It’s quite a weekend for New York’s prodigal child. Hip-Hop, that burst of youthful energy that was put out into the universe 30 plus years ago is coming back home from several places at once. It’s arriving at a time when Rap music, in its birthplace, confusingly straddles the realms of hyper-capitalism, political activism, youth expression, marginalized’s rebellion, adult reminiscence, mainstream politics, canonization, trivialization, and institutionalization. Regardless of the strange position that the genre has taken up in the contemporary American social landscape, the spirit of youth energy that birthed the genre, as well as the need to make heard the voices of the marginalized is very much at the forefront of the form globally. On Saturday and Sunday New Yorkers will be able to get a glimpse at the practitioners of Hip-Hop in this form at two different shows.
On Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn’s oldest and largest performing arts venue. It features El Général (whose music we featured here and here), Amkoullel (here), Deeb, and Shadia Mansour (here) alongside Oud player Brahim Fribgane and Ngoni player Yacouba Sissoko.
On Sunday, a showcase of Senegalese rappers called Dakar 2 NYC will take place at The Shrine, a smaller community bar and venue in Harlem. The showcase is part of a series put on by Nomadic Wax called Internationally Known (Africa is a Country is a co-sponsor), and features Thiat from Kuer Gui (whose video we featured here) and the group Fou Malade were two of the groups that were central to the Y’en a Marre movement (whose politics we featured here). They will be joined by Bat’hallions Blin-D and Baay Bia. Notably this event is happening in the heart of the community that hosts the largest Senegalese diaspora population outside of Europe.
Now I’m not one to draw lines between what is and what isn’t, but this convergence of global Hip-Hop upon the Biggie Apple in two very different contexts has got me thinking… (Warning! You now have all the information you need for the shows. If you don’t like thinking, stop reading now!)
In the United States, and particularly New York, Hip-Hop as a strict cultural form has aged. However, it’s still a new form, and the creative processes and technique innovations that it helped mold are still on the cutting edge of music production and sonic style. But the original practitioners of Hip-Hop are getting to a point where they’ve either been left behind in the past or have moved on. In the U.S., the torch has been passed (sometimes not so graciously) to a second and third generation, often removed from the geography of New York City, who continue to innovate and excite audiences, but not always in the ways that the originators envisioned. I would even go so far to say that New York Hip-Hop purists have co-opted the genre so much as to not allow the legibility of actual youth rebellion within the city’s own marginalized communities. This is why today I’m generally more a fan of digital music created in different regions around the world (including places like Chicago and New York) that don’t necessarily carry the Hip-Hop label, but yet are produced, disseminated, and practiced very much in the spirit of New York in the 1970’s.
However, in some places, especially those where young people have been standing up to aging leaders, often risking life and limb just to let it know that they are there, Hip-Hop is still legible as youth rebellion (even when it’s sponsored by the U.S. State Department). The more publicized cases of Tunisia, Senegal and Angola are not the only ones where youth music are taking a central role in the shaping of a vision for a new future. I’ve personally seen the impact that youth-fueled musical movements can have on a changing society in places as far removed from each other as Oakland and Monrovia. However, I would argue that today, more often than not Hip-Hop aesthetics are employed as a means of global legibility more than any desire to remain true to a purists’ definition.
It is this idea of global legibility that has allowed mainstream news publications to feature rappers at the center of political stories in Africa and the Middle East. As I listen to WNYC this morning, the celebration of youth voice on a mainstream news organization seems so unlikely when to think that Hip-Hop partly was birthed when young people felt like they weren’t being spoken to by mainstream radio. But that’s not really the issue here to me. My question is: what is really celebrated by mainstream institutions (sponsored by Bloomberg and Time Warner) when they are talking about and showcasing Hip-Hop? Is it the form? Is it that lyrical skill can now be recognized by middle-classed and/or middle-aged theater goers? And does this legibility of rebellion extend to an artist such as the Bay Area’s Lil’ B? What about Chief Keef? Or even Harlem’s A$AP Rocky? Is rebellion only okay when it’s safe, when it exists in far removed places where young people seem to represent the values that keep those middle class/agers safe in their social positions/homes/jobs/neighborhoods? And finally, how many people are going to the concert at BAM because they like Deeb’s, or Shadia Mansour’s, or El Général’s, or Amkoullel’s music?
I, for one, sometimes worry about too much agency given to Hip-Hop as a catalyst in these movements. I see it as more of a vessel, and conscious or explicitly political Hip-Hop, the form of expression most often associated with such rebellion, isn’t necessarily always the most impacting or important in a given context. Deeb himself has admitted that people in Egypt generally preferred pop music before the uprising, and only took on explicitly political music once the context of the uprising over took everyone’s lives. In post-revolutionary Cairo, 7a7a and Figo probably carry more populist zeal than any conscious rapper. And, unless we see various forms of expression as vessels for the agency of a people, an audience, a movement, how else could we explain the adaptation of the (Mad Decent version of the) Harlem Shake to the North African political landscape?
I’m sure many of these questions will be addressed this evening at BAM as my compañero, DJ Jace Claton/Rupture, will be moderating a talk with Deeb, Shadia Mansour, El Général, and Amkoullel. The talk starts at 7pm.