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It’s Worldwide, Y’all

February 5, 2010

In Mali, they graffiti “50 Cent” on red-brown walls of concrete and tan-yellow huts of mud.  Children battle dance in court yards between water wells and wire-woven chairs, popping and locking, and walking in circles on their hands.  Markets sell t-shirts and pants with emblazoned faces of Biggie and ‘Pac.  Many Malians listen to American rap on cell phones and boom boxes and in glitzy dance clubs. This is, for the most part, Hot 97, BET Countdown-type rap music. The songs with the beats that make you wanna shake it.  Shaking it is fairly is universal.   But there is Malian rap too.

In my three months living in Mali in 2008, I heard as much homegrown rap (and rap from neighboring West African countries) as I heard of the former kind.  Malian rap tends to be more political.  It discusses homelessness, youth issues, government, AIDS, unemployment, and cultural pride.  Rappers call it an instrument for information. Education. A weapon to fight injustice.

And this is hip-hop in its truest form.  The best way to determine (or prove, some might argue) the essence of hip-hop, is to examine the ways in which it manifests in other countries.  Consistently, it works as a tool for change, just as it originally did for marginalized youth in New York City’s South Bronx.  It emerges from a need for said change.  And although this motivation for rap music may have relatively faded in the US, we can see it when we look at just about any other country with a bourgeoning hip-hop scene.

In France, immigrant rappers protest le racisme.

In Senegal, corrupt elections.

In Palestine, occupation.

In Morocco, rappers write songs to preserve their cultural history and to speak out against poverty and social ills.

In Brazil, hip-hoppers unite to combat racism, poverty, and street violence.

I do not mean to suggest either that the United States in the 21st century is void of socially conscious rap music, or that other countries are free of materialistic hip-hop.  However, a qualitative survey of the global hip-hop scene suggests that the culture, in its truest form – one which unites, empowers, and educates – still thrives most strongly in countries where it has not yet been entirely commercialized, or where political strife is severe and urgent enough that music necessarily becomes a tool for coping and overcoming.  I find this encouraging. To any hip-hop head who insists on the genre’s death, I suggest they invest in a plane ticket or two, or at least review some of the links embedded above (and listed below).

*For more on hip-hop in West Africa, check out the following links:

http://staycalm.mondomix.com/en/video4330.htm (Documentary on West African hip-hop)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU7EtJPdL7g (Part one of a three part documentary on political hip-hop in Mali – in French)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izgS-nwwN0g (Music video for Malian artists, Mokobe and Oumou Sangare)

http://mymondomix.com/artrue/gk (Bio of Malian musical group, Guérébou Kounkan, comprised of street children.  Article is in French – copy the address and search in Google for translating option)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZgRq31M1-U (Music video for Guérébou Kounkan)

Video: “Voix du Mali,” Mokobe and Oumou Sangare

Heather Day is a graduate of Connecticut College, where she earned her BA in American Studies, and Human Development and a certificate in Community Action and Public Policy.  Her thesis examined hip-hop’s potential as a tool for education and therapy, and Heather has led numerous youth workshops and classes on hip-hop arts and politics, human rights and anti-oppression.  She studied in Mali, West Africa in the spring of 2008 with the School for International Training’s program on Gender, Health and Development. She has also traveled briefly to France, Switzerland, Morocco, and Mexico.  She currently lives in Brooklyn, NYC where she teaches in a public middle school.

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