Critically-acclaimed hip-hop artist Dope Saint Jude performs at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, April 2017.

Planet Hip Hop: The World celebrates 50 years of hip-hop around the globe

Hip-hop turns 50 this summer, and its influence has been felt in all corners of the globe. From the streets of the Bronx to a revolution in Beirut, from anti-apartheid messages in Cape Town to graffiti in Cairo. Throughout the summer, we will be exploring Planet Hip Hop.

The World

Fifty years ago this summer, a Jamaican DJ named Kool Herc wanted to throw a party in his new neighborhood — the Bronx.

His concept: a celebration with music that would echo the “dance hall” scene he remembered back home in Kingston.

Music historians like Samy Alim, a professor of anthropology and director of the Hip Hop Initiative at UCLA, point to that August night in 1973 as the birth of hip-hop.

“My introduction to hip-hop was very early on,” Alim said. “I was born in 1977, and then about 10 years after that, I was probably 8, 9, 10 when I started hearing all of the music of that period blasting out of my older brother’s room.”

Alim, co-editor of the book “Freedom Moves,” is now steeped in the study of hip-hop. More than that, he sees how hip-hop has become a teaching tool for communities around the globe. When he first heard the sound, it struck him as multi-layered, and he saw its potential.

“I was listening to something musical, that was poetic, that was political, that was strong, and it was funky, and it had a rhyme and dance to it,” Alim told The World. 

He said that hip-hop was “all of those things that kids love,” but that they were also being educated at the same time. 

“So much of the hip-hop at that time period was about gaining knowledge of self that was so critical,” Alim explained. “So many of the artists, right? Yeah, from Stetsasonic, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, you name it. Everybody was sort of kicking that knowledge of self and trying to pass it on through the music.”

The World went into more detail with Alim about the early influence of hip-hop and how it’s grown around the world as a tool for the youth to express themselves politically.

