‘Planet Hip Hop’: The music will always be the voice of the people, Samy Alim says

The World
Screenshot from "Cape Flats Kung Fu" by Eavesdrop.

This summer, “Planet Hip Hop” took listeners around the world for a series of stories and conversations about hip-hop. 

From India to Korea, Ecuador to Senegal, we heard from rappers, artists, activists and scholars about how a sound born out of the South Bronx in New York 50 years ago traveled far and wide and influenced new generations of hip-hop voices.  

To wrap up “Planet Hip Hop,” H. Samy Alim returns to talk with host Marco Werman about current questions in hip-hop and also — its future. 

Alim is an anthropology professor and the director of the Hip Hop Initiative at UCLA. He is also co-editor of the book, “Freedom Moves: Hip Hop Knowledges, Pedagogies, and Futures.”

Marco Werman: The feedback on our series, “Planet Hip Hop,” has been really great, both informative and fun, political and creatively musical and all connecting back to this sound that grew up spontaneously at first in the South Bronx. How did you celebrate 50 years of hip-hop? Where did you go? Who did you hear this summer?
Samy Alim: I celebrated both locally and globally. LA, Barcelona. Right here in LA, we attended a screening of Ava DuVernay’s film, “This is the Life.” This film celebrated the Good Life Cafe, which was a really important scene in the underground hip-hop, grassroots hip-hop in Los Angeles. And that was the first part of the summer. The second part of the summer had me in Barcelona, celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop there with groups like La Llama Rap Colectivo. They’re one of the groups who continues to produce hip-hop for human rights. They discuss everything from racism, sexism, gentrification and capitalist exploitation. All of these really important themes, including the struggle against police brutality. I’m thinking particularly of their song, their song “Desalmados,” which means like “without soul” or “without feeling,” “cruel.”
La Llama Rap Colectivo, la voz de nuestro pueblo, or the voice of our people. It sounds like you really made the most of the 50th anniversary and just kept learning about how the sound is shifting.
That’s exactly right. I mean, for me, traveling around the globe, it’s always a learning experience when it comes to hip-hop because you never know how it’s going to evolve, how it’s going to change, how it’s going to keep transforming youth all over the world. And it’s a fascinating thing for me to see and witness upfront and firsthand. 
Among the various conversations we had here at The World this summer. One stood out, and that was a wide-ranging interview with Msia Kibona Clark, at Howard University, and host of the “Hip Hop African Podcast,” about women’s influence in hip-hop. Let’s hear one point that she wanted to make: “I think globally, hip-hop has done a lot more for women than what it has done for women in the US, that it has been a much more positive influence, that women are able to really use hip-hop as a form of empowerment, much more outside of the US and much more globally. Most Americans are not familiar with hip-hop outside of America, but I think the most innovation happening right now in hip-hop is happening outside of America.” React to that, if you would. What are your impressions of women’s status in hip-hop, specifically outside of the US, in you know, “Planet Hip Hop.” 
I agree completely with that. I mean, in our class with Public Enemy’s Chuck D this past year, he reminded us again and again that 25% to 33% of hip-hop music globally is produced by and with women. So, women occupy this huge share of hip-hop, much larger than we think, particularly because it’s usually measured by industry standards or metrics that don’t capture the role of women. And African women in particular have been producing hip-hop for decades. So, I’m very familiar with the South African scene, and everyone knows about the immense contributions of groups like Godessa, for example. But there are so many other women right now in Cape Town that produce dope hip-hop from Eavesdrop to Natasha Tafari, to queer and non-binary, nonconforming acts like Andy Mkosi, Dope Saint Jude. There’s just a whole range of women’s voices. But I’ll tell you, when I first heard Eavesdrop, my jaw dropped and she combined elements of Lauryn Hill, Rah Digga, the Wu-Tang Clan. One of my favorite songs from her is “Cape Flats Kung Fu.” I love this song for so many reasons, but it’s beautiful in that it shows the other side of the Cape Flats. Everybody knows the Cape Flats from this Eurocentric perspective of violence, oppression, poverty. But she presents another view — that people there are joyful, interested in self-determination, that they love life, they love each other, they love their community, and it’s a really moving kind of track that’s knowing where you come from, but also knowing where you’re going together as a community, as a collective. And I love that song.
