Bearing Witness and the Challenges of Community in Global Hip Hop

Kabu verdi / Nu bai / Gosi nu sta na Portugei / Nu bai / Es ta ben y sai / Chullage
“Cape Verde / Let’s go / Now, we’re in Portugal / Let’s go / They [my people] come and go / Chullage”
With these apparently innocuous opening words in kriolu to his 2001 song “Nu bai”, Lisbon rapper Chullage captured the energy of urban youth and helped popularize a current problem of identity and belonging. This is significant given the fact that kriolu, a hybrid language of Portuguese, Temne and Wolof, has no official status as a language in Portugal or in the archipelago homeland of Cape Verde. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous kriolu phrase “nu bai” became a call for greater attention to daily life of residents, especially African immigrants, in the periphery neighborhoods of Lisbon. These two small words of nu bai or “let’s go” contain three large questions: who, exactly are “we,” where are we going, and how salient is movement in identity formation? The “problem” of the “New Europe” is a global problem. It is the age-old problem of difference and recognition.
In her new book of reflexive essays, Sujatha Fernandes probes the complex issue of “hip hop community” as a problem of “we” formation and spatial management. On the one hand, hip hoppers, similar to other artists and technocrats, preach that skills(z) will reign supreme and thus overcome issues of difference and place. The idea is that whether among rappers, graffiti artists, DJs or street dancers, performance brings an authority and a universal authenticity, recognized as “real.” For example, a “real” emcee inspires others through the art of rhyme and the command of presence. “It’s all in the voice,” as Guru once said during his and DJ Premiere’s heyday of the mid 1990s. However, hip hop is not simply a sport or abstract art; its very raison d’être is “the edge,” which Fernandes samples from Grandmaster Flash and employs as part of her book title. Hip hop is the social makeup of the everyday; it is lived experience in the particularities of “here” (local). For a growing number of youth, the topic of “where one is at” is not so straightforward. Lisbon rapper Biggie, who emigrated with his family as a child from Angola in the 1980s, once reminded me: “you see, maybe Portugal is in the EU (European Union), but the PALOP (African Countries with Portuguese as Official Language) aren’t. We’re just in Portugal…not quite Portuguese, not quite European…forever African and always black.”
As hip hop has become increasingly a global phenomenon, consumers and practitioners have become more invested in joining the “hip hop nation” while simultaneously more critically aware of the hierarchies regarding what counts as “real” hip hop and “real” knowledge. Fernandes rightly remarks that hip hop is at a crossroads, as the shiny sheen of US-centric blackness does not radiate truth as it once seem to do in the 1990s. The paradigms of identity and reality have become increasingly similar to the themes of Chullage, cited above; namely, the experiences of diaspora, underemployment, and uncertain citizenship. While the metaphorical reservoir of blackness remains powerful, hip hoppers, among other youth groups, have discovered that it is also deep. Global hip hop is, in part, about afrocentricities, a plurality of negritude discourses and identity formations. In my own work in São Paulo, Brazil, I found that hip hoppers have drawn from a mixed bag of national and foreign symbols of Africanity in their lyrics, sounds, and images. Their strategic selections are not simply communicative of influences and references but also hip hoppers insist that global blackness, in whatever form, is a statement on time and historicity. For example, artists such as Thaíde, a former B-boy and legendary Brazilian rapper, has recorded a number of songs saturated with nostalgic reflections and wistful sound samples hearkening back to the bailes black (“black,” left untranslated, dance parties) of the 1980s in Rio and São Paulo. Others have offered Yorubá monikers and stripped down percussive sounds as a comment on time and place. However, for the most part, hip hoppers have been careful not to limit blackness to a mythology of past “origins.” Rather, they demand that blackness necessarily be a modern, savvy representation of cultural [and occasionally economic] empowerment, right now.
Fernandes is well aware of the politics of representation among hip hoppers as they screen themselves for audience consumption. The problem of “we” formation comes to the fore as contemporary hip hoppers are not only thoughtful of aesthetic and ideological presentations, they are acutely judgmental of others. It is here, where, for example, regarding the Black August phenomenon, Fernandes points out that the rays of “Blackstar” [to pick on Mos Def, now recast as “Yasiin”] illuminate imperial assumptions and exploitation. In a personal note, Fernandes provides insight on the general challenge at hand, “I also came to the realization that privilege – whether by birth or acquired, of skin color, nationality, or social class – would always inhibit the attempt to create global communities” (6).
