"Wherever I Bless a Microphone": Ethnographic Perspectives on Hip-Hop's Transnational Flow

Sujatha Fernandes’s Close to the Edge explores a variety of contexts in which hip-hop is practiced around the world, and draws them together with the thread of Fernandes’s personal experiences. My own work has been based on the ethnographic study of communities associated with specific hip-hop practices in the United States, particularly those engaged in sample-based hip-hop production and b-boying/b-girling. In thinking about ways that our respective inquiries could comment on each other, I was initially struck by something that we hold in common: unlike many hip-hop scholars, we tend to study hip-hop more as a process than as a product. This is not to say that we have no interest at all in hip hop as a form of popular music. But we both seem to prefer to view hip-hop as an activity, which is performed by specific groups of people in specific times and places. The commodities that those activities may ultimately yield are simply not our primary focus. This orientation leads us to focus on the social, cultural and material environments in which these activities take place, as well as the ways that hip-hop practitioners choose to interact with those environments.
At the same time, although we both focus on hip-hop as a practice, the specific art forms that we study are quite different. So the questions that I have set for myself here are the following: To what extent are the trends that Fernandes documents in Close to the Edge reflected in elements of hip-hop that I have studied, such as dance, deejaying, and hip-hop production? In what ways do they differ? And what can these similarities and differences tell us about hip-hop culture generally?
One of the most fundamental differences between rapping and other hip-hop activities is that rapping requires language, whereas many of the other pursuits do not. In order to really appreciate a rhyme, one must understand the language in which it is spoken. In imagining the transnational flow of rap music, then, we can see that this flow will take place much more readily among communities linked by a common tongue.
In practice, of course, such language communities are often the result of a difficult colonial history. And, not incidentally, this history also brings with it a set of economic relationships that – ironically – may actually serve to facilitate the international circulation of hip-hop culture. At the same time, it is often precisely the oppressiveness of these relationships that politicized hip-hop seeks to combat through the development of international coalitions between those in similar circumstances. In other words, the structure for building hip-hop unity among those who search for solutions may be based on the same set of post-colonial relationships that created the problem in the first place. In some ways, then, the global rap scene embodies the very contradictions it addresses.
The transnational flow of other hip-hop elements, by contrast, is far less circumscribed by linguistic boundaries. People who speak different languages can appreciate each other’s work in these forms, and even collaborate in producing it. DJ Krush, for example, is a Japanese hip-hop producer who does not speak English, but who has made beats for many American MCs, including C.L. Smooth, Black Thought and Malik B from the Roots, and the late Guru from Gangstarr. This lack of reliance on a common language can facilitate greater interaction between groups that do not share a common – or even parallel – political history.
To take another example, Battle of the Year is a b-boying/b-girling competition that draws competitors from around the world. The finalists that will compete in 2011 include crews from South Korea, Greece, Poland, France, Japan, China, Israel, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, USA, Brazil, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, Germany, Thailand, Belgium, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates. These crews’ ability to battle against each other at all requires a deep understanding of a common set of aesthetic expectations. Moreover, not only will they perform in the same art form, but they must also satisfy the artistic criteria of an international panel of judges. At the same time, in order to make it to that level of international competition in the first place, each individual had to make a deep and longstanding personal commitment to the art form, which in turn suggests that they were able to derive meaning from it within the fabric of their own life and culture. Hip-hop dance, then, can produce common significance for individuals from extraordinarily diverse cultural backgrounds.[1]
In this regard, then, transnational communities built around rapping may be different from those built around other, non-verbal, hip-hop practices in ways that can be generalized. Rap’s reliance on spoken language will tend to draw it into an overlapping set of post-colonial communities, each of which comprises a range of connected nations, ethnicities and political formations. Its potential coalitions may be somewhat narrower than those of other elements, but this would likely lead them to be more focused in their political goals. In comparison, other elements of hip-hop have a greater ability to transcend linguistic boundaries, thus drawing them into more transcendent worldwide communities. But this very diversity may tend to make them less politically focused.
Another difference between rhyming and other elements of hip-hop is that, while rap music has (for most of its existence) been simultaneously a highly localized practice and also an international commercial product, the other elements have for the most part been experienced as practices only. As demonstrated in Close to the Edge, the tensions between the local and the global, between the communal and the commercial, have been at the heart of virtually all hip-hop scenes that are centered on music. By contrast, scenes centered on other elements have not had to address these tensions to anywhere near the same degree.
Non-rap elements of hip-hop have tended to develop within small, self-regulating communities of enthusiasts, and are passed directly to new practitioners through apprenticeship. As a result, the value of the form’s history is much more deeply felt in these elements because it constitutes a substantial part of each individual’s claim to authenticity: “I learned from someone who learned from someone who learned from one of the originators of the form.”
This tendency is also facilitated by the youthfulness of hip-hop culture itself, which is worth taking a moment to note. One of the most distinctive aspects of hip-hop – often noted, but rarely reflected upon — is that it was created by youth. Not for youth, or about youth. By youth. As a result, hip-hop’s elders are much younger than comparable veterans of other movements, simply because they started so young. Ken Swift, for example, has been one of the most respected historical figures in hip-hop dance for over thirty years, and he is still only in his mid-forties. This, in turn, allows him to be both a valued elder and an active contemporary force on the international scene at the same time. From the point of view of international b-boys and b-girls, this aspect of hip-hop culture — combined with the Internet — allows even the newest practitioners in the most far-flung corners of the world to maintain direct relationships with the form’s earliest figures. Personal relationships are historical relationships, and that draws the international community together in a distinctive way. It means that that, in non-verbal aspects of hip-hop culture, the form’s entire history — from New York in the seventies to anywhere in the world in the modern era — is felt in a very personal way. This may or may not be the case with international rap scenes.
In her introduction, Fernandes writes “The Hip Hop Nation as a transnational space of mutual learning and exchange may not have been a concrete reality. But the transient alliances that hip hoppers imagined across boundaries of class, race, and nation gave them the resources and the platform they needed to tell their stories and provided the grounds for their locally based political actions” (4).
If the question is whether or not a unified, transnational “Hip-Hop Nation” has arisen, then that can only be answered in the negative. But, as Fernandes suggests, that is the wrong question to question to ask. The right questions concern how hip-hop’s multivalent practices have facilitated new kinds of relationships between people of different cultures, and what kind of fruits those new relationships have produced. What new options have been raised in the lives of individual practitioners and people who share common circumstances? How have local dance forms, art forms, poetic forms and musical sounds become integrated into hip-hop practice? How has hip-hop’s aesthetic led youth to look into the history of their own cultures for artistic inspiration, and how has this empowered them as individuals and communities?
By these standards, hip-hop is doing quite well.

joseph schloss