One of my earliest recollections of the contradictions inherent in hip hop’s global spread happened in July 1995 when I, rather suddenly, noticed my friend Marwan’s younger brother Samir pointing at me and singing “I said Hello Everybody” from across a crowded open-air dance club in Kumasi, Ghana. Samir’s universal salutation, delivered in chorus with Naughty by Nature protégés the Rottin Razkals, was followed by a distinctly more locally specific line: “I’m from Ill-to-the-town to-the-town to-the-town.”
It was a Saturday night and I had ventured out to the Adum district of Kumasi with my friends Kwadwo and Frank (a.k.a. “Nasty”) to attend some relatively minor celebration of the Asantehene’s (the King of Ashanti) Silver Jubilee. That summer, in addition to the grand spectacles of pomp and pageantry that brought global media outlets like BBC and CNN to Kumasi, modest observations of Otumfuo Opoku Ware II’s twenty-five years on the Golden Stool were quite regular. Our circular route through the city, which brought me face-to-face with global hip hop on an evening when the plan had been to honor Ashanti national tradition, was done foremost for my benefit. For it was my first Saturday night out with Kwadwo and Nasty and they were eager to show me all that Kumasi nightlife had to offer.
Buzzed off the two tots of brandy we had taken at a balcony bar a few blocks away, I remember being drawn like a magnet to the pleasingly familiar boom-bap rhythms pouring out of the club’s open entryway and into the Adum streets. For me the club scene was pure comfort: packed with beautiful black and brown people dancing in close quarters, definitely West Africa, but reminiscent of something you might see in a Biggie video. The soundtrack of the moment, however, the moderately successful hit “Oh Yeah” by the two-hit wonder Razkals who are perhaps best remembered for utilizing family connections and the tight production backing of their Illtown patrons to claim one-shining-moment in hip hop history, was a bit more curious.
A song such as Biggie’s “One More Chance,” which through frequent plays in clubs all across America that summer was securing Big Poppa’s reign and amplifying his legend, would have seemed better suited to the scenery.
The Razkals’ relative obscurity only adds to the intrigue of how and why Samir and I found ourselves gesturing at one another across this crowded West African club. Music is at once historically structured, socially maintained, and subjectively experienced. In the months prior to arriving in Ghana, I imagine I spent several Saturday evenings listening to “Oh Yeah,” in the comforts of my own living room among close friends, just before going out. The song’s beneath-the-surface standing, for me, signaled an investment in both hip hop and its musical connoisseurship. Songs frequently played on the radio and in clubs were everyone’s. I saw my proactive pursuit of these less travelled tracks (although “Oh Yeah” had gotten as high as #14 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart) as both reflecting and forging my sense of belonging to hip hop. Being in Kumasi, with a group of Ghanaian clubbers who seemed to appreciate the song as much as I did allowed me to presume a close connection with everyone there.
Samir’s story, the exact details of which I can only guess at, is undoubtedly different. He was one of the shining stars of a group of about two dozen young men I got together with each weekday afternoon to play basketball at the Kumasi Lebanon club. Yet this was our first time seeing one another away from the court. Both basketball and hip hop were recent American cultural imports to Ghana which, in those days, were almost exclusively embraced by privileged youth who had access to televisions and disposal incomes. Samir was half-Lebanese with strong family connections abroad which he could call on for video cassette tapes of NBA games, audio cassette tapes of music, and, as he got older, to travel outside of Ghana.
I often hear testimonials of hip hop music’s global spread from one part of the African diaspora to another affirmed through statements like, “when we first heard it we instantly felt a part of it.” It’s notable, then, that my first profound experience with hip hop in Africa, and the immediate emotional alliance it created, was deeply saturated in the politics of privilege. For the mutual recognition taking place between Samir and me that Saturday night on a Kumasi dance floor was a recognition that we had more than just basketball linking us. We also had hip hop and cosmopolitan privilege. I could have stayed at the club all night but after a few minutes Kwadwo and Nasty were ushering me back into the street and towards our planned destination which featured mostly Ghanaian highlife music interspersed with exhibitions of African drumming.
Sujatha Fernades perceptively asks us to consider the ways privilege inhibits attempts to create global communities. Her request compels me to consider the extent to which degrees of relative privilege are intrinsic to not only hip hop’s global spread but possibly, even, its self-definition and understanding. At its more political outposts, hip hop imagines itself countering these privileges. But are they not just as much part and parcel with how hip hop came into being and continues to flourish? Narratives of hip hop’s worldwide expansion descend slopes of American global dominance, along ethnoscapes of tourism, peace-corps-ism, and US militarism (in the form of duffle bag cassette tapes). Hip hop’s recognized birthplace is THE global media capital; its prized Golden Age publication — The Source — a product of Ivy League white privilege; even its founding father, Kool Herc, who is credited with transplanted Jamaican sound manipulation practices into an American urban context, was only able to do this through the relative privilege that enabled his family to migrate to New York in pursuit of a better life. If hip hop is to be understood as a voice of the disenfranchised, this only exists through a dialectic relationship with power and privileges that are often more a part of the music and culture than we imagine or care to admit.
I do not say this to minimize the political efficacy that hip hop can potentially offer. However, such potential is often only realized in fleeting opportunities and temporary occasions. The myth of an intrinsic, revolutionary hip hop politics curtails vigilance and allows retrograde individualisms to mask themselves as commitments to social justice. Imagined political trajectories are usually more easily outlined than sustained situated politics. The contradictions, inconsistencies, and miscomprehensions inherent is hip hop should be more widely acknowledged in the political scripts surrounding the music and its movements. Through detailing the everyday steps of hip hop’s global dispersion, Fernandes’s Close to the Edge makes a giant leap in the right direction.
Top image by the artist Cotter Spratley.