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Media - Hip-hop and cultural identity

Deepsouth v.6.n.1 (Winter 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by
Janet Harvey

by Janet Harvey

  All rights reserved.

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In the last twenty years, Hip-Hop has expanded from an American ghetto-based subcultural practice to an ever-growing, multicultural, world-wide phenomenon. Like most other popular subcultural forms, Hip-Hop has not escaped becoming a market-driven commodity in today’s culture industry. This popularity has taken Hip-Hop to a much more visible position in mainstream media, where its cultural practices and messages have been able to wield a huge influence on world-wide audiences.  But popularity has brought with it huge commercialisation of every aspect of Hip-Hop culture.  While rap videos were originally ostracised from MTV, they are now an integral part of the advertising of huge multinational record labels like Sony, who manage most of today's Hip-Hop stars.  Similarly, the fashion styles of Hip-Hop have become consumed by the mainstream to represent today's best-selling commodities.  The prominent position of commercial MCs like Tupac and Puff Daddy has had an impact on the way Hip-Hop is perceived in popular culture.  This is particularly evident in music videos, which are designed to advertise their 'products' to the lowest common denominator, and in doing so tend to reproduce mainstream stereotypes to boost their saleability.  Sut Jhally's Dreamworlds2 illuminates the perverse and fantastic representations of women in the male dreamworld of music videos, representations which are prominent in the videos of many commercial Hip-Hop artists.24   This may explain a recent music video accompanying a track by New Zealand Hip-Hop success story Che Fu.  While his album, 2BSpacific, shows a healthy combination of discourse and style that is classic Hip-Hop, the video of the song "Waka" appears to reproduce the most banal stereotypes of the Pacific Islands, to the extent that it resembles 19th century advertisements for the pacific islands as a non-threatening, return-to-innocence, 'pacific princess' swarming,  holiday destination for white people.25   This kind of trade-off may be the result of Hip-Hop's forced marriage with today's multinational, commodity-driven marketplace, and is the flip-side of the benefits of bringing Hip-Hop culture to a global audience.


However, the real spirit of  Hip-Hop shows no signs of being crushed even while commercialism flourishes.  Irrepressible young artists like the Fugees handle the contradictions of their position in the world the way Hip-Hop has always handled contradictions -- that is, through engaging with them weaving them into its discourse.  By commenting on the contradictions in society, Rose argues Hip-Hop can offer symbolic resistance to issues of late capitalism, such as urban poverty, crime, drug use, and media imperialism.  She believes this syncretic dynamic, in which cultural identity constitutes a "discursive devise which represents difference as unity," makes for a style "that cannot easily be understood or erased, a style that has the reflexivity to create counterdominant narratives against a mobile and shifting enemy".26   The Fugees, described by SOURCE magazine(July 1997) as "Hip-Hop's world-wide ambassadors", are examples of Hip-Hop superstars who use their position of power to try to arm the youth of today against social injustice.27   SOURCE documents Wyclef Jean's emotional homecoming to his native Haiti, a country divided by extreme inequality and poverty.  Here, Wyclef was able to negotiate with politicians, acting as a true ambassador for the masses in extreme poverty, which he belonged to himself as a child.  While the Fugees did play at an expensive concert for  Haiti's elite, they used the money for the benefit concert the next day- an unheard-of opportunity for Port-au-Prince's masses of urban poor.  Wyclef's own Haitian identity is woven through his solo album, The Carnival, which is incredibly significant for a tiny nation whose early independence from French colonisers has resulted in long term ostracism from world media.  This is only one example of Hip-Hop's power as a liberating force, which has become a world-wide phenomenon, incorporating not only people who could conceivably fit under the 'black' umbrella, but countless white and Asian followers as well. 


Wu Tang MC Method Man says of the group's Japan tour: "By the time we leave we gonna have 50 new Wu Tang members".28   The unbelievable force of Japan's Hip-Hop following has Japanese youth going to tanning parlours to darken their skin- a stark turnaround from common post-colonial third-world perceptions of paleness as the accepted measure of beauty.  (e.g. the 'whitening' cream which is advertised in Bollywood fan magazines.) Japanese youth, brought up in a haven of western media imperialism, are now looking to join the category 'black' instead- and indeed, many at the Wu Tang concert look black in their dreadlocks, braids and streetwear.  This phenomenon isn't limited to 'other' cultures like Japan, but is happening in cities all over the world (including Dunedin).  The category 'black', publicised and spread by Hip-Hop culture, has become a political identity signifying resistance to cultural domination, media imperialism, and racism.


