Hip-Hop's Reach Goes Global Hip hop culture has exploded from its New York birthplace into a worldwide art form. Culture critic Jeff Chang discusses rap's growing global appeal.
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Hip-Hop's Reach Goes Global

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Hip-Hop's Reach Goes Global

Hip-Hop's Reach Goes Global

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Hip-hop may have started in the U.S., but today it's global. As part of our month-long series, we look at the way hip-hop is exploding internationally.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with artist Toni Blackman. The State Department named her America's hip-hop ambassador. Then we're going to head to Lebanon for a look at what hip-hop is doing in that troubled country.

But let's start with Jeff Chang. He's the editor of the anthology "Total Chaos: The Art and Esthetics of Hip-Hop." He's also got an article coming out in Foreign Policy magazine on international hip-hop.

Hey, Jeff.

Mr. JEFF CHANG (Culture Critic; Editor, "Total Chaos: The Art and Esthetics of Hip-Hop"): How are you doing?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. You were expanding your franchise with Foreign Policy so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: …just very briefly, what's that article about?

Mr. CHANG: That's basically looking at how hip-hop has spread globally as a phenomenon and what it means, you know, to those communities all around the world where hip-hop is being practice now.

CHIDEYA: So how did hip-hop expand?

Mr. CHANG: I think, you know, hip-hop has always been something that's been globally minded. It couldn't have gotten started anywhere but in the black communities in the U.S. But, you know, from the very beginning it's incorporated Afro-Caribbean, you know, Afro-Latino, Afro-diasporic oral traditions and dances and rhythms. And, you know, as hip-hop expanded, I think two things happened. One is it found itself fitting into already preexisting, you know, sort of, cultural movements.

So, for instance, hip-hop goes to Brazil and you've already got a sound system culture. You've already got a style - the music called cantu faludo(ph), you know, spoken song and hip-hop just fits right in. And then you have other places such as South Korea, where, you know, I'm just thinking of this new movie called "Planet B-Boy," which documents these international competitions that occur for breakers and shows the B-Boys from South Korea really dominating the competition. I think that kids there, really, were attracted to it and were transformed by hip-hop culture, and also are now beginning to transform hip-hop itself.

CHIDEYA: You talk about how Public Enemy changed the game. What do you mean by that?

Mr. CHANG: Well, Public Enemy, you know, was really heard by a lot of different people in a lot of different places as something that was really relevant to their time. And what it represented, I think - what the message of Public Enemy represented was really specific in some respects to the, you know, sort of conditions of the 1980s. The racist kinds of violent incidents that were going on, a lot of the protests that were occurring on the campuses.

But at the same time, what I think people around the world heard in it, was a generational change, a way for them to express their own voices. So you take, for instance, rappers in Kenya. A group like Kalamashaka, you know, comes out, here's Public Enemy, and all of a sudden inspired not just to imitate American rap but now to rap in Sheng, which is their own, sort of, language of Swahili and Kikuyu and English slang.

CHIDEYA: You brought us a song, "Niwakati."

Mr. CHANG: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Niwakati")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Sheng spoken)

CHIDEYA: So Jeff, what does "Niwakati" mean?

Mr. CHANG: Well, the song is basically about trying to express the continuation of the legacy of the Mau Mau and, sort of, that resistance to, you know, anti-authoritarian - or authoritarian forces in Kenya at that particular time. What's interesting is that now that hip-hop's become such a global commodity, you have people like MTV coming in, you have cell phone companies coming in, you have British conglomerates buying up the radio stations, and so what has been a real local scene, a very politically resistant type of scene is transforming now. And a lot of these voices like Kalamashaka are being pushed off of the radio and off of the airwaves.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, Davie D, we just had him on talking about U.S. radio. I want to move on now to the Sri Lankan rapper, M.I.A., who has been - M.I.A. has been touring in the U.S. because of some high-profile issues with Homeland Security. Tell us a little bit more about her and catch us up on what she's been doing creatively.

Mr. CHANG: That's right. M.I.A. is a really interesting artist. She's Sri Lankan by birth. Daughter of revolutionaries, Tamil revolutionaries, but she's also a really radical, aesthetically, I think. And she's very much engaged in understanding what hip-hop has done in all these different types of countries. And so when you hear her, what she's done is she, sort of, brought together a lot of beats from, you know, her native land, as well as understood what was happening with reggae tone, with Brazilian rap and put these all together, sort of, in this global stew. And the music, I think, is absolutely amazing. It's actually some of the most exciting music that's been created right now.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's listen to "Bird Flu."

(Soundbite of music)

M.I.A. (Singer): (Singing) A protocol to be a Rocawear model. It didn't really drop that way my legs hit the hurdle. A protocol to be a rocker on a label.

CHIDEYA: And she's also much beloved by fans of female MCs.

Mr. CHANG: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And you also brought us another artist, an artist from Senegal. I recently saw the group Dara G. when they were in L.A., but you have another artist in mind.