With these dynamics in mind, consider the Lisbon rapper LBC’s 2009 song “M.I.N.A.O.” (MP3 excerpt above). In this song, LBC never seems to have enough time to get out all the words. His rhetoric style is one of rush-rush mono-pitch chant culminating in an abrupt slow-down rising in pitch on the final two syllables. LBC, in fact, is trying out a new moniker “MINAO”, an acronym meaning “Black, Anti-Oppression Mental Intellect”. Just as Tupac Shakur provoked listeners and activists by turning NIGGA into an acronym (Never Ignorant About Getting Goals Accomplished), LBC does the same with BITCH (translation: your insensitivity turned you corrupt and incorrigible).
Consisting of two main melodic samples of a siren and a repeated note, played on a synthesizer, “M.I.N.A.O.” is unmistakably a song of drama. For the first half of the song LBC identifies himself as part of the poor, self-educated, and oppressed. He quickly connects his condition to that of the foot soldiers on both sides of Israel-Palestine conflict, while maintaining that “we all are niggas and it is fucked up on all sides.” LBC then runs through a litany of culpable institutions, such as the Catholic Church, whose racism and oppression LBC seeks to reveal and overturn. He reminds the listener of the empowerment within the logic of Black Panthers and insists on recuperating the term “gang” as an organization for the oppressed. In this excerpt, LBC (“Learning Black Connection”) locates his learning of the “black connection” in the Cape Verdean diaspora. It is when he moved from the impoverished neighborhood of Eugenio Lima in the capital city of Praia to the established, Cape Verdean improvised neighborhood of Cova da Moura (“Kova M”) that LBC began to reflect on the drama that is being “creole” in Portugal. He quickly covers police brutality and racial profiling in the Lisbon periphery on his way back to references to Carlos Veiga and Renato Cardoso, two opposing political figures within the same party during Cape Verde’s transition from a Marxist-style, one-party system to a multi-party, neoliberal system during the 1990s. When asked about the song’s message, LBC made it clear to me that “I identify my place as a contemporary colonized person, who hasn’t realized the revolution. The spaces are linked. Kova M is like Palestine is like Praia city in CV, and so many other places. I am a soldier of the third world inside Europe doing outreach . . . .”
Obviously, the realities and challenges of youth vary and hip hop thus serves different functions for people to speak. Yet, perhaps, there are some frames of convergence so that hip hop does not simply fragment into amorphous localities. What sort of new models circulate these days for hip hop nation building and general empowerment for youth? Can hip hop produce a discourse that can achieve the precarious articulation of local knowledge and cosmopolitan imaginations?
I suggest “thug” as a worthwhile point of collective reflection. As Fernandes takes purview of hip hop scenes across the continents, she identifies overlapping themes of products, media industries, and diasporic circulation. At one point, she lands, albeit fleetingly, on the trope of “thug life” through the global icon of Tupac Shakur. In my travels throughout the so-called Lusophone world, I have yet to meet an engaged rapper, DJ, graffiti artist, B-girl or B-boy who hadn’t looked to Tupac for inspiration. As anthropologist Brad Weiss has written, in connection to his work in Tanzania, “thug life demonstra[tes] one’s commitment to this world.” However, similar to Tupac himself, “thug” affords a wide and frequently contradicting range of interpretations, which have divided hip hop communities along issues of violence, sexism, and socio-economic class. Nevertheless, “thug” and “thug life” offer what feminist scholars once termed a “politics of location” instead of an authority overdetermined by locale. “Thug” speaks across race, ethnicity, and space by addressing a common thread of street, an existentialism of the public sphere. Obviously, there are rappers, criminals, and politicians [and so on], who have made it difficult to conceive of “thug” as anything but negativity and nihilism. However, I think we can “recast”, to borrow from hip hop scholar Joe Schloss, “thug” as Tupac once did with N.I.G.G.A. and LBC attempts with B.I.T.C.H. Just as privilege can be recast into commitment, thug can be reworked as citizenship. In the end, following Fernandes, we must bear witness to the dynamic contours of hip hop and continue to strive for the constructive pathways for inclusion as we negotiate the hard edges of racism, imperialism and xenophobia with the morass of markets and iconography.
Top image of LBC provided by the author.

derek pardue