So, Hip-Hop culture has demonstrated Hall's view that "[p]aradoxically, in our world, marginality has become a powerful space".29   Through Hip-Hop, marginalised youth cultures have been able to reclaim the local as a place to speak from, and to reclaim and re-invent their cultural roots.  Alternative art forms such as graffiti and breaking have ruptured the flow of media imperialism in the ghettos of America and more recently, the cities of the world.  Rap music has critiqued aspects of mainstream society through language and lyrics, and highlighted difference against today's "sophisticated economy of sameness".30   Hip-Hop has brought the idea that "..blacks and whites might both celebrate black values, instead of blacks simply having to accept white values" to countries like New Zealand and Japan, who have tailored its messages to fit their own needs for expression.31   While global communications technologies have facilitated Hip-Hop's world-wide visibility as an alternative culture, they have also placed it within the constrictions of commercial viability.  While some MCs have capitalised on appealing to the lowest common denominator by reproducing mainstream stereotypes, others have managed to incorporate the contradictions of commerciality and social conscience, using their superstar status in positive ways.  Hip-Hop culture has been at the centre of a new production of black political identity, which has never been monocultural or national but has syncretised different ethnic groups on the basis of shared  social and  political aims.  'Black' identity has meant making the voices of black and other marginalised peoples speak out from their communities about the reality of racism, inequality, and representation, and sent powerful messages of pride and peace into international discourse.

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24 Dreamworlds 2: Desire, Sex and Power in Music Videos [video recording], Sut Jhally (1995) 57 mins.

25 Che Fu, 2 B Spacific, BMG New Zealand, (1997).

26 Tricia Rose, A Style Nobody Can Deal With in Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture eds. Tricia Rose &  Andrew Ross (New York: Routledge, 1994).

27 Bakari Kitwana & Selwyn Hinds , Haitian Homecoming in SOURCE Magazine, July 1997, p. 86.

28 The Show, [video recording], (1996).

29 Stuart Hall, "The Local and the Global" (1991), p. 34.

30 Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to the Theories of the Contemporary (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1989), p. 235, quotes: Nelly Richard.

31 Kerry Buchanan, Ain't Nothin' but a 'G' Thing in Midwest, No. 3 (1993), p. 27.



Buchanan, Kerry. "Ain't Nothin' but a 'G' Thing" Midwest 3 (1993). 

Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: an Introduction to the Theories of the Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1989.

Delpit, Lisa. The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other Peoples Children Harvard Educational Review. 58.3 August, (1998).

Grixti, Joe. Normalising the Unspeakable in New Zealand Journal of Media Studies. 5.1 (1998).

Hall, Stuart. Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation in Framework. 36 (1990-92).
--- The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity in Culture, Globalization and the World System. Ed. Anthony King. Binghamton: Dept. of Art and Art History, State University of New York, 1991.

Kitwana, Bakari, and Selwyn Hinds. 'Haitian Homecoming' SOURCE Magazine. July, 1997.

Perkins, William. ed. Droppin' Science: Critical essays on Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Rose, Tricia. A Style Nobody Can Deal With in Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture. Eds. Tricia Rose and Andrew Rose. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Video Recordings

Dreamworlds 2: Desire, Sex and Power in Music Videos. Sut Jhally, 1995.

The Show. Russell Simmons and Brian Robbins. 1996.

Dancing in the Streets: Planet Rock. Part 10.

Roots of Rap. Sugarhill Records/Rhino Home Video. 1998.

Sound Recordings

Che Fu. 2 B Spacific. BMG New Zealand. 1997.

Public Enemy. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos in It Takes a Nation of Millions, Def Jam. 1988.

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Drug of the Nation in Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Capitol Records. 1992.

Spearhead. Dream Team in Home. Capitol Records. 1997.