Mr. CHANG: This is Pato and there's just a very, very deep movement that's going on in Dakar. It's part - this is part of a project called "African Underground: The Depths of Dakar." That's a collaboration between U.S.-based hip-hop producers and Senegalese rappers. I really love this track because it captures a lot of the energy and, sort of, vitality of what's happening right now there at the street level.

CHIDEYA: We've got "Keep It Real."

(Soundbite of song, "Keep It Real")

PATO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

CHIDEYA: Wow. That is energetic, man. I feel like I just had a cup of coffee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANG: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: So every year there's a battle of the year - World Cup of Hip-Hop taking place in Germany and this year it's in October. So why don't you just give us a preview of how that's going to go down?

Mr. CHANG: Well, you know, this is an amazing type of thing. It's, sort of, perfect example of this global network that hip-hop has not been able to create. You've got, sort of - this is, sort of, the Olympics, is what it is of "B-Boying," of "Breakin'" and folks gather from all of different countries. There's teams from all of these different countries, and they go up and they compete. And before this, sort of, worldwide audience, people determine - they get together and determine - who are the best B-Boys in the world.

And so, you know, I love this and it's been captured in this brand new movie, "Planet B-Boy" and the energy of its, the excitement of it, the fact that these styles are still evolving and that everybody is, kind of, adding their new twist to it, is just an amazing thing.

CHIDEYA: Well, definitely and - you know, Jeff, we're going to bring a new voice into the conversation. For those of you who are just tuning in this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya and we have been talking to Jeff Chang, culture critic and editor of the anthology "Total Chaos: The Art and Esthetics of Hip-Hop."

And now, let's bring Toni Blackman into the discussion. She's a rap lyricist, vocalist, actress and writer. She was also named U.S. hip-hop ambassador by the State Department. Toni, great to have you back on.

Ms. TONI BLACKMAN (Rap lyricist, vocalist, actress, writer; U.S. Hip-Hop Ambassador): Hi. It's good to be here.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. So you've been listening in to our conversation with Jeff.


CHIDEYA: And, you know, you've been around to many different parts of the world as…

Ms. BLACKMAN: Right.

CHIDEYA: …a hip-hop ambassador, how do you connect to what he's saying about the local scenes?

Ms. BLACKMAN: Well, I think everything that Jeff is saying is right on point and it's always - it still amazes me though, even though I'm intellectually aware of it. You can feel it emotionally and spiritually. It's just so absolutely powerful because hip-hop within itself, because of the rhythm and the nature of truth and honesty and the integrity behind, real hip-hop culture, and then you add in other people's culture, traditions, into that it can be almost an uplifting experience, like a meditation of sorts when you go to certain places.

CHIDEYA: Where have you been that you didn't expect to find a vibrant local scene but you were left, wow, these people are really making it happen?

Ms. BLACKMAN: I don't know why I didn't expect, like I've always anticipated that I was going to find hip-hop because of my relationship, like, my entire life has been about hip-hop. I think, I've been overwhelmed sometimes by the magnitude of it. Let's say in the Philippines. We went to Manila, Davao and Cebu. And it was just interesting for me that these people had very little access to material things and items, but were so dedicated to rhyming and to B-Boying and to dancing.

And in Dakar, as Jeff mentioned, Dakar is like - when I first shoot there it almost like going to hip-hop heaven. And most of it was in the languages I couldn't understand but it didn't matter. In Senegal, was the first time I actually cried in a cipher(ph).


Ms. BLACKMAN: Yeah. It touched me that much.

CHIDEYA: Well, that group that I mentioned, Dara G., they came to L.A. and they will rhyme in French, Wolof, English…


CHIDEYA: …and probably a couple of other languages, besides there's a certain - Jeff, what do you think about the linguistic angle because, you know, there are - there's times that I've listened to Japanese hip-hop and I'm like, I totally get what the emcee is saying emotionally. I may not get every word. And what about the linguistic issues of listening to hip-hop that's not in your language or language that you speak?

Mr. CHANG: Well, you know, I think one is hip-hop just sort of allows people to be able to tell their own stories. And the language thing, you know, the fact that Keenan Rappers(ph) in Nairobi are rapping in Shang is really amazing type of thing. But, you know, there's always a slippage that's going on. I heard a story recently with somebody who was talking about being in another country and talking to somebody about 50 Cent. And this person saying, you know, I really feel this person because, you know, you can tell that they're very - just politically aware and they know, you know, what the real deal is and you can feel their honesty and their authenticity in their voice.

And in some ways, you know, a lot of us here in the U.S. feel like a lot of commercial rap represents a lack of that. So, you know, it goes both ways. It's just there's a demand for honesty that we ask of hip-hop but it's interesting that that we're getting a lot of simulations of it these days.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, well, I mean, Toni, you're someone who has been an artist for quite a long time and when you go over, do people - I'm just curious, do people in their reception of you see you as something that they didn't expect from an American hip-hop artist given that they're getting a lot of really commercial top 40 hip-hop probably.

