Interviews

Sujatha Fernandes

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, December 2012

In Close To the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation, author and activist Sujatha Fernandes looks at how Hip Hop can be a tool of social change, shares her disappointment in not finding a global fraternity, and shows how there is much more to the culture than the corporate rap.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: In Close To The  Edge you go off in search of the global Hip Hop generation.  Instead of a global fraternity you find, “misunderstanding, cultural assumptions, and mixed signals” where ‘conscious’ American rappers unconscionably burn American dollars in Cuba (where it could buy a family’s weekly food). In Chicago you find venues that claim to preserve black and latino culture but, like Jazz in the 1920s, “book black acts while excluding black audiences”. And in revolutionary Venezuela you find the dominance of that American export, gangster rap. What were you expecting to find?

Sujatha Fernandes: As somebody who had been involved in left politics for a long time, and finding the inner-city left circles to be out of touch with the lives of a large number of people (particularly immigrants in Sydney where I grew up), I was really looking to Hip Hop to provide some sort of answer.  When I became involved in the movement in Sydney, I saw a lot of aboriginal and immigrant children using Hip Hop to talk about Palestine, black deaths in custody and a whole range of political issues.  I suddenly thought that maybe Hip Hop could be this answer, a way of connecting people and making a political statement in an era when traditional left organisation and political parties were not reaching people in the same way.  This reflection spurred this journey and made me think, ‘How do things look in Cuba? How do they look in Caracas? How do they look across the globe where young people are also using this form?’

JGF: Hip Hop’s history is usually given as having politically and socially engaged beginnings traced through to its current commercialization. Has Hip Hop, in general, become more or less political since its emergence?

SF: I don’t necessarily agree with many assessments of Hip Hop.  There are movies like Brown Sugar that propagate this idea that Hip Hop once had a glorious heyday when it was political and then it descended in to the commercialism we see now.  I disagree with that timeline for several reasons.  Firstly, I think, the very early days when Silvia Robinson decided to market the Sugar Hill Gang shows that Hip Hop was commercial from the very beginning and this is how it spread around the globe: through major commercial networks.  This is how it differs from other musical forms like Blues and Jazz, in that they didn’t have that kind of global commercial distribution as Hip Hop. Hip Hop has been interchangeable with commerce and the global market ever since its emergence.  Therefore, I don’t think it’s right to say that it has become commercialized.

The second reason is because I think Hip Hop has gone through a lot of different stages and that at the beginning it was a party music.  I don’t think its origins were necessarily political but it did come from marginalized and disenfranchised communities who were making a statement through Hip Hop — this doesn’t mean they were standing on the streets and talking about politics though.  Then it went from party-orientated music to social commentary like The Message (which I write about in the book).  Then on to Public Enemy and their very militant stance in the ’90s; and then you have what I call ‘corporate rap’, which begins after ’96 with the telecommunications act that passed in the United States and monopolised the airwaves.  The era of corporate rap has dominated the music since the period during the mid-90s.  I also think that a lot of regional rap has emerged, as well as underground rap, which is to say that Hip Hop is not only one thing: it is many diverse streams.

However, I do think we can say, in general, that corporate rap is the most dominant stream of Hip Hop that we hear — and not just on the radio here but all over the globe.  Local music and underground music is not heard as much as corporate rap.

JGF: It’s interesting to hear you say that Hip Hop started as a party music.  One way of understanding how culture works is that a political message is best carried in party music.  I was listening to Afrika Bambata’s Planet Rock this morning and the first thing he says at the beginning of the track is “Party people!” If you can deliver political ideas in party music you will probably be more successful than if they are presented in a serious, conscious piece of music.

SF: That’s true but at the same time certain groups, like the Cubans, would probably disagree with that. They were very clear in distinguishing themselves from party music to say, ‘We’re not using salsa and mindless lyrics that talk about women and partying’, and were trying to talk seriously about politics issues.  In the context of Cuba the Hip Hop was always very serious and heavy and I think that this was in part a reaction to the record labels.  As soon as Cuban rap started to gain popularity, the record labels were coming to find people and asking them to throw in some salsa because it would appeal to the global market.  This is what happened to the group Orishas who started off as a politically militant group and eventually brought in a lot of salsa and other popular music whilst also retaining their political edge.  This is possibly what you were talking about where Hip Hop groups can reach broader audiences with a political message compared with the more hardcore of Cuban rappers who refused to any kind of mixture.

