Ghana born, Bronx raised hip hop scholar Joseph Ewoodzie has published the book Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years, a book that uncovers details of hip hop’s early years in the South Bronx. Ewoodzie’s book provides rich details of hip hop’s history in the South Bronx. In this interview he discusses his decision to write the book and touches on some of the major themes the book addresses. For example, Ewoodzie talks about the social economic environment in the South Bronx that gave rise to hip hop, environments that mirrored the environments that gave rise to hip hop in Africa.
In the interview we also cover the book’s
Discussion of the link between gang culture and hip hop
The controversies around Afrika Bambaataa
The rise and decline of the visibility of the DJ in mainstream hip hop
The connection between hip hop culture and Africa’s oral tradition
The connections between music in Africa and the Diaspora
South Bronx Ghanaian immigrants in the development of hip hop
The origins of the masculinization of hip hop
The book can be purchased at: uncpress.org/book/9781469632759/break-beats-in-the-bronx
Joseph Ewoodzie can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/piko_e
This episode, South African hip hop scholar and sociolinguist Dr. Quentin Williams discusses his new book Remix Multilingualism: Hip Hop, Ethnography and Performing Marginalized Voice (Bloomsbury Press).
Dr. Williams is a Senior Lecturer in the Linguistics Department at the University of Western Cape. He has published papers and book chapters on the performance of multilingualism, popular cultural practices (specifically Hip Hop), agency and voice in urban multilingual spaces. In addition to the book we’ll be discussing today, he is also currently editing the book Kaapse Styles: Hip Hop Art & Activism in Cape Town, South Africa.
Dr. Williams has been writing on language and hip hop in South Africa for several years, and has extensive credibility within South Africa’s well established hip hop community. Dr. Williams’ research and work has also made valuable contributions to the field of linguistics.
In this interview we discuss the book, Dr. Williams research on South African hip hop, and ultimately his place as a Coloured man from the Cape Flats in one of the oldest and largest hip hop scenes in Africa.
6:24 – Being a hip hop sociolinguist & self reflection in the book.
7:50 – The arena of freestyle rap battles
11:35 – His work with the group Suburban Menace
16:05 – Hip hop research and scholarship, & the responsibility to the subjects of the research
22:43 – His experiences in the Cape Flats township of Bishop Lavis during hip hop’s days of hip hop, during the last years of the anti-apartheid struggle
29:10 – Relationships between Black & Coloured hip hop heads
38:05 – Different hip hop language varieties in South Africa
39:40 – Braggadocio, and its place and purpose in hip hop
45:00 – Masculinity & toughness in hip hop
49:24 – Dr. Williams concept of “Body Rap”, respectability politics, the pornification of hip hop culture, & rape culture within hip hop culture*
58:12 – Women navigating masculine hip hop spaces
1:07:44 – The diverse audiences that this book speaks to
*Dr. Williams defines Body Rap as “a sub-genre of local rap, where the overarching theme in the lyrics is the sexualization and often the denigration of women’s bodies, performed for the pleasure of men”.
The article Ambiguous Relationships: Youth, Popular Music and Politics in Contemporary Tanzania by Birgit Englert talks about Bongo Flava music in Tanzania. The article talks about how Bongo Flava has given the Tanzanian youth more visibility by giving them a voice. Young Tanzanians comprise a large percentage of the population. They migrate to cities seeking better life but are faced with high unemployment and poor living conditions. Bongo Flava musicians address these and other public concerns and also include political messages in their songs. The writer argues that Bongo Flava has a political impact not by encouraging the youth to take oppositional position but in the sense that it motivates young people from all levels of Tanzanian society to use their creativities in trying to make their living, thereby working as a source of a self-confidence and empowerment. The article can be accessed by clicking the following link.
