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Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

Sujatha Fernandes
Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation
(Verso, 2011)

It used to be hard to find a rap song that didn’t end with international shout-outs. The obvious question was: Do they really have fans there? Turns out, they did. What was once the autochthonous soundtrack of urban American in the now has gone global. Or has it? Is this American-originated art form really translatable to other languages? Sujatha Fernandes, professor of sociology at CUNY, wrestles with all of these questions in her new book Close to the Edge. While the author anticipates some differences, the question remains: Is hip-hop an international social movement?

In short, not quite. But it almost doesn’t matter; hip-hop serves as an interesting entry point for study. In Habana, for example we not only learn about politically-oriented rap groups like Hermanos de Causa, but in the meantime discover the world’s largest housing project, Alamar. Created with the aid of the USSR, these Soviet-style buildings house more than 300,000 people, by and large Afro-Cubans. It is also the epicenter of Cuban rap. Like most other things in Cuba, rap is state funded. Rapper Sekou in Casa de la Cultura quotes freely from Fidel’s speech on 9/11 (delivered in a room filled with 10-year-olds): “Prepare yourself for what’s coming / I know what it is, stay calm, I take action.”

The underground hip-hop scene in Chicago will sound familiar to American rap enthusiasts: shows, mix tapes, one-man marketing, low-paying day jobs. At the Double Door, Ang 13—one of the very few female MCs—raps alongside better known names like Rhymefest. When Fernandes considers picking up the mic too, she recognizes her displaced cultural identity: not that of a South East Asian in Australia but a South East Asian from Australia. The author cites the year 2000 census that placed South East Asians as the highest income earners of all immigrant groups. As cultural theorist Žižek has posited, Fernandes wonders if multiculturalism is in fact erasing the very real history of discrimination some groups experienced.

Fernandes’s homecoming further complicates matters. The author came to know hip-hop in Australia during a resurgence of rightist nationalist policies in the ’90s. Aboriginal and immigrant youth began to identify with the aggressive political edge of groups like Public Enemy. Clearly that was then. W.O.G, a Lebanese-American rapper, exemplifies a new epoch, when a mic check sounds like this: “I don’t like fake hoes, so all yo bitches in the house take note.” It was the older generation of people like Munkimuk and Khaled who, inspired by rapsploitation movies like Beat Street recast the American art form in an Australian light.

Aside from nationalist fragmentation and hip-hop as floating signifier, there’s language. Rap is, after all, words, which makes breaking linguistic barriers difficult. The translations of rap lyrics in this book seem, sadly enough, lost in translation. What might have been subtle or bravado in its original language sounds cliché in English.

Kool G Rap once said that “rap is my nation.” But what kind of nation is that and who really wants to live there, where someone gets thrown out a window and shot on the way down (à la “Ill Street Blues”)? Once it seemed like no one was no longer really living there—that is, it was caricature—something about realism in rap was forever changed. Wanting to be a gangster and a rapper may have been one of the most detrimental developments to occur for the “hip-hop nation” as formal politics.

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Jesse Tangen-Mills

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