As you know, we also had reporters around the globe bring us stories about hip-hop’s influence. Sushmita Pathak reported for us from India about the caste system there and what rappers are doing to speak out against it. Let’s just hear one little segment from her report:”They sing about the hypocrisy of people from dominant castes who say affirmative action based on caste is unfair. They rap about atrocities against the Dalit community, formerly known as ‘untouchables.’ Vipin Tatad, from the western state of Maharashtra, says he writes what he sees in his daily life. For example, scores of Dalits die each year while manually cleaning sewers, suffocated by the toxic gasses inside.” Very heavy subject material there. After you heard this report, you immediately got in touch with us. What did you learn from Sushmita’s story? 
That was an awesome segment. This whole series has been so informative. I mean, I just loved every single perspective that you brought. But this one in particular, I mean, the anti-caste rap scene, such a good example of what I always teach about is the transformative power of hip-hop. One of the things that hip-hop has done so successfully around the world is to decenter whiteness and white supremacy in all its forms and manifestations. And I look at this scene in India and I think, wow, look at how far hip-hop has come and look at how it continues to serve that function of decentering whiteness and white supremacy around the world. It’s bold. These artists are standing up against deep-seated ideologies and systems in India, and it’s wonderful to see. I shared that segment far and wide with everyone in my networks.
Yeah, and the anti-caste rappers are not alone. Rappers around the globe are raising awareness about injustice, whether it’s in the occupied territories, in the Middle East or in the People’s Republic of China. Tensions are really high. It’s a highly charged atmosphere everywhere, it seems, especially when it comes to freedom of expression, which is the oxygen for artists, especially ones in the hip-hop space. So, what does this mean? Will it continue to be dangerous or even worsen in some places for hip-hop artists?
Look, you mentioned freedom of expression. And in the last class I taught on hip-hop, we talked about the rise of fascism globally, the rise of white supremacy and anti-Semitism globally, and hip-hop’s response to that. Right? So, I mentioned La Llama Rap Colectivo, from Spain, right? People don’t know that some hip-hop artists in Spain are arrested and exiled for critiquing the king, for example. And that’s Spain. Let’s take Italy, France, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere across Europe. But hip-hop is rising to that occasion, right, as responding to this right-wing rise and this rise of fascism that we’re seeing across Europe. So, hip-hop artists, like you said, from the Occupied Territories to Native Americans right here in the US, they’ve always known this threat, even if by another name, like occupation, and genocide. So, hip-hop has always spoken to these issues, but right now it’s becoming critical that hip-hop sort of lives up to its call to be the voice of the people, because we’re seeing this rise all around the world and hip-hop is going to respond to that, as it always does. 
Yeah, and injustice, it occurs to me more and more, is being seen within the frame of climate change and people fleeing from climate change disaster as refugees. What about other big themes in hip-hop, like climate change? What’s going on in that space?
I mean, this is the beautiful thing about hip-hop and its ability to tackle all of the most pressing and urgent issues of the day. So climate change, the discourse on global hip-hop has been very loud about that. But I’m listening to artists like Black Noise and Monox. Their song “Mother Earth Forgive Me,” is just one of many songs on this issue, from the South African perspective. Some really deeply reflective rhymes from Emile YX on climate change and how we address the issue both personally and systemically.
Very cool. That’s Black Noise and Monox, “Mother Earth Forgive Me.” I remember the Grammys this year and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop celebration. Big deal. Everybody, really proud. But I’m wondering how much of this 50 years is symbolic?
Well, that’s a good question, Marco. And to think about now that these celebrations are beginning to wind down, I think a lot of us are starting just now to begin to critique this 50th anniversary moment, right? Like, if this is a multibillion-dollar industry, how are Black communities benefiting? If hip-hop is global, what’s happening to the local communities on the ground that created this culture out of the rubble of post-industrial America? So when Black Star rhymed about, you know, are these symbolic celebrations basically illusions of Oasis, 25 years ago, is that what we’re facing now with these 50th anniversary celebrations? Are Black people and other people of color truly free, for example, not just on record companies, but in everyday life? These are the kinds of questions that hip-hop is facing, that hip-hop artists have always asked and will continue to ask. And in the next 50 years, like always, I’m certain that hip-hop will rise to the occasion, as it always does.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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