Marco Werman: Talk more about the idea that hip-hop provided this knowledge of self.
Samy Alim: That’s right. So for me, there’s a very important story. When I was growing up, I remember a song by Stetsasonic, and it was called “A.F.R.I.C.A.,” “Angola, Soweto, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, so let us speak, about the Motherland!” And that was so critical as a 10-year-old listening to that because, you have to remember, in public education and public schools, we didn’t learn anything about Africa. This is the miseducation that most folks were going through in the United States and continue to go through. You don’t learn anything about it. So, to have to learn about Africa through hip-hop music was revolutionary to me. I learned more as a 10–year-old through that one song, let alone the rest of the music, than I did in my entire schooling as a child. I know this.
You’ve selected three other tracks that have relevance to our discussion. Let’s pair A.F.R.I.C.A. by Stetsasonic with this one from Cape Town, South Africa. It was released in 1995. Who is this, and what’s this track about?
So, “Never Again” is a song by Prophets of da City, and this song is so important to me. This is transitioning now from high school to college. This is the Prophets of da City celebrating the end of the apartheid regime [in South Africa] — the return of Nelson Mandela. And you have their album, “Age of Truth,” being banned by the apartheid regime just one year earlier. So, for them to play at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela is huge, huge, huge historically and politically. I think hip-hop, again, continues to be so critical to resistance movements and to revolutionary movements all around the world. And this song by one of South Africa’s pioneers really demonstrates that.
That really shows how hip-hop has become a global form of activist expression. Samy, you’re not alone in this adventure, if we can call it that. Hip-hop is global, arguably the most influential music genre in the world today. Can you help us understand the appeal? Why is it so influential to kids in places as diverse as South Africa and South Korea?
It’s so interesting because I teach a course on hip-hop, race and social justice, From South Central to South Africa, and we travel around the world. One of the things we realized together as a whole group of students is that everywhere around the world, where you have youth fighting and resisting their marginalization and oppression, hip-hop, in some way, shape or form, becomes sort of that call for that resistance. That soundtrack for their liberation. So, these youth are in love with the music and now turn to gaining a knowledge of themselves, and “what does it mean that we are here oppressed? Why don’t we pick up this art form and use it as our weapon to fight our oppression?” It is a powerful, powerful thing to see.
Do you find that call and response a lot between the source of hip-hop — the US — and the rest of the globe?
I love that you frame it as a call and response. And I do. There are so many ways hip-hop culture in the United States has set trends for global hip-hop culture. That’s the call. Initially, the global response was to, sort of, imitate and emulate what was going on in Black American music, which was hip-hop music. Eventually, that response became, “Let’s do this with our own twist.”
So, we just heard the role of hip-hop in ending apartheid in South Africa, Samy. The next track [you] selected takes us to the occupied territories in the Middle East.
This song by DAM, it’s a Palestinian group in the occupied territories within Israeli borders. The song is called “Meen Erhabi?” [translates to “Who is the Terrorist?”]. From the song’s title, you get that this is within the hip-hop tradition of flipping the script by asking the question, “Who is the terrorist?” This Palestinian group is clearly pushing back against descriptions and narratives of Palestinians as terrorists. So, they’re sort of pushing back and saying, “Who is the terrorist? Who has the power here? Who is occupying homes?” And they’re raising that question through hip-hop music. This is what I mean by hip-hop going global and youth all around the world picking it up as a source of inspiration for their struggle and their movement.
It is easy to see how DAM impacts Palestinians living under Israeli law and how they think of their situation. I am thinking of perhaps a whole cohort of listeners for whom hip-hop is not their thing. They may feel that hip-hop has not had an impact on their life. I think of writer James McBride, who famously wrote in 2007 that he ignored it, only to realize later that hip-hop rules the world. So, I’d love to know from you, Samy, how you see the impact of hip-hop on those who may feel it does not touch them in some way?
I have to tell you, it’s hard in this day and age to find folks like that, honestly, because hip-hop has moved from hip-hop culture to popular culture. It’s almost everywhere you look. You can’t even walk into Whole Foods in the United States, a Trader Joe’s, or your bank or gym … anywhere … without hearing hip-hop culture. In Palestine, in places like Syria and elsewhere, that will not be the case. But hip-hop has sort of galvanized a certain political consciousness.
You mentioned Syria, so let’s check out one more song. You’ve selected the tune #Jan25, a collective of African American and Arab American Muslim artists inspired by the Arab Spring, the anti-government protests that erupted throughout the Middle East in 2011. One name I know here is Omar Offendum. Remind us who he is collaborating with and what the song is about.
Omar Offendum is another incredibly talented creative artist. He has collaborated with artists around the world. He has continued to push not only the poetic envelope but the political envelope. So #Jan25 refers to the date that the Egyptian people rose up against their government, and they want to use that hashtag to create a certain sense of solidarity for all the people in that region who were rising up at that time.
Samy, it seems we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. We do live on Planet Hip Hop, but aside from the sound and lyrics, I’m just curious how you measure whether hip-hop has served as an agent of change for the grievances that emerge when artists express them.
As it spreads around the globe and as a scholar of global hip-hop culture, everywhere I go, I see this. I could tell you I went to Thailand, I was in Bangkok, and I was in the streets walking on the day before my lecture, and there was an entire B-Boy [and] B-Girl dance competition happening on a stage in the streets. Everywhere I go, I see those flavors of hip-hop culture. I could take you back. The first time I was in Cairo — this was in the ’90s, I would say mid-’90s — and there on an ancient wall crumbling to the ground is graffiti commemorating Tupac [Shakur] and Biggie [Smalls]’s lives in a place you would least expect. A remote sort of countryside outside of Cairo on a crumbling building. It was incredible, Marco. Imagine me as a kid. So I’m there, and I’m seeing these walls, right then I’m walking in the street, and I’m in Alexandria at this point, and walking off, this young Egyptian kid, they must be, I don’t know, eight, nine, or 10 rapping, and I’m hearing them rapping The Notorious B.I.G. in English. They are Arabic speakers who are learning English through hip-hop, and it’s just blowing my mind all over again. Right? So, it’s an interesting, phenomenal and very powerful thing to witness as a person who travels through these different areas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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