The article Code-Switching in Contemporary Nigerian Hip-Hop Music by E. Taiwo Babalola and Rotimi Taiwo discusses about the use of code-switching by Nigerian hip-hop artists. Code-switching, according to the article, is a sociolinguistic term that describes the alternating of two or more languages or dialects in a single communication. The writers talk about how even though most Nigerian hip-hop singers use English, they still try to identify with their roots by mixing English with their indigenous languages. In this article, the writers examine the nature, reason, stylistic effects and implications of code-switching by giving illustrations from the works of various Nigerian hip-hop artists. The article can be accessed by clicking the link below.
In the article, Is Kwaito South African hip hop?, Swarlene Swartz writes about Kwaito in South Africa. There is an ongoing debate in South Africa as to calling “Kwaito” music South African hip hop. Many people argue that it is not, saying that it is merely mainstream European house music with reggae and rock elements. Others in South Africa say that Kwaito may be influenced by hip hop, but the sounds and rhythms are very different from one another.
Those who defend Kwaito say that it is a way for them to show their African-ness, instead of just “copying” the American styles of music. One person who was interviewed in the article says that Kwaito is the only music that is unique to South Africa, “it is ours, it is local”. Kwaito is rooted in South Africa, while hip hop was made in America. Many of the lyrics in Kwaito music are rooted in mysogyny, money and power (much like American hip hop), but South African youth say that Kwaito is “not as bad” as American hip hop in their portrayal of women and ostentatious wealth. Kwaito is also different than hip hop in that many artists do not focus on political issues, which many South Africans say that they are tired of listening to. Many people are alarmed by this growing trend and fear that Kwaito is encouraging youth to focus on material gain, rather than exacting change in their communities and societies.
Kwaito is often sung in native African languages (never in English) because artists maintain that they want to create their own identity from African culture–English is seen as a foreign language which has no history in South Africa and should not be used in Kwaito music.
Although people will continue to debate about how much or how little Kwaito and hip hop are related, it is clear that they borrow elements from one another. There are many hip hop artists who write lyrics only in the native language and incorporate traditional African instruments, just as Kwaito addresses topics that are commonly discussed in hip hop.
In the article, Singing their Way Out of Poverty: Africa’s Urban Youth Find a Voice, Rasna Warah writes about how youth all over Africa have embraced hip-hop. She cites numerous examples of artists who have been able to pull themselves out of poverty by becoming successful hip-hop artists. Many people in African say “hip hop has always had a positive influence on kids from the urban centres of the world”. Hip hop empowers young people because they are able to voice their concerns and educate others about the problems that affect them. Many artists do not just use their success as a means to alleviate their own economic problems, they give back to their communities. Many artists and groups use this money to go back to school and/or fund the education of their younger family members.
In South Africa, a new genre known as Kwaito has become extremely popular. Kwaito fuses rap and traditional African jazz, gospel and rock. Many artists also use South African slang to relate to many young people in the region.
Warah is optimistic about the growing hip hop culture in Africa. She hopes that people will be able to exact change by using hip hop.
In his article, A Historical Analysis of Hip-Hop’s Influence in Dakar from 1984-2000, Ben Herson discusses how American hip-hop culture has influenced youth and music in Dakar, Senegal. He also states that this new Western form of music is not necessarily “corrupting” traditional values. Rap is not forcing itself onto Senegalese youth, rather it has been adopted as a way for young people to express their opinions and beliefs. Rap has even changed the world of politics, opening up questions about money, power and religion–topics which were often considered too controversial to discuss.
Youth in Senegal do not merely copy their Western counterparts, they fuse traditional music together with rap–many of their lyrics are in the native language, Wolof. Rap has brought many people together. Since rap groups are formed based on neighborhood and class, they represent the ethnic mix of Dakar.
Many youth in Senegal have tried to use English in their lyrics to seem more “authentic”, but Herson claims that this is not merely because they want to seem American, rather, they recognize that many job opportunities are available to those that speak English. Senegalese youth find ways to display material wealth through the clothing and jewelry that they wear. Many young people save their money until they can purchase authentic brand-name clothing, even though there may be cheaper knockoff version available. Senegalese youth are painfully aware of the stereotypes that exist about them in the Western world and want to separate themselves from them. Their reinterpretation of hip-hop allows them to address their complex social problems and dispel these myths.
