The global reach of hip-hop

February 22, 2011

BIG APPLAUSE to Mike Marqusee's article "The 'world music' fallacy." That condescending term has begged to be called out for quite some time. That every non-Western style can be lumped into the same weirdly oblique category merely speaks toward the grip that economic and political imperialism holds over our global culture.

The endlessly rich and varied musical traditions of the planet deserve better. Quite frankly, we wouldn't expect an observation any less sharp from the man who's written some excellent stuff on the collision of music and struggle.

There is a bone to be picked, however, with his assertion that "The only music with anything like a global reach today is the one that's never found in the 'world music' racks--mainstream Western pop, whose ubiquity stems from the global distribution of power and wealth."

I think that while the basic thrust of this statement is true, it overlooks the role that hip-hop has come to play in the favelas and Bantustans of the world.

Of course, there's a methodological gray area here, namely whether "pop" is still a catch-all for every "popular" music or whether it's come to describe a sound all its own. Though there's been plenty of crossover in recent years, it would still be hard to lump artists like Jay-Z and Eminem in with Katy Perry and the like.

In any event, I believe that the rise of rap and hip-hop across the planet can be attributed to something much deeper than the billions of bucks behind it. In April 2009, I had the good fortune to ask Mahmoud Jreri of Palestinian hip-hop group DAM "why hip-hop?" Mahmoud made it clear that he heard the story of his own people in the words of 2Pac and Public Enemy:

I think we share the same social and political struggle [as African Americans or Latin Americans] or any minority living in a different place on this earth. If I can bring them my message through music, they can bring me their message through music.

I knew about Latin and African American music through hip-hop, and how they live. I hope that I can bring my life to them, tell them how I live. It's a worldwide struggle for equality and for ending the regimes so people can be equal.

In short, hip-hop's global popularity isn't just the music industry's doing, it's the content that matters.

This is music that originated in the hardest ghettos of the Bronx, and though the biz can certainly try, that essential element can't be removed. It's this that explains why young MCs can be found on any street corner in Uganda, Venezuela, India, Tunisia, South Korea and the world over.

In fact, hip-hop has become so embraced by the people of the world that it's even led legends like the inimitable Chuck D to insist that the rest of the world now surpasses the U.S. in terms of great lyricists.

There's been a real button put on this by the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which have both produced stellar tracks from artists of those countries that have quickly gone viral. It's hard to listen to El General's "Head of State" or Arabian Knightz "Not Your Prisoner" without admitting these artists could rival any rebel rapper here in the States.

Hip-hop's role as soundtrack of these revolutions speaks toward what it is that makes this music so popular all over the planet. If it were mere dollars behind it, then it would have been tossed aside in the course of the uprising like so much other Western flotsam. It's an interesting dynamic: an originally Western sound is embraced by the rest of the planet, then relayed back with even more dynamism and soul than before.

Maybe Egypt and Tunisia aren't just teaching the rest of the world how to make a revolution, but also how essential the global rhyme is to global revolt.
Alexander Billet, Chicago

The author blogs at

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