On Cape Verde, Let’s Go: Creole Rappers and Citizenship in Portugal. 2015. By Derek Pardue. University of Illinois Press.
As Europe grapples with an apparently inexorable wave of ethnic nationalist politics in response to its so-called immigrant crisis, the question of inclusive citizenship has become a growing continental concern. The European Union’s attempts to create legal and policy instruments intended to incorporate non-Europeans into a framework of citizenship have proved to be a formidable challenge for European states accustomed to timeworn and ethnocentric notions of “citizen.” Portugal is one notable exception. As the southern European country faces economic crisis and record unemployment, it maintains a surprisingly liberal stance on immigration and citizenship toward its former colonies, buoyed by the subtle deployment of the hybridist ideologies of Lusotropicalism and Lusofonia (“the Lusophone”) at the state level. Cape Verde, Let’s Go: Creole Rappers and Citizenship in Portugal is an ethnographic exploration of how Lisbon rappers from the migrant community of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony, engage in a brand of performance and identity politics that “interrupts” the Portuguese state narratives of originary hybridity and inclusivity. An established scholar of Brazilian hip-hop, Pardue deftly shifts focus to a contemplation of the perils and possibilities of postcolonial subjects in a Europe increasingly defined by border politics, race, and neoliberal reason.
Deploying the Cape Verdean Kriolu language and identity—products of the colonial encounter between Portuguese colonizers and enslaved Africans—these rappers interrupt the normative conceptions of statehood in Portugal with narratives (in both songs and interviews) that highlight the logic of racialization that governs the allocation of residential space in Lisbon, the history of colonialism, labor, and migration that explains the Cape Verdean presence in Portugal, and the shortcomings of Portugal’s efforts to achieve inclusive citizenship by merely grafting the European Union policy of “interculturality” on to its own nationalist mythology of hybridity.
The strength of this book lies in the attention paid to the historical dimension of the field, framed by way of a model of Atlantic “encounter.” The author skilfully weaves together several key strands of history: the evolution of a race-based plantation economy in the Cape Verdean archipelago that became the condition of possibility for linguistic and cultural creolization, the anticolonial struggle of Portugal’s former colonies, and the histories of postcolonial migration to and migrancy in Portugal. This is why the book works so well as a political economy of race and racialization in the Lusophone context. What is especially compelling is Pardue’s exposure, through keen observation and through the urgent voices of the rap performers and activists he interviews, of the fault lines existing in the Portuguese state’s enduring foundational myths of benevolent colonialism and racial democracy (Lusotropicalism) and the idea of a common linguistic identity shared with its current and former colonies (Lusofonia), that is, a global “Portugueseness.” The performative opposition, place-making (or “emplacement”) practices, and flow of these rappers unfold throughout the book against the backdrop of a highly racialized economy and politics of urban space in Lisbon and the subtle inclusionary and exclusionary practices of Portuguese cultural policy that ensure that immigrant groups like Cape Verdeans, as well as their unique forms of cultural production, do not fully qualify for citizenship. Pardue suggests a relationship between the “improvisation” of unofficial Lisbon neighborhoods like “Kova M,” in which many of his informants reside, and the improvisation involved both in the art of these rappers and in the construction of their creole identities in Portugal.
The book chapters gradually proceed from historical overview to more in-depth ethnographic engagement, and Pardue’s extensive archival research in Portugal and Cape Verde, policy analysis, ethnographic work in Lisbon, and multi-layered and multi-sited approach result in a rich and highly textured narrative. The author retraces his steps constantly and repeatedly defines terms and concepts throughout the text, making it very easy for the chapters to be read or taught as standalone units. Given the nature of the subject matter, the book would have benefitted from more use of photography, and the absence of maps is grievous.
The main shortcoming, however, is the theoretical use of Creole/Kriolu as a model for citizenship. When employing creolization as a framework for anthropological description and analysis—i.e., the excavation of what Aisha Khan calls creolization’s “quotidian contingency, or the meaning and significance that are derived from its everyday expression”–the book succeeds.1 Indeed, Pardue’s ethnographic vignettes illustrating the simultaneous use of Creole language and identity by Lisbon rappers as a performative interruption of Portuguese citizenship, an expression of urban precarity and liminality, and as a form of diaspora blackness, present a strong case for the continued relevance of the creolization concept in anthropological research. When employing creolization/creole identity as a prescriptive, however, the argument slides into what can be termed “creolism”—the concept immediately becomes an essentialism like any other when put to use as a prescriptive. Both Aisha Khan and Stephan Palmié have criticized the frequent appropriation of creole as an exemplary identity, pointing out that such constructions only essentialize creole as a new kind of ethnicity (albeit based on the idea of racial mixture), and one that gestures at its impossible opposite: “un-creole.”2 The effect of treating creole as a self-contained essentialism is also evident in the absence of a sustained argument linking this fascinating node of cultural production and activism in Lisbon with the African diaspora discourse that the rappers themselves so often reference in interviews and in their work. Pardue provides many glimpses of this link, but one is left still wondering how these rappers, who often explicitly articulate their Kriolu identity as a form of blackness, actually see themselves as black. What are the specific points of ideological overlap or identification that make Cape Verdean creolity in Portugal articulable as a form of diaspora blackness? The author could have spent a bit more time discussing the role of English, and particularly, African-American vernacular English, as a possible “creole interruption.” The rappers so frequently punctuate both their speech and their lyrics with English words and phrases that it seems as if Creole is not merely the language they employ to interrupt the imperial dominance of Portuguese, but represents the possibility of interruption itself.
The weaknesses of Cape Verde, Let’s Go do not detract from the fact that it is a well-crafted and cogently argued ethnographic text that impressively balances its foci on music-making, immigration, colonial and postcolonial history, citizenship, race, and urban spatiality in contemporary Europe. The book appeals to a wide cross-section of humanities and social science disciplines, particularly anthropology, history, European politics and cultural policy, arts studies, ethnomusicology, and urban studies. The author’s understanding of hip-hop scholarship and enthusiasm for hip-hop performance make him an engaging and highly credible narrator capable of transporting the reader to the vibrant “scenes” in Lisbon in which the experiences of postcolonial migrancy, exclusion, racialized labor, improvised and social housing, and partial citizenship provide the raw material for yet another captivating form of black Atlantic expressive culture.
Khan, Aisha. 2007. “Creolization Moments.” In Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory, edited by Charles Stewart, 237-253. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Khan, Aisha. 2001. “Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Caribbean as Master Symbol.” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 3: 271-302.
Palmié, Stephan. 2007. “Is There a Model in the Muddle? Creolization in African Americanist History and Anthropology.” In Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory, edited by Charles Stewart, 178-200. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.