Hip Hop: A Global Lingua Franca for the Dispossessed
Of all the stories that I failed to write during my years as a journalist, one, in particular, stands out:
The year was 1999. I was 34, and the Washington Post’s newly arrived foreign correspondent in South Africa. Someone had told me, almost in passing as I recall, that there was trouble percolating in a village named Umtata, on South Africa’s eastern shore, straddling the Indian Ocean. Umtata was the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, but 24 years ago, there was a storm brewing in the village.
A local disc jockey was known to play hip hop icons, the Notorious Big and 2Pac, and then he would open the phone lines to ask his listeners, mostly young, Black South Africans, who they preferred. Over time, an interesting–and familiar–pattern emerged. Villagers who lived on Umtata’s east side preferred Biggie; villagers on the West side favored Pac.
I was skeptical but I am a child of hip hop whose political consciousness coincided with the early years of rap and songs like the Message from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:
And so I felt compelled to either track the story down or debunk it. I dug up the disc jockey’s phone number and gave him a call. He verified that there was indeed beef between Umtata’s East and West sides, and it had even culminated in some scuffling between rival factions. No real harm was done but still, tensions had escalated to the point that the deejay told me that he found it necessary to appeal on-air to his young listeners to stop the violence.
I had planned to travel to Umtata to write the story but breaking news got in the way; a Biblical flood, as I recall, had devastated the neighboring country of Mozambique; I was called away and ultimately dropped the ball.
A few years later, when I was the Washington Post’s man in Argentina, I was writing a story about how a deep economic crisis, sparked by Washington’s neoliberal policies, had capsized what had been the wealthiest country in Latin America. With a population that was 97 percent white, Argentina, for most of the 20th century, had living standards that were comparable to Western Europe, but in the early 1990s had begun to replace the country’s robust manufacturing sector with a speculative economy. Unsurprisingly, the financiers both in Argentina and on Wall Street, grew exponentially richer, while the bottom fell out for the Argentine working class, so much so, in fact, that the slums of this all-white country, began to resemble Southeast DC, or north Philly, or Chicago’s west side.
Youth were idled, crime and drug use soared, single-parent households increased, and more and more Argentines were listening to hip hop, in a country that was addicted to rock music and the country’s homegrown music, the Tango.
Driving through a Buenos Aires slum one day with my interlocutor, we heard an unmistakable sound booming from one car as two young men worked under the hood: Dr. Dre’s album, The Chronic, a classic of the West Coast’s gangsta rap genre.
Interviewing the young, white men, both in their early 20s as I recall, they told me that they were not fluent in English, but they were fluent in rap music, and understood, more or less, Snoop Dogg’s lyrics. More importantly, they said, they FELT the lyrics.
“This music just speaks to us,” I recall one of the young men telling me. “This is how a lot of us are living in Argentina today.”
One half century after its birth, hip hop, or rap music, has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon, a global lingua franca for the dispossessed–be they Black or Brown or White, from the Bronx or Buenos Aires, Umtata to Urugway, Chicago to Caracas to the Czech Republic, Zulus or Oaxacan or Roma–to tell their own stories.
Hip hop is one of only two art forms born in the United States, the other, of course, being jazz, of which, Duke Ellington once said this:
“It is an American idiom of African roots – a trunk of soul with limbs reaching in every direction, to the frigid North, the exotic East, the miserable, swampy South, and the swinging Wild West.”
Duke might as well have been describing hip hop, which like jazz, is rooted in an African aesthetic, that is to say, that, it is derived from the Blues, the West African music that survived the Middle Passage. Contrary to its name, however, the Blues is not strictly an assertion of our deepest hurt but rather represents a triumph over fear by testifying against it in open court, so to speak. Say the Devil’s name and he loses half his power over you.
And like the Blues, and jazz, hip hop adjudicates the despair and ennobles the unwashed with its prophetic vision of redemption—our freedom dreams–like a gospel choir’s refrain, engineering language in a genuine effort to inquire—Where are you? Can you meet me by the creek? Is your pain like mine? We can take them if we work together!—and connects African bot to each other, and everyone who yearns for community.
Listen to J Cole’ soul-stirring plea for freedom just days after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb in 2014:
The Blues also inform the Tango, the gorgeous yet poignant music and dance born in the brothels of Buenos Aires more than a century ago. Argentina was never home to as many Blacks as was its neighbor, Brazil, but was in fact home to a substantial Black population as the 19th century came to a close. However, a brutal war against Bolivia and Paraguay, and a yellow fever epidemic virtually wiped out the male population of African-descended men in Argentina. The tango was created by Black women in Argentina to mourn the loss of their lovers and husbands and sons. So moving was this new art form that it quickly spread, first to Paris and then across the world.
The Tango, like Jazz, and hip hop, are powerful reminders that the purpose of art is to make us feel less alone in the world. Said James Baldwin:
If it hurts you, that is not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then, you make — oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another — some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.
As the world celebrates 50 years of hip hop, Black Owned Conversations would like to seize upon the opportunity to appreciate the irony that this soaring, celestial music owes its existence to the relentless and ruinous dispossession of African Americans by the white settler project.