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Sujatha Fernandes

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Hip Hop and Global Unrest

Posted: 09/07/11 04:23 PM ET

Five years ago, the American rapper Nas proclaimed that "Hip Hop is Dead." But while hip hop culture may have succumbed to the music industry in the U.S., four decades after its birth in the Bronx, rap music has become the soundtrack to the social unrest sweeping the globe from Tunisia to Libya and London.

Back in 1982, the lyrics to the hit American rap song "The Message" went: "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head." And around the world, the movement of hip hop has catalyzed the passion, anger, and frustrations of young people who feel like they are living life on the edge of a precipice.

Many were shocked by the recent riots in London, sparked after the killing of a black man. But if we look to the recent history of major riots sparked by police violence, from the beating of Rodney King in the 1992 LA rebellion to the police-caused deaths of North African teenagers in the 2005 Paris riots, the events are not surprising at all. In all of these cases, it was something as routine as another act of police harassment, another young black person killed on the streets, that pushed people over the edge.

British rappers and emcees from dancehall-hip hop-garage influenced grime music have been warning about the explosive potential of police harassment, youth unemployment, and cutbacks for some time. Five years ago, grime emcee Lethal Bizzie wrote the prophetic song "Babylon's Burning the Ghetto." The question is not, why did the riots happen. The question is, why didn't they happen sooner?

Conservative pundits blamed "black street culture" -- seen as a U.S. import -- for inciting the London riots. Yet while some aspects of contemporary commercial rap do glorify criminality and unbridled consumption, rap has also had a positive influence. Rage is a defining feature of our times, and hip hop has been a tool for expressing and creatively transforming that rage into social critique and musical innovation. Many rappers cite their involvement in hip hop as keeping them out of prison and away from gang life. Rap music is used productively by educators in disadvantaged communities as a pedagogical tool.

Hip hop culture has taken young people off the streets, and at the same time, it has armed them with new kinds of oppositional knowledge and the means for self-organization. In the revolutionary movements sweeping the Arab world, rap music has emerged as a soundtrack for youth rebellion. Rap songs protesting police violence and authority have spread from Tunisia to Egypt through Youtube, ringtones and MP3s. The Tunisian rapper El Général was arrested and detained by the regime for his biting rhymes. But his music spread through Facebook and Al Jazeera television coverage, and upon his release he became an icon for the movement in his own nation and beyond.

Two of El Général's songs -- "President Your People are Dying" and "Tunisia, Our Country" -- also spread to Libya and were included on a mixtape produced by a local dissident group there. Rap has flourished among the rebel forces who ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Songs by the Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit, including "Tripoli is Calling," and "Dirty Colonel," have become an anthem for young people involved in the upheavals.

In the approaching chaos of a world in motion, rap still provides a means of clarity and even analysis. As political leaders are being ousted or discredited, it's not surprising that MC Lethal Bizzle in the UK, El Général in Tunisia, and Ibn Thabit in Libya are being seen by many young people as emerging leaders in their nations.