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.