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"Rage is a defining feature of our times": Sujatha Fernandes on riots, social critique, and the global hip hop community

Francisco Salas 7 September 2011

With conservatives in Britain blaming "black street culture" for the recent London riots, it's time to reconsider hip hop's power as a tool for social critique, writes sociologist Sujatha Fernandes—author of Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation—for the Huffington Post:

Five years ago, the American rapper Nas proclaimed that "Hip Hop is Dead." But while hip hop culture may have succumbed to the music industry in the U.S., four decades after its birth in the Bronx, rap music has become the soundtrack to the social unrest sweeping the globe from Tunisia to Libya and London.

Following the tracks of uprisings around the world, Fernandes explains that for young people living on the edge of globalization, hip hop and rap culture provide a means of creative resistance and self-organization, insistently calling attention to the same social fissures that lead to uprisings:

Many were shocked by the recent riots in London, sparked after the killing of a black man. But if we look to the recent history of major riots sparked by police violence, from the beating of Rodney King in the 1992 LA rebellion to the police-caused deaths of North African teenagers in the 2005 Paris riots, the events are not surprising at all ... British rappers and emcees from dancehall-hip hop-garage influenced grime music have been warning about the explosive potential of police harassment, youth unemployment, and cutbacks for some time.

Some of these tracks, Fernandes notes, are as threatening to the political establishment as they are to the artistic one, with mixtapes and insurrectionary ideas often spreading in unison and boosting each other's signals:

In the revolutionary movements sweeping the Arab world, rap music has emerged as a soundtrack for youth rebellion. Rap songs protesting police violence and authority have spread from Tunisia to Egypt through Youtube, ringtones and MP3s. The Tunisian rapper El Général was arrested and detained by the regime for his biting rhymes. But his music spread through Facebook and Al Jazeera television coverage, and upon his release he became an icon for the movement in his own nation and beyond.

Yet this alliance between radical politics and hip hop isn't new– hip hop culture has been a global phenomenon from early on, as the introduction to Close to the Edge—recently excerpted by PopMatters—emphasizes:

By the early 1980s the global circulation of hip hop through the music industry was being paralleled by the efforts of hip hop ambassadors like Afrika Bambaataa to spread a message of black brotherhood and unity.

Taking advantage of world tours to promote political education and race-consciousness along with their music, Black diasporic artists developed strong followings across continental and linguistic divides, with verses, beats and politics taking root in the streets of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe:

Bambaataa's mission, to forge a global hip hop community, echoed the aspirations of the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. His mission was taken up by the next three generations. Chuck D of Public Enemy took Garvey's vision of a black planet around the globe in the late 1980s, visiting local communities while on foreign tours. The Black August Hip Hop Project was formed in the late 1990s to draw connections between radical black activism and hip hop culture. The group organized exchanges between militant rappers in the US, Cuba, and South Africa. And the new millennium was the era of diasporic rappers, who forged a politics of global solidarity from within the heart of empire.

And in the decades that have followed,

Four generations of hip hop ambassadors have traversed the globe with the desire to transcend their immediate realities and link up with others through a universal politics of justice.

Visit the Huffington Post to read the article in full.

Visit PopMatters to read the excerpt in full.