Hip-hop leaps into world youth culture
BOSTON — It's been called "hip-hop nation." But it might be more accurate to refer to it as "hip-hop world."
In the 20 years since hip-hop first made its mark on the American music scene with the hit "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugar Hill Gang, hip-hop has become a phenomenon that is echoing around the world.
Born in the black subculture of America's inner cities, and closely identified with the spoken rhymes of rap, hip-hop is the umbrella term for a lifestyle that embraces music, language, attitude, and dress. And while black artists like Grammy winner Lauryn Hill dominate record sales - hip-hop became the largest selling music in the US last year, outstripping country and western - its appeal transcends race.
A generation of youth is embracing hip-hop's sound and its baggy-pants style - from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Indonesia to Israel, South Africa to South America.
"The sound is so radically new," says Kurt Loder of MTV News, describing hip-hop's danceable riffs, which are often built on computer-driven "samples," or snippets of music from popular rock songs, instead of traditional recordings of instruments.
"There's a rebellious aspect of it," he says. "For white kids, it's a way to distance themselves from their parents. You can't be a rock fan when your parents are old rockers."
In fact, rap music, which is at the core of hip-hop culture, has caused plenty of controversy: Many rappers have been criticized for writing lyrics that glorify violence, drugs, and abusive attitudes toward women. At times, the violence has spilled onto the streets - notably with the 1996 shooting murder of singer Tupac Shakur in what was believed to be part of a rivalry between rappers on the East and West Coasts of the US.
But as it has grown in popularity, hip-hop has transcended much of that controversy, with artists working to convey broader messages:
Lauryn Hill sings of spiritual salvation; the all-white group Beastie Boys is active in the Free Tibet movement; and bands like Molotov, in Mexico, have used their music to criticize government leaders.
"[Hip-hop musicians] see themselves as truthful chroniclers of what's happening, either in their hearts or on the streets," says Sarah Willie, a professor of sociology and head of the Black Studies Program at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "The idea that it would be more and more attractive to teenagers around the world, as the world becomes smaller through technology, makes a lot of sense."
The "global village" effect accounts for much of hip-hop's worldwide appeal. MTV reaches millions of homes around the globe, transmitting the latest sounds and styles to even the remotest areas. The Internet has fueled an explosion of information.
"I don't see hip-hop dying down anytime soon," says Ms. Willie. "It's probably going to go through different permutations ... in different parts of the world. That's what will be really interesting."
On a busy corner in Yeoville, a neighborhood where children shout and wail in Xhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaans, stands a makeshift barbershop of canvas and steel rods where you can get a $2 haircut and a slice of American pop culture.
The establishment, slightly larger than a telephone booth, is a shrine to Tupac Shakur. Posters and sketches of the late hip-hop artist, remembered and loved by many for his unsparing portrayals of life in inner-city America, cover the shop's interior. The proprietor, Shaku Biserat, a teen with deep-set eyes, has even asked his family and neighborhood friends to call him "Tupac."
"All the things he sings about are the things that happen in real life to me and my friends," says Mr. Biserat. "The way we grew up, the poor life, is the life Tupac lived. And he made it out .... That's what we want, too."
The young barber's passion for American hip-hop artists is shared by a growing number of young people in post-apartheid South Africa.
Many teens here say the gritty and sometimes controversial lyrics of American rappers, while describing life in inner-city America, often reflect the conditions that South Africans face in townships and squatter camps.
The affinity for rap music is part of a long history of black and mixed-race South Africans looking to America for inspiration. During apartheid, African-Americans like Duke Ellington, Arthur Ashe, and Muhammad Ali were cultural icons here.
While the end of apartheid has given the majority of South Africans political freedom, economic woes remain severe. Crime rates are high, unemployment tops 30 percent, and millions live without proper housing.
"We look around and what do we see?" asks Monsieur Adams, a member of a gang that named itself "Makavelli" after the Shakur album. "People kill each other for a five-rand piece [about 85 cents]. The government was supposed to build new housing for everybody but they haven't. We're inspired by people like Tupac because they faced the same kind of difficulties in America that we're facing now."
