to the genre.