Real Recognize Real: Local Hip-Hop Cultures and Global Imbalances in the African Diaspora
Hip-hop is revered as a global countercultural movement that disrupts dominant configurations of power and gives voice to traditionally marginalized peoples. Its origins illustrate how marginalized Black and Latina/o youth in the United States use technology and culture in contradictory fashions to illustrate the lived experiences of race and the structures of racism in the postindustrial city. This movement galvanized both minoritarian and arts communities in New York City. It is a poignant reminder of the impetus behind cultural studies: to illustrate how culture is inextricably linked to economic, political, and ideological power that impacts one’s material conditions, life chances, lived experiences, and interactions with the State. Hip-hop’s four core expressions of rapping, DJ’ing (disk jockeying), breakdancing, and graffiti have become rich sites of critical pedagogy where racialized groups are also producers of meaning, knowledge, and critique in contrast to dominant modes of power. While a movement that originated in the South Bronx in 1970s New York City, it quickly spread across the United States (US), and now around the globe.
Studies of youth and hip-hop culture are proliferating and producing cunning research. Furthermore, hip-hop culture has become a transnational community engaged by marginalized groups in order to critique their local conditions, global capitalism, and their stigmatized cultural representations in public discourses and mass media. While hip-hop is indeed becoming a more globalized phenomenon, it is not without its own power dynamics. This entry examines how hip-hop culture in the city of Salvador da Bahia illustrates the perils of globalizing cultural studies, namely that hip-hop too often traverses the dominant global flows and obscures the ways in which non-Anglophone marginalized groups in the Global South engage hip-hop as well as globalization. Simply put, hip-hop culture must be contextualized in local historical dimensions to trouble the homogenization of transnational communities but also to work through and dialogue about internal differences.
Stuart Hall (1980) convincingly argues that cultural studies is not simply the study of cultural texts but how those texts are embedded into ideologies of representation, power, resistance, (counter)hegemony, and formations that are indicative of particular historical moments. Culture, in other words, is not detached from our lived experiences and material conditions. As a result, cultural studies, as an interdisciplinary field, extends the study of culture in two ways: the first, “to an ‘anthropological’ definition of culture – as cultural practices; second, the move to a more historical definition of cultural practices: questioning the anthropological meaning and interrogating it universality” (p. 27). Hall’s definition nuances how culture is practiced and performed in a group’s everyday lives and social rituals. This undoubtedly is specific to how a group makes meaning of culture and is shared among its members. This requires interaction by actors within a group and how they construct the social world in order to navigate it. This approach is buttressed by taking a historical approach that refuses a static notion of culture that is flat and timeless. Rather, it is a process that is contested, struggled, and continually being remade. Culture then is mediated by those who constitute a specific social formation, impacted by their historical moment, and how they are positioned with particular sets of social relations. Thus, culture is cultivated by particular arrangements of social, political, and ideological power.
Global Hip-Hop Culture and the African Diaspora
Hall’s definition is critical to nuancing the imbalances within the global hip-hop community. Hip-hop culture is not simply the production and consumption of its four key elements: rapping, DJ’ing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Moving hip-hop culture within anthropological understandings of culture necessitates situating it within how hip-hop is lived, practiced, ritualized, communitarian, and meaningful. It also situates the historical changes within a given society as well as global relations. It is no coincidence that hip-hop in the US arose in the aftermath of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Despite these historical changes, the United States remodeled its ideology and social structures in order to sustain existing structures of economic and political power. This resulted in the deindustrialization of urban cities; shifting manufacturing jobs abroad; urban projects that displaced Black and Latina/o communities; and the increase in the service, telecommunications, and finance sectors. Put simply, the postindustrial city was the site where these political, economic, and ideological shifts occurred in the United States.
Hip-hop culture arose from those changes in the United States. US African Americans, Anglophone Afro-Caribbeans, and Caribbean Latina/os were put into similar socioeconomic positions despite vast differences in culture, history, and ethnoracial identities. These Afro-diasporic intimacies were also forged out of similar experiences that were the result of cuts in social services, increased policing, and urban displacement (Chang 2005). In these spaces of marginalization and silences, a bricolage of expressive cultures mediated through technology produced hip-hop culture to speak back against their lived experiences, material conditions, and cultural representations that were naturalized in ideology and social structure. Hip-hop culture illustrates the ways in which culture is continually remade and invented in a particular time and place that is embedded in a bricolage of social relations.