The article ‘Mimi Ni Msanii, Kioo Cha Jamii’ Urban Youth Culture in Tanzania as Seen Through Bongo Fleva and Hip-hop by Maria Suriano talks about how bongo flava is empowering the young generation by giving them a channel to voice out their grievances and concerns in a region where their place in society is ambiguous. The sentence ‘Mimi Ni Msanii, Kioo Cha Jamii’ is a line from the song Darubini Kali by Afande Sele and it means “I am an artist, a mirror of society”. Bongo Flava artists address issues in the society in their songs. The author argues that Bongo Flava has evolved to be a music genre of its own and should not just be regarded as Tanzanian hip-hop or rap. The author also talks about Bongo Flava styles and how it borrows from Western culture, social values the songs address and the music’s impact on media and politics. The article can be accessed by clicking the link below.
In the article “Sharing Hip-Hop Cultures: The Case of Nigerians and African Americas,” author, S. Shonekan presents a thorough description of the state of hip hop as an artistic expression as a whole in the U.S. and in Nigeria. The author draws on the socio-economic conditions of African Americans who are pushed to the fringes of society through racist class oppression and Nigerians who live in one of the poorest and most deprived and dangerous places on Earth. In describing “Black Art” as a cultural expression of resistance and struggle, the author points out how many earlier hip hop artists in America such as Public Enemy, Kool Herc, Queen Latifah, Boogie Down Productions and others have been replaced by commercialized, mutated hip hop that clogs media today such as 50 Cent, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Snoop Dog and others who degrade women, promote violence and drug use and reinforce stereotypes.
Similarly in Nigeria, early pioneers of hip hop with messages of reality and resistance such as Junior, Daddy Showkey, Pretty and Baba Fryo have been replaced, overshadowed by flashy Nigerians who also mutilate hip hop. They look to American ‘pop’ hip hop for inspiration and imitation. Examples used by the author are 2Face, Black Face and others. However, within the U.S. mostly on the underground, sometimes managing to sell, are true hip hop artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Immortal Technique. In Nigeria as well largely shunned artists exist though they are even harder to find such as the Unsung Heros and Tribesmen, more on them to come.
Shonekan, S. Sharing Hip-Hop Cultures: The Case of Nigerians and African Americans. American Behavioral Scientist 2011 55: 9 originally published online 5 November 2010
In her article, Being a ‘bitch’: some questions on the gendered globalisation and consumption of American hip-hop urban culture in post-apartheid South Africa, Lliane Loots explores how American hip-hop has impacted the identities of youth in South Africa. Loots begins her article by discussing her first encounter with hip-hop in Wentworth, South Africa. This town was historically colored and featured a dance studio where many of the local youth would hang out with friends and practice their moves. She noticed that many of the young men would attempt difficult breakdancing moves while most of the young women would “dance like Janet Jackson”, refusing to be labeled as ‘b-girls’ because they did not want to seem “unfeminine”. Loots claims that American hip-hop culture had not only affected the music scene in South Africa, but it had also affected the mindset of many young people. She saw the incoming hip-hop movement as a culture from the North that was being sold to South Africans as superior, and as “defining our entry into this global (American) village”. She notes that many of the songs contained misogynistic and vulgar lyrics. Loots claims that this hip-hop culture is a form of “cultural colonisation”.
Loots spends a great deal of time discussing the gender dynamics in the hip-hop culture of the US. She claims that many women are often objectified and relegated to sexy background dancers while males are the ones who make music. She criticizes American hip-hop because she feels it does not provide a space for black women to be treated as equals. Since many young people in the South are consumers of this culture, Loots argues that hip-hop could have a detrimental effect on the way women and men interact.
Many of the young people in South Africa have adopted some of this American hip-hop culture but they have also subverted traditional hip-hop by adding new sounds, lyrics and experiences. South African youth do have agency and have been using hip-hop as a way to express their own opinions instead of just blindly following American trends.