JGF: You talk about the “dual vision” in Hip Hop culture as represented through Afrika Bambata’s universal brotherhood and his attempt to create a global Hip Hop community, and the Sugar Hill Gang’s “edgy” account of everyday ghetto life. As well reflecting the difference between universal and local concerns, it also echoes Paul Gilroy’s criticism of Rock Against Racism’s emphasis on ‘anti- racism’ instead of black liberation. Is this not the difference between the limits of commentary-based politics and alternative-orientated politics?

SF: I think that’s right. In fact, that is one of questions I ask in the book is: Can Hip Hop be a vehicle for launching an alternative vision and revolution for young people today?  I don’t see that happening through Hip Hop precisely because it’s so rich as a chronicle and so rich in talking about the experiences of young people, and so it’s not very easy to move beyond that into formulating a politics outside of it.  This has been the argument for generations – so long as it’s not tied into a political movement, music on its own is not going to change the world.

JGF: The emcee battle between KRS-ONE and Nelly reflects a generation-defining shift in the Hip Hop community — Nelly even goes as far as criticizing KRS’ African nose in the track. While the original Hip Hop generation talked about anticolonial movements in Africa as a point of reference for radical politics, their successors are much closer to a vision of American entrepreneurialism — we might call them 'rapper barons'.  Surely this loss of message-based music is not exclusive to hip hop culture, but is just a reflection of wider society?

SF: I don’t think it’s exclusive to Hip Hop.  If you go back to a classic of the Birmingham Cultural School, with people such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, they argued that political expressions are always going to get incorporated into the mainstream and their political edge will be dulled.  We’ve seen this happen time and time again, and if you look at Reggae in Jamaica with its very political origins it became a very different form in Dancehall, and if you look at rap music in Cuba it is the commercial-orientated form that has become popular.  This is a natural, evolutionary cycle of all popular music — all forms go through these periods of providing a voice of resistance and being able to articulate counter-hegemonic ideas, and then becoming incorporated into the mainstream.  So I don’t think it is an experience in any way unique to Hip Hop, but I think the reason it provokes so many heated debates is because Hip Hop is all-pervasive — it has become a cultural form that has infiltrated in every part of our lives.  So I think it angers and frustrates those who feel that something they have created is being used commercially in mainstream culture.  Nearly all of the people I interview in the book who have been involved in Hip Hop culture for more than a decade feel frustrated with the direction Hip Hop has gone and don’t even want to talk about it anymore.

JGF: Many claim that musician-activists either don’t exist or have lost their popular potency. I guess you would argue that they’re looking in the wrong place as Hip Hop has been influential in the Arab Spring and other political events around the world.

In the New York Times you argue that rap’s “oratorical style” allows it to simulate a political speech or address, making political ideas accessible to a young generation that has little interest or involvement in conventional politics. What examples could you give of Hip Hop culture acting as a force to promote social change?

SF: If you look at the United States there is the emergence of rappers like Immortal Technique, who is very well-known, and other rappers who are trying to connect their music and narratives to broader political issues.  Immortal Technique has done a lot of work in Afghanistan, in Palestine, and in support of many political causes around the globe.  Other rappers talk about the problems facing young black people who are incarcerated and have talked about the elections.  I think rappers can have a role in injecting conversations and ideas that are missing and which the political candidates will not address.

Across the globe the role of rappers has been even bigger, especially in places during the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.  A rapper, El General in Tunisia, has been credited with being a spark for the Tunisian Revolution because of his song ‘Mr. President’.  Similarly, in places like Senegal and the Congo, rap musicians are saying things that nobody else is saying and sparking activism because of their ability to speak out through spreading their music through YouTube and other forms of social media.  This allows them to say extremely critical statements that have helped develop political movements.

Sujatha Fernandes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures; Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela; and Close to the Edge.

One of questions I ask in the book is: Can Hip Hop be a vehicle for launching an alternative vision and revolution for young people today? I don’t see that happening through Hip Hop precisely because it’s so rich as a chronicle and so rich in talking about the experiences of young people, and so it’s not very easy to move beyond that into formulating a politics outside of it.

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Published online in December 2012