Advances in technology and telecommunications facilitate the extension of hip-hop culture around the globe. Today, youth around the world participate in hip-hop culture and have become part of a transnational community. This provides a lexicon of resistance, imagery of power from the margins, and a multicultural and multiethnic identity that transcends and critiques the nation-state as well as forms of oppression in the modern world. At the same time, the emphasis on a global hip-hop culture has created a false universality that all oppressions or forms of marginalization are identical. This is not to elide the very real conditions and violence that people experience. Indeed, forms of oppression can often cut at right angles to each other, as Paul Gilroy (2000) has noted, that operate through interlocking systems of oppression. Rather, it is to make clear that oppressions operate through interlocking systems that are malleable but also rooted in specific sociohistorical totalities. Globalization is not simply able to erase those convoluted residues of the past. They take on different arrangements, and a society is articulated in a variety of possibilities that create structures of dominance. Eliding the global dimensions of hip-hop culture only rearranges the organization of power and repositions particular groups in a marginal position, with the divide between the Anglophone and non-Anglophone worlds being but one example. It is thus imperative to nuance these tensions between the local and the global within the larger hip-hop community.
In addition, the conflation of hip-hop culture as a space of marginalization too often elides the role of race, specifically blackness. Anthropologist Marc Perry (2008) intervenes into the erasure of race and the African Diaspora in the globalization of hip-hop culture. He argues, “hip hop can be seen globally as an increasingly important conduit for just those kinds of transnational black identifications and emergent subjectivities that have historically constituted the African diaspora as a lived social formation” (p. 639). Even as hip-hop becomes a transnational, multicultural, and multiethnic community, it is still foundational in the contemporary moment for African-descended peoples across the globe to forge diasporic identities, cultures, and communities. Highlighting issues of race and Blackness within hip-hop cultures is important because it not only illustrates the uneven terrain that those terms traverse, exposing the imbalances that globalization embeds in the African Diaspora. Local understandings of hip-hop culture may in fact contest the dominant discourse within global hip-hop itself. This is an issue of not only translation but also context. Literary scholar Brent Hayes Edwards and his notion of décalage to expose an unevenness in the African Diaspora that “resists translation into English; to signal that resistance and, moreover, to endorse the way that this terms marks a resistance to crossing over” (2003, p. 13). Edwards’ intervention here is useful to understanding how local hip-hop cultures expose imbalances and tensions within the global hip-hop community.
Local Understandings of Global Hip-Hop Culture
These tensions can be exemplified in a hip-hop workshop observed during the author’s ethnographic research on the Bahian hip-hop movement in 2014. What became apparent was that global hip-hop, as a culture and object of study, can easily elide local tensions and complexities in the Global South. Part of this can be attributed to language and geographical difference. However, this can also be attributed to glorifying commonalities while eschewing varied positionalities within transnational communities. These differences are part of regional tensions in a given nation as well as reproducing familiar tropes about the African Diaspora and global Black culture.
During this hip-hop workshop, a US African American female professor whose expertise is global hip-hop and the African Diaspora was brought to Salvador da Bahia. In addition to delivering a lecture at the local university, she was to give a workshop in one of the shantytowns on the periphery of the city. This particular shantytown is notable for multiple reasons. The first is this neighborhood had a cultural center that could hold events such as the workshop. Another significance is that few foreigners come to this cultural center and engage with locals. In fact, most tourists rarely leave the historic center of Pelourinho or the beach neighborhoods of Barra and Rio Vermelho. To host a US African American female professor who specializes in global hip-hop and the African Diaspora is certainly rare and a special occasion for this community as well as the professor. Finally, two locally prominent Black male rappers live in this neighborhood. Thus, the neighborhood is associated with the local hip-hop culture.
One of the Black male rappers invited me to this event in order to observe how Bahian hip-hop is engaged and understood outside of Brazil. Observing an encounter of an US expert on global hip-hop culture and the African Diaspora in a city known as “Black Rome” exemplifies the tensions between the local and the global in hip-hop culture and the African Diaspora. This is by no means to deride the professor. She should be applauded for engaging with this community. As Brazil is not her geographical expertise, her presentation conjured represented tensions that frequently arise in hip-hop culture and the African Diaspora, both in study and as a community. Specifically, it made visible how global cultures are unbalanced due to the means of power over knowledge production and capitalism. This does not elide interlocking forms of oppression, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, but rather illustrates how these are also impacted global relations that are discursively understood as the Global South, the Third World, or developing nations. While global cultures and transnational communities oft share striking similarities across context, one must not elide how local meanings of culture, community, and identity are historically constituted and locally specific.