- Chris Jenkins
Hip-hop made a splash in Mexico recently when the government banned from the radio a single by local band Molotov. The song, titled "Gimme tha Power," ruffled official feathers by calling for a change in government.
Despite that controversy, hip-hop in Mexico - which has filtered south from US cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston - remains a marginal musical force here.
"There's a certain fad for a handful of Mexican hip-hop bands, especially among the 13-and 14-year-olds who identify with foul language as an affront to adults, but there's not much authenticity to it," says Hugo Garca Michel, director of Fly on the Wall, a Mexico City music magazine.
"There are some lyrics that reflect the Mexican reality," he adds, "but a lot of it is copying" the "ghetto youth" experience in the US.
Still, more musicians may be adapting hip-hop to local musical elements. Gran Silencio, a Monterrey, Mexico, band mixing hip-hop with their region's Norteo, or polka music, is recording with industry giant EMI.
The same is occurring across Latin America. "In Argentina especially you find an interesting mix of hip-hop with the local folklore or social and political themes," says Mr. Garca. He points to the duo Actitud Maria Marta, whose lyrics address the memories of the dictatorship's "disappeareds."
But Garca points to the disappointing sales of a recent issue of Fly on the Wall with a hip-hop band on the cover - much lower than other issues - to support his hunch that hip-hop south of the border will remain a limited musical form. "The blues, heavy metal, and punk, they adapted and stayed," he says. "but I don't see hip-hop really expanding its public."
- Howard LaFranchi
In almost any Israeli shopping mall, teenagers can be seen wearing pumped-up sneakers and super-baggy jeans hanging below the line on which Levi Strauss had intended them to sit.
Hip-hop-style dress - like almost anything American - is popular here, and several Israeli musicians have even made attempts to fuse rap verse into the Hebrew language.
But there is perhaps nowhere in Israel that the influence of hip-hop is stronger than among Ethiopian immigrant teenagers. Many of the Ethiopian youths were brought here as children in 1991, when the Israeli government secretly negotiated the airlift of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews.
Pressure on the African newcomers to assimilate into Israeli society has left many youths finding it difficult to fit in to a lifestyle so different from that of their parents. That, says Rahamim Elazar, the director of Israel Radio's Amharic service, has given many young Ethiopians a sense of solidarity with black music in the United States, as well as Jamaican-grown reggae.
"When you see their behavior in terms of haircut, dress, and jewelry, it's entirely different than what we are used to," says Mr. Elazar, who moved here from Ethiopia in the early 1970s. "Black people in Israel ... don't feel that they are part and parcel of the Israeli public or society, so they are trying to relate to African-Americans or Jamaicans."
Regrettably, says Elazar, there are no Ethiopian music groups trying to blend what they hear from America with their own traditions. And as for air time during his radio show, he plays only Amharic music from Ethiopia. "I want to make them understand they have their own music."
- Ilene R. Prusher
Hip-hop culture made its European debut in the mid-1980s with the American films "Beat Street" and "Wild Style." Young people like the self-styled Specter SQF, a German graffiti-sprayer turned graphic artist, found themselves immediately drawn to rap music and its lifestyle offshoots, such as break dancing and street art.
"Hip-hop is the only subculture today with substance, with a code. It must be seen as an art movement," says Specter, who has spent more than half his life in the hip-hop circles of Paris and Berlin.
In France, hip-hop was instantly accepted by disadvantaged youths in the high-rise housing projects ringing the large cities. "It's not a minority but a social thing," says Specter. French soon supplanted English as the language of choice, giving rise to an indigenous French brand of hip-hop.
Young urban Germans at first found their relatively egalitarian society and rigid language presented limitations on the social anger and linguistic inventiveness embodied by hip-hop. "There was a complex in the German hip-hop scene: Too bad we're not in the ghetto," says Specter. "But now we're finding our self-confidence."
The French establishment has been unusually receptive to hip-hop, sponsoring graffiti exhibits and rap concerts in elite cultural institutions.
"The US still sets the standards, but we're doing something that is very much our own," says Specter.