Ms. BLACKMAN: Well, everything, I think, part of why I'm able to - like I travel extensively and have a very limited, like, recording catalogue this far, but I think why I'm able to connect to audiences is because there's a level of appreciation and there's a hunger and a desire for artistic integrity and authenticity. And one of the things that I talk to American hip-hop artist about when I speak to audiences here on panels is the importance of them recognizing their power and their ability to influence, to guide and to set trends. And I think oftentimes we here underestimate our power because we're here struggling to make it as, quote, "starving artist." And we don't realize that we're not starving, that we might have, you know, a little bit of food on the table but we actually have food to eat.

And there's something that we can do with that in terms of sharing what it is we had to give. Like I freestyled already on Novo(ph) with Dara G. And I've done that a couple of times and it was just like this powerful thing that occurred and I rocked in stadiums in Senegal. And where the people rise to their seats so much because there's a level of gratitude that you as a, quote, "American" took the time out to acknowledge their existence and their contribution to hip-hop.

And so there's this global network and this global exchange and this exchange of energy, and it's one of the reasons why I still - no matter what mainstream media portrays of my culture, which is hip-hop - I still say that hip-hop is about love.

CHIDEYA: Jeff and Toni, maybe Toni first on this. I have a friend who went to Kenya and everybody was like, what's up, my N, you know, it just was like having this cultural moment like why is everybody using the N-word? And it's like, oh, duh. Because that's what people put out in mainstream hip-hop. Do we need to take responsibility as Americans for what we put out there? Toni and then Jeff.

Ms. BLACKMAN: I mean, we do have to take responsibility for it but I think aesthetically, we also have to understand certain words sound good in the mouth and this is not a rationale that they're using for, like the M-F word? And certain words like I've been doing freestyle workshops for about 13 years. And I realized that the M-F word and the N-word, they weren't even about disrespect or trying to appear to be hard. They were - they make excellent pause words because the amount of consonants …

CHIDEYA: It's better than Uhm…

Ms. BLACKMAN: Yes, and the amount of consonants inside of the word gives you - you can hit the beat with that particular word. And so, it is, you know, Malcolm X say, you know, people use these words because they lack vocabulary and what not, in which I agree and so we try to give them tools but there are no vehicles for rap lyricists and rap artists to go and develop. You can't go to Berkeley and study it.

CHIDEYA: You can now. Aya De Leon is there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANG: Yes you can.

Ms. BLACKMAN: So - but, it's just not - like I teach a class called the art of emceeing at a Brooklyn high school twice a week where the kids get a grade. But this is the first year where this is actually happening and kids are getting an opportunity to learn from those of us who help to create the culture, but I think we have to acknowledge also how it feels in the mouth. It's a part of -and so we're able to easily rationalize the use of it and then we can educate once we acknowledge what's going on first and foremost for a lot of people.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jeff, what about the larger issues of just kind of what we put out there as Americans, you know. And obviously, we all have different levels of responsibility. I mean, someone who's a record executive or an artist has more control over that. But, you know, I've traveled a lot, all of us talking who've traveled a lot and used to see constantly these reminders of how pervasive American culture is and how there's unintended consequences sometimes of what gets out there.

Mr. CHANG: Sure. You know, it's cultural dumping, is what it is. It's just like the way that we take wastes and dump it overseas. You know, there's a lot of cultural dumping that's going on. But at the same time, you know, I think that audiences in the U.S. have been expressing, especially this past year, how upset that they are with a lot of the ways that, you know, corporations are presenting hip-hop culture, not just to, you know, to us but to the world. And I think that there's been a lot of feedback and a lot of pushback in that instance.

What we don't really get, I think, is to understand how that affects people and this is what Toni was eluding to earlier who are not living in, quote, unquote, "first world comfort." And what that creates in terms of past of discussion and discourse that people might pick up on. And so - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CHIDEYA: We're going to have to wrap. That's because...

Mr. CHANG: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That's a W-W-R-A-P not an R-A-P. I know that's really cheesy. Really cheesy.

Mr. CHANG: Okay.

Ms. BLACKMAN: Oh, I though you're going to (unintelligible), Farai. I though we're going to spin out, Farai.

CHIDEYA: I'm sorry.

So we've been talking to Jeff Chang, the author of "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation" and editor of the anthology, "Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-hop." Also has an article coming out in Foreign Policy Magazine on international hip-hop.

Toni Blackman, rap lyricist, vocalist, actress and writer. She was also named hip-hop ambassador by the U.S. State Department. Thanks, guys.

Ms. BLACKMAN: Thank you.

Mr. CHANG: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: All right. Just want to say that Jeff joined us from the studios of UC Berkeley. For more on Jeff, Toni and hip-hop on global, check out our Web site, npr.org/newsandnotes.

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