A particular tension of the African Diaspora with the modern world is the notion of temporality, the notion that Blacks are behind in progress and development. This does not preclude varying notions of time within the African Diaspora as well where some cultures are viewed as modern and others as premodern. Hip-hop culture is viewed as the modern incarnation of Afro-diasporic cultures and situated in the most cosmopolitan and globalized cities. Put another way, hip-hop is modern Blackness and privileges global Anglophone cities. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil’s most cosmopolitan cities, are the locales associated with hip-hop culture but also modern Blackness (Sansone 2003). Thus, modern Blackness in Brazil is only recognized in the urban landscapes that are highly visible in globalization.
This elides the historical and global reverberations in Salvador da Bahia, an important colonial outpost and port city for the Atlantic slave trade. Salvador was the political and economic center of Brazil’s sugar plantations that were concentrated in the Northeast. After abolition, the South and Southeast were deliberately developed and industrialized to compete in the global economy (Skidmore 1993). Salvador and its majority Black population were deemed unfit in aiding these modernizing efforts. Important is the idea that Salvador’s Africanity inhibited its Black population from being equipped to participate in a free market and thus backwards. Within Brazil, Africanity is divided between a modernizing South and Southeast juxtaposed to a backwards and premodern Northeast.
These tensions were exposed in the workshop the author observed. In her informative workshop, the professor cogently illustrated the origins by which US hip-hop arose and how they sprouted across the United States and the globe. She linked these to African philosophies of culture, rhythm, and music. She noted that these roots have common cultural origins in Salvador. Her argument was that hip-hop is the cultural conduit for a transnational Afro-diasporic community. While she illustrated the input of African cultures into hip-hop, its output lost Salvador and produced São Paulo. Her examples of Brazilian hip-hop, namely Os Racionais MCs, were from the city of São Paulo. Hip-hop in São Paulo has done much to illustrate the literal and figurative racial violence against Blacks in Brazil. Yet, this reproduces the notion that cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are the only globally embedded cities in Brazil.
Salvador is silenced in these conversations about Black modernity. Its landscape and Afro-Bahian cultures are frequently drawn upon to learn about the past and African cultural roots. However, it is erased from contemporary Afro-diasporic cultures. This speaks to the “racialized feminization of Salvador” make (K.-K. Perry 2013, p. 42; see also Pinho 2008) where the city is the recipient of desire by outside forces that demarcate Blacks’ and especially Black women’s agency and voices. Yet, Salvador is also reproduced as effeminate by other localities in the diaspora. Hip-hop is certainly an example where Salvador is a reservoir of cultural influence for other Afro-diasporic groups, but little attention is given to Black Bahians’ concerns, desires, or novel forms of Black culture.
The community members at the workshop challenged these assumptions and informed the professor that there is a substantial hip-hop scene in Salvador and at the fore of the intersection of hip-hop culture and the African Diaspora. Bahian hip-hop was already drawing on their Afro-Bahian roots and doing innovative cultural work through their hip-hop cultural production. In other words, they did not need hip-hop to come to them via the United States or even São Paulo. They were already going to hip-hop. One youth presented local group Opanijé as an example. The trio of rappers formed Opanijé in 2005 and draw extensively on Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion, in their sound, themes, and imagery in their music and videos. Notable political rappers, such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Jurassic 5, also influence their work (Maca 2008). Opanijé also performed at a concert with Chuck D of Public Enemy. Opanijé not only demonstrates the presence of weaving the African Diaspora and hip-hop culture but also how they are engaging both beyond the borders of Brazil.
This encounter is more significant than recognizing Bahian hip-hop. It also speaks to the invisibility of Afro-diasporic cultural forms beyond Salvador’s historic center and various desires for premodern African culture associated with Afro-Bahian culture. At stake is the gendering of Salvador as a passive space of molding, controlling, and desiring not only by the Brazilian nation but also by other Afro-diasporic groups. It elides those who are there and how they live and create knowledge in the modern world. The community members at the hip-hop workshop pressed back against the notion that hip-hop elsewhere must be brought to them in order to bring them into the contemporary moment as if they were provincial and stuck in a premodern past. Rather, they illustrate that they too are enmeshed in a global world, modernity, and hip-hop. They illustrate not only how globalization is being localized but also how local actors are engaging the global in ways not frequently recognized or that might disrupt global discourses of their locality.
This entry illustrates the tensions of transnational communities, global cultures, and the African Diaspora. In an age of ever increasing mediated and imaginary connections, globalization has not erased local differences or narratives. These local specificities are rooted in global and national forces. The latter has very real ideological and material consequences of how Blackness and Black bodies in particular locales are understood. As necessary as it is to understand how globalization is creating different arrangements of social relations, it is also necessary to contextualize the specificity of local actors and how they are using globalization in ways that are not highly visible. Engaging how the local reaches the global and the global engages the local provides a fruitful space for negotiating internal differences